Playing the Nerd Card (Ep. 77)

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Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “Playing the Nerd Card.”

(You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript here.)

It’s about the rise in basketball players (and other athletes) showing up at press conferences wearing the kind of eyeglasses usually associated with Steve Urkel and Buddy Holly. Among the practitioners: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Robert Griffin III.

What’s going on here? Has the rate of myopia exploded, even among premier athletes?

We talk to Susan Vitale, a research epidemiologist with the NIH’s National Eye Institute, who worked on a large study on myopia in the U.S. There has indeed been a huge spike in recent decades, and it’s especially pronounced among blacks:

So does that mean that all these ballplayers are simply part of the Rise of the Nearsighted?

Um … no. In the podcast, you’ll hear LeBron and D-Wade tell us why they wear their glasses. Hint: It isn’t to see better. And some of their former NBA brethren think the trend has already gone too far.

You’ll also hear from Harvard economist Roland Fryer, a familiar presence to Freakonomics readers. Fryer talks about whether the “acting white phenomenon” comes into play here, and he discusses all this glasses-wearing as a “two-audience signaling” situation:

FRYER: “These guys are saying to one audience, ‘Hey, I’m here, I’m an athlete, I’m a Heisman Trophy winner.’ To the other one, ‘Look at the glasses.  Look at how I’m dressed.  Look at how I carry myself.  I can promote your product.’”

FWIW, we put out another podcast about myopia among rural Chinese schoolchildren and how some kids turned down an offer of free eyeglasses because of the stigma associated with poor vision.

Isn’t it interesting that what’s stigmatic in one setting can be so desirable in another?


In the West we have fake tan, in the East they sell creams that bleach the skin.

We're a funny bunch, us humans.

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In my early 30s, I considered dying my hair gray (well, getting white highlights, really), when being an older, more experienced woman would have been a career asset. Eventually I decided that I couldn't really be bothered with it, especially since I was going gray earlier than average anyway, and so little of my work was done face-to-face that it would be full-time maintenance for a few hours a month. The end result is that I've saved all the money that most graying women spend on hair dye.


Wesely Morris actually had a great article about this at the end of last year that talks about how much this has changed in basketball, and why the phenomenon is cropping up.

Here is the link:


There's a great Curb Your Enthusiasm episode about this topic, here is a clip:


Love Curb and it's poignant observation on this trend.


Why just myopia (nearsightedness)? What about farsightedness? Is that increasing too?


The irony is that anyone seriously, or even marginally, athletic would either wear contacts or get corrective surgery.


I.e., it's "stigmatic in one setting," but astigmatic in the other.


I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed this podcast. I suggest however that maybe you have the trend backwards. I am a teacher in an inner city charter school in a large midwestern city. About two years ago, I noticed several middle school girls wearing the 3d movie glasses with the lenses popped out. I wondered about it but didn't investigate it. Students started buying big nerdy glasses and popping the lenses out that the administration, with shameful intolerance of the vagaries of teen fashion, decided to ban the students from wearing glasses unless they were prescribed. Of course, that only made the trend more popular and forced it underground. While I noticed a few kids wearing them now and then, I forgot about it until I heard the podcast. I failed to look at the issue with a freakenomics lens, or I would have been on top of this trend ages before two of my heros! So please consider my anectdotal evidence in support of the theory that the trend actually emerged on the streets instead and percolated up to the elites of the NBA. Fashion can be oddly democratic sometimes. Or maybe some NBA stars recently dug up one of Spike Lee's first and best movies, She's Gotta Have It, which unmistakeably and irrevocably links nerd glasses and basketball. Thanks for inspiring me to look at my classroom with a freakenomics lens, maybe I will beat you to the punch next time!



the Rock facilitated the proliferation of this irony, when he would get indignant during interviews and threaten to 'get nerdy on ur candya$$'


I wear prescription glasses, but my prescription is small enough that I don't need them to function daily. At my old job as a part time manager at a movie theatre, although there were practical reasons to wear my glasses, I would also wear them for cosmetic reasons. They were/are just average glasses, not "nerd" glasses or otherwise trendy. Still, as a short guy in my mid 20's who looked much younger, I thought I looked older and more respectable with them than without them, which was especially important when dealing with angry customers. I can't really say if it made any difference.


This is a crazy interpretation. It's hipster fashion, geek chic. It has nothing to do with eyesight stats or trying to be "white." It's a fashion trend, nothing more than that.

Now, if you wanted to write a column on the evolution of tattoos in American culture, that would be an interesting analysis.

Fred Armstrong

This is racist.


As a recovering dumb jock, I think, and have thought from the beginning of the trend, that the unneccessary spectacles-wearing in the NBA is pure psychological compensation for all the dumb-jock stereotypes in society. An NBA player may benefit financially from being able to market himself better to a wider audience, but this is only an indirect result of his deep need to feel and look smarter and be taken more seriously in intellectual circles and the national audience and maybe even more importantly, the media - perhaps it is a subconscious shield against aggressively tricky sports reporters that are always coming after them with baited questions. I don't know - just a thought.

Jeff M.

I've been doing this since 2004 myself - I wear contacts, but in 2004 had about $3000 of unused vision insurance so I went to lenscrafters, picked out some frames I liked, had the prescription glasses made (insurance required this), popped out the $400 prescription lenses and asked them to include the demo lenses, which I popped back into the frame, then I had my cool glasses frames while wearing my prescription contacts (my vision is so bad, if I leave the prescription lenses in, my eyes look tiny and the lenses are as thick as the bottom of a classic coke bottle!!)