Search the Site

Episode Transcript

On a damp, windy day in May 1954, a handful of runners were getting loose at the Iffley Road track in Oxford, England. One of them was named Roger Bannister.

ANNOUNCER: Roger Bannister limbers up for a planned attack on that a four-minute mile, never before achieved by man.

David EPSTEIN: This isn’t like the tracks we’re used to thinking of now. This was cinders.

That’s David Epstein, a science journalist and author of The Sports Gene.

EPSTEIN: And it was sort of a small unimportant track meet, but it was known that Bannister would be making this attempt.

ANNOUNCER: Man against the mile. A supreme test of courage, of human will, of determination.

Bannister, 25 years old, had finished fourth in the 1,500 meters, the rough equivalent of a mile, in the Olympic Games two years earlier. He was, like many athletes of his era, an amateur — in his case: a medical student, working at St. Mary’s Hospital in London.

EPSTEIN: You know, just before he made the attempt, he went on a hiking vacation just to relax, and the morning of, he did medical rounds.

Because of his studies, Bannister had less than an hour a day to train for his attempt on the four-minute mile. The day was so windy that he nearly canceled his run. It also rained a bit. There were barely a thousand spectators. But then the wind died down and Roger Bannister toed the line. What do you think happened? Do you really think we’d be telling you this story if Roger Bannister hadn’t finally broken the four-minute barrier? Here, in Bannister’s own words, is how it unfolded:

Roger BANNISTER: As the gun fired, my legs seemed to meet no resistance at all, almost as if impelled by an unknown force.

EPSTEIN: And as he comes around each lap, he’s just about directly on four-minute-mile pace.

BANNISTER: By now the crowd was roaring. A four-minute mile was possible.

EPSTEIN: And then for the last lap he basically has to run a little bit faster.

BANNISTER: Somehow to do it I had to run the last lap in 59 seconds.

EPSTEIN: And he gives it his all.

BANNISTER: Those last few seconds seemed never-ending.

EPSTEIN: He leans through, breaks through the finishing tape with his mouth wide open.

BANNISTER: My effort was over, and I collapsed almost unconscious with an arm on either side of me.

EPSTEIN: And one of the iconic photos is these men in trench coats leaning over with stopwatches, and someone reads off the time because there’s no huge digital clock on a Jumbotron.

BANNISTER: I knew I had done it even before I heard the time.

ANNOUNCER: Up to the finishing line, time: 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds, shattering the 4-minute mile, the Everest of athletic achievement.

The Everest comparison was no accident. Just a year earlier, a British-led expedition had been the first to summit the world’s highest mountain. In a country still recovering from World War II, Roger Bannister paid attention to such accomplishments.

EPSTEIN: And he viewed feats like the summiting of Mount Everest as these beacons of hope and rebuilding for the United Kingdom. And he saw his quest to run under four minutes in a mile as part of that.

Could a simple footrace really affect the psyche of a nation? There are a lot of reasons that so many of us find sports so compelling. At the most basic level, we find thrill in the competition, the athleticism, the entertainment. But do we sometimes assign too much meaning to sports, to mere races and games and fights? Maybe. But you could also argue that sport has done a pretty good job, throughout history, of mirroring society at large: the politics, the economics, the social issues. As well as exploring the limits of human achievement. By 1954, the sub-four-minute-mile had stood for years as a seemingly impassable barrier.

EPSTEIN: A number of other athletes kept getting closer and closer but not breaking through. Athletes were told their legs would fall off if they ran fast enough to run under four minutes the mile. And so it sort of looked like it was this asymptote of human performance in certain ways.

Pardon me: an “asymptote of human performance”? Yeah, I don’t know what that means, either. Here, let’s ask a mathematician:

John URSCHEL: So what is an asymptote? An asymptote is a straight line that approaches a curve and gets closer and closer but never actually intersects it. This is the mathematical definition.

That’s John Urschel.

URSCHEL: I’m a Ph.D. student in mathematics at M.I.T. I work mainly in graph theory applied to things like machine learning and combinatorial optimization.

So Roger Bannister proved the four-minute mile wasn’t actually an asymptote. Is there a better example?

URSCHEL: Well, when you’re skydiving, the longer you’re in the air, the faster and faster you’re falling, and the closer and closer you get to terminal velocity, but you never quite reach it. This is an asymptote.

Okay, good to know. Also good to know: John Urschel, before getting his Ph.D. in math, had a pretty solid first career.

URSCHEL: I’m a former N.F.L. offensive lineman. for the Baltimore Ravens.

Urschel played three seasons in the NFL but retired, abruptly, just before his fourth was about to start.

URSCHEL: I retired early mainly to focus on math.

Urschel quit just as he was entering his peak years in terms of ability — and earning potential. Why? One factor was a new report that seemed to strengthen the link between football and long-term brain damage.

URSCHEL: How much brain damage do I have? I don’t know. And it’s extremely hard to know.

Brain damage has become a huge concern in modern sports, especially in the obvious contact sports like football. Back in the 1950s, meanwhile? Not so much. As David Epstein was telling us, Roger Bannister’s era was less about self-preservation and more about pushing what seemed to be our natural limits. Like the idea that it wasn’t physiologically possible for a human to run a mile in less than four minutes.

EPSTEIN: But Bannister didn’t feel that way. He knew as a medical student that four-flat-point-zero-one wasn’t different than three-fifty-nine-point-nine. And so there was no real barrier.

BANNISTER: My legs seemed to meet no resistance at all, almost as if impelled by an unknown force.

Roger Bannister ran one more sub-four-minute mile after that gray day in Oxford and promptly retired as an athlete. He went on to have a long and distinguished career as a neurologist. He died just this year, at age 88. Today, more than 1,500 men have run the mile in less than four minutes; the current world record is just over three minutes and forty-three seconds. What’s the secret of this seemingly superhuman accomplishment? Here’s how Bannister once put it: “It is the brain, not the heart or lungs, that is the critical organ.” Mind over matter: another reason that sports intrigue us. And it seems to work in sports as non-traditional as competitive eating. Here’s Takeru Kobayashi, the Japanese eating superstar, telling us how he doubled the world record of 25-1/8 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes.

Takeru KOBAYASHI: It has nothing to do with how you normally enjoy a meal. It’s just a physical action.

A physical action that Kobayashi performed by stretching the mind. By consciously challenging every piece of conventional wisdom — the training, the methodology, the strategy — and finding a better way to eat fast.

KOBAYASHI: I think the thing about human beings is that they make a limit in their mind of what their potential is. So if every human being actually threw away those thoughts, the potential of human beings is great, it’s huge, compared to what they actually think of themselves. I mean, if everyone could use it for everything, everything could be much better.

“Everything could be much better.” Can sport really deliver this kind of promise? Maybe, maybe not — but it certainly delivers a unique set of attributes.

Jennifer EGAN: I mean, sports are such an absorbing world that I never really knew about much or cared about much until I had a child who was fascinated by all of it.

That’s Jennifer Egan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.

EGAN: And it’s amazing how they provide a kind of structure of meaning in people’s lives. Teams that you root for, the business of sports. Things hang in the balance. Outcomes are unclear. There are infinite narratives to it and it’s something you can touch in all different areas of your life, at all different times.

Dana GIOIA: I don’t like sports, but you’ve got to admire the energy, creativity, and innovation that goes into sports.

And that is Dana Gioia, the poet laureate of California and a former National Endowment for the Arts chairman.

GIOIA: And it’s very similar to arts. It’s a way of focusing human energy to create these symbolic encounters which have enormous emotional resonance to audiences.

Emotional resonance. Focusing human energy. Infinite narratives and unclear outcomes. The business of sports. And, of course, the costs and benefits of rooting for your favorite team. Or for your kid. These are just some of the reasons we’re launching this special Freakonomics Radio series, “The Hidden Side of Sports.” Over the past several months, we’ve been interviewing dozens of world-class athletes, coaches, owners, union officials, league officials, and more. For instance:

Mark CUBAN: I’m Mark Cuban.

Mikaela SHIFFRIN: My name is Mikaela Shiffrin and I am an alpine ski racer.

Lance ARMSTRONG: My name is Lance Armstrong and I’m — what do I do?

Doug PEDERSON: Doug Pederson, head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Dan PATRICK: Dan Patrick, and I’m a sportscaster.

Kim NG: Kim Ng of Major League Baseball.

Daryl MOREY: Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets.

Lawrence EPSTEIN: Lawrence Epstein. I’m the chief operating officer at the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Jed YORK: Jed York. I’m the C.E.O. of the San Francisco 49ers.

Kerri WALSH JENNINGS: Kerri Walsh Jennings, I’m a professional beach volleyball player.

Bob TEWKSBURY: Bob Tewksbury, I am the mental-skills coach for the San Francisco Giants.

Simone MANUEL: Simone Manuel, I am a professional swimmer.

Mark TEIXEIRA: Mark Teixeira, currently an ESPN analyst.

Lauren MURPHY: Lauren Murphy, I’m a U.F.C. fighter.

Brandon MCCARTHY: Brandon McCarthy, I’m a pitcher for the Atlanta Braves.

Stephanie LABBE: Stephanie Labbe, I’m a professional soccer player.

DeMaurice SMITH: DeMaurice Smith, I’m the executive director of the N.F.L. Players Association.

Jimmy GAROPPOLO: What’s up guys, I’m Jimmy Garoppolo, and you’re listening to Freakonomics Radio.

Hey, thanks, Jimmy. And don’t worry: we also interviewed some economists:

Toby MOSKOWITZ: Our beliefs in streaks are much stronger than the data actually supports.

Steve LEVITT: The chance of having soccer be your vehicle to get to college as opposed to fencing turns out to be about 75 or 80 times harder.

Richard THALER: The rule of thumb is, a second-round pick this year is equal to a first-round pick next year.

One question we’ll ask the athletes is what, exactly, drives them to excel, to get back up after failure and injury, and to just keep pushing. Like Kerri Walsh Jennings, who’s won four Olympic medals in beach volleyball, three of them gold.

Kerri WALSH JENNINGS: I’m going for my sixth Olympics and I’m turning 40 in a couple of weeks and I’m playing against these young kids who I was where they were obviously 20 years ago and it’s so nutty, but I’m still going through the same process of leveling up, aspiring to go higher, looking in the mirror, “Do you got it, do you want it? Yes? Carry on.”

As much intrinsic motivation as sport may require, there’s plainly a strong extrinsic motivator too. I don’t mean the fame; I don’t mean the glory; I mean the money.

Brandon McCARTHY: I think when all is said and done, I’ll have maybe somewhere around $70 million made.

That’s Brandon McCarthy, who’s pitched for seven Major League Baseball teams over 13 seasons. There is a lot more money in sports today than there was 50 or 100 years ago, at least for the athletes at the top of the pyramid. We spoke with another longtime baseball player, the recently retired Mark Teixeira, who made out even better than McCarthy.

DUBNER: So your ultimate deal, which was in 2009, coming to the New York Yankees, correct?


DUBNER: Eight years, $180 million deal, correct.


DUBNER: All guaranteed?

TEIXEIRA: All guaranteed in baseball.

The money in basketball is pretty good too. Here’s longtime N.B.A. player J.J. Redick:

REDICK: So you’re going to have in the next 10 to 15 years, you’re going to have a ton of guys who have made $100 to $200 to $300 million in their career.

But because the top-earning athletes are the most prominent, we tend to magnify how much most athletes get paid. Consider the N.F.L., which is the richest, most successful sports league in history. There are 53 players on a given N.F.L. team’s roster, compared to 25 in baseball, for most of the season, and an average of 14 in the N.B.A. Fifty-three football players: that’s a lot of salaries to pay. The average N.F.L. salary is around $2 million, and the average career is just a few years long. John Urschel, the former N.F.L. player who jumped ship for a math career, played offensive lineman, a position with an average salary of around $1.7 million a year when he entered the league.

John URSCHEL: You take away taxes. you take away agent fees, you take away N.F.L.P.A. fees.

The N.F.L.P.A. — that’s the players’ union.

URSCHEL: Now, let’s say you’re down to a million, under a million, perhaps. And now this has to last you for the rest of your life, paired with whatever your next career is, as opposed to say — well, how many doctors are there in the U.S.? The stable income over, say, 40 years, beats the $1.6 million income over three years.

And again, that’s if you happen to be among the best of the best of the best athletes who make it into the richest sports league in history. What about the average player in the most popular global sport — soccer, or what the rest of the world calls football. Here’s Andrew Orsatti, a former professional soccer player who now works for FIFPro, the international players’ union:

ORSATTI: If you look at the media, of course every player is a multimillionaire driving a Ferrari. That’s a myth. Because the tens of thousand players we represent, 14,000 of which we surveyed recently, are earning $1,000 U.S. a month after tax, okay? Forget what you see of Cristiano Ronaldo moving to Juventus. Forget what you see of Lionel Messi. The English Premier League. La Liga. Forget it all. Think about the mechanism below which feeds those who get to the top. The very few who get to the top, the top 1 percent. That’s not the reality.

The reality is that soccer relies on what is essentially a massive, global migrant-labor workforce.

David LOW: Singapore, Australia, in the U.S., then Germany, after Germany was Switzerland.

That’s David Low. He was born in Singapore and for about 10 years hopped all over the world playing pro soccer. He never earned more than about $2,000 a month. And usually much less.

LOW: And then I went to Thailand. After Thailand was Mongolia, after Mongolia was — I went to Iceland. And then I trained in France and then from France I signed to play New Zealand. After New Zealand then I went to Italy.

If you’re an aspiring athlete, you quickly realize that while you may be the featured attraction, the compensation doesn’t necessarily follow.

SMITH: The reality is they are management and we are labor.

That’s DeMaurice Smith, who runs the N.F.L. Players Association.

SMITH: The history of labor and management in the United States has been one for the most part where management has successfully lobbied and changed laws through litigation that have affected a net negative for employees.

Some sports ecosystems are particularly warped. Consider college football and basketball in the U.S., where the athletes are paid zero dollars while generating billions for the universities.

FOXWORTH: My freshman year in college, my head coach got a $10 million extension. And that was when I was like, “Oh, we aren’t a team, we’re a business.” And that was when the light went on for me.

That’s Domonique Foxworth. He played college football at Maryland, then six seasons in the N.F.L. His final contract paid him about $27 million over four years, but he learned early on that football is a business and a particularly high-risk one.

FOXWORTH: I’ve been on the field a couple of times when people have been paralyzed. I played in a preseason game in the N.F.L. where a guy died in a locker room afterward. We had practice at Maryland where a helicopter came to take one player off the field and the coach said, “Move it down,” and we kept doing the drills as a helicopter was taking one of our teammates who couldn’t move to the hospital.

Foxworth was at Maryland in the early 2000s. The current Maryland football coach, D.J. Durkin, was recently placed on administrative leave after a player died during a spring workout. Domonique Foxworth, for his part, got an M.B.A. from Harvard after he left football. His wife has three graduate degrees, two from Harvard, including a law degree. They have three kids — two girls and a boy. I asked Foxworth, considering his own history and the growing body of research about football and brain damage, what happens if his son wants to play.

FOXWORTH: He’s only five now and I say no. I mean it’s not a problem that we’re actually facing at this point, but I would say no.

DUBNER: So if he comes to you and says, “Hey Dad, I know before I was born, you were amazing — an N.F.L. player, great career, etc., what do you mean, no? What are you talking about?”

FOXWORTH: I mean, I think the research wasn’t there. I suspect my parents would not have let me play when I was that age if there was information available. And like, it’s not even clear information. But what is clear is that it does put you at a higher risk. The best-case scenario is that you play professional football and you make a lot of money. I was far from poor growing up, like middle-class, but I went to Baltimore County public schools. That’s not my son’s experience. I didn’t have access to the things that he’ll have access to. I frankly think that he is starting in a much better place than I am, so he should do much better than banging his head into other people’s heads for money. Like it seems like a step back to me, honestly.

DUBNER: And then what about you? Do you worry about your brain? Does your wife worry about your brain?

FOXWORTH: Absolutely. It feels like you’re living a horror movie honestly, where it’s like this thing lurking in the background. I mean, it’s scary. And I think what is most frightening is right now, I would do it all over, because of what it’s done for me and my family.

So — yes, along with the fun of watching and playing and following sports, along with the emotional resonance, the infinite narratives, and unclear outcomes, you can’t deny that sports can also be complicated. And full of conflict. Sport is in fact an exercise in conflict: you’re trying to beat someone, to outrun and deceive them, to take what’s theirs and make it yours. But there’s a ton of conflict outside the game too. That’s another reason we’re launching this series — to explore those conflicts. For instance: the relationship between athletes and ownership.

SMITH: There are going to be core philosophical differences between us.

There’s also the conflict between fair play and wanting to win maybe just a bit too badly. Here’s the cyclist Lance Armstrong, who was stripped of his 7 Tour de France titles after he was proven to have used the doping agent erythropoietin or EPO:

ARMSTRONG: The sport of cycling in the mid-90s, EPO was like wildfire. And we were holding out, holding out, holding out, and we got to this moment where we were like, “Oh my god. We don’t have a choice.” Or, well, we do have a choice. Our choice is to go home. We could just quit. Retire. But if we want to stay and fight — we were all walking around with knives, because we were told we were going to a knife fight. And next thing you know, everybody had guns. And we said, “Oh s—, these boys are carrying guns.” And so in the spring of ‘95, we went to the gun store.

We’ll also explore the conflict between gut instinct in sports and the growing reliance on data and analytics. Here’s the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl-winning coach Doug Pederson:

PEDERSON: There’s a lot of data available to us and it can be overwhelming, can take you away from the football aspect of it. I just take a slice of it and try to use it to our benefit for that week. 

And we’ll hear the U.F.C. fighter Lauren Murphy talk about the conflict between being a peace-loving human and a U.F.C. fighter:

MURPHY: The fight started, and I hit her as hard as I could. And she actually fell down. I knocked her down with the first punch and I was so green and so naive, I didn’t even realize what had happened. I remember distinctly looking at her and thinking, what are you doing on the floor? And so I let her get up just because I didn’t know really what was going on and then I hit her again. And that was it.

So as you can see, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover in this “Hidden Side of Sports” series.

* * *

The National Football League, as you may have heard, is having some problems. A huge concern about player safety, as we heard from John Urschel and Domonique Foxworth. The contentious National Anthem protests, which we’ll hear about later. And: the N.F.L.’s audience has shrunk a bit. But let’s be honest: the N.F.L. is still a juggernaut. Of the top 50 shows on TV last year, 37 were football games. To understand why, to understand why sports are such a big deal to so many people, let’s start with a man who pretty much asks himself that question every day.

MATHESON: Sure. This is Victor Matheson. I’m a professor of economics at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Matheson specializes in the economics of sport.

MATHESON: Yes, I’m one of the editors of The Journal of Sports Economics. I’m also the current president of the North American Association of Sports economists, and I’m also the author of The Economics of Sports, Sixth Edition, which is I think the top sports economics textbook in the world. So I kind of have a trifecta going on right now.

DUBNER: Now Victor, are you yourself now, or have you ever been an athlete or otherwise seriously involved in sports?

MATHESON: Yeah, so I was actually a referee for Major League Soccer for about ten years.

DUBNER: Oh, no kidding.

MATHESON: Yeah, my college coach when I was playing took a look at me and said, “Hey, you know, I’ve been watching the way you play the game and I think you might make an excellent referee.”

DUBNER: Victor, how old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?

MATHESON: So I am turning 49 next week.

DUBNER: Okay. Happy birthday. Can you talk for a minute then about the ways in which sports, especially the business of sports, is different from when you were a kid?

MATHESON: Sports have become bigger and bigger and bigger business. So a little before my childhood but not much more before that, we would have athletes in the N.B.A. and N.F.L. have full-time jobs in the off-season because you’re not making enough in the season to actually survive without having something to do in the off-season. I’m here at Holy Cross. Our most famous athlete is Bob Cousy, the first great point guard. He lives in a very modest house here in Worcester because he never made $40 million a year, like a top N.B.A. player might make now. And so obviously that’s a huge difference.

DUBNER: Right. And other than the obvious answer of “we like to watch sports and consume all things around sports,” why else do you think that sports have such an appeal that makes them so valuable, that ultimately generates so many dollars and eyeballs?

MATHESON: Well, number one, we make more money and we have more free time today than we did in the past, and so we have a lot more disposable income to spend on play and on recreation and on toys than we did a generation or two generations or three generations ago. Number two, we also have technology that helps us enjoy sports in a way we didn’t in the past either. So I am not super old but old enough to remember watching sports on the 19-inch black-and-white TV that we had. And obviously my flat-screen, 50-inch high-def TV that I can watch soccer from any country in the world at any time I want on-demand, is certainly a much better recreation option than trying to pick out exactly which kind of gray player was playing against what other kind of gray player back as a kid.

DUBNER: What can you tell us about the size of the sports industry, and how it compares to other industries?

MATHESON: So the answer here is actually surprisingly small. So the biggest league in the world in terms of revenue generated is the N.F.L. And the N.F.L. generates something like $14, $15 billion a year. Now you might be thinking to yourself, well, 14, 15 that sounds like a lot of money. That’s roughly the same size as Sherwin-Williams. So the typical American buys as much paint from Sherwin-Williams as it does by buying N.F.L. products from the largest league in the world. You add in all these other American leagues — N.B.A., Major League Baseball, the N.H.L., Major League Soccer, plus the P.G.A. and pro tennis, and mixed martial arts and all these things — add them all up together, you’ve got maybe $50 billion of pro sports, a few more tens of billions of dollars in college sports. But you’re still only up at 60, 70 billion dollars. That makes spectator sports in the United States roughly the same size as the cardboard-box industry in the United States. Now obviously none of us gather around the water cooler on Monday morning saying, “Hey man, did you see that awesome cardboard box that American Paper just put out?” Of course we don’t. So sports has a social impact that is way way bigger than its economic impact.

All right, so why does an industry that’s only as big as the cardboard-box industry matter so much? Here’s one explanation: athletic competition has been around a long time.

MATHESON: So we’ve seen professionalized athletes in the world for at least 2,500 years now. And so we see stories about people winning gold medals at the early Olympics having lifetime supplies of food, that you could eat anywhere in the city for free forever, or receiving large payments that are in the vicinity hundreds of thousands of dollars, even back in the pre-B.C. days.

But let’s be clear: long before there was professional sport, there was sport.

John THORN: I think the earliest sports were individual, so that Pharaoh Thutmose would strike the ball for Hathor, for the glory of the gods.

That’s John Thorn.

THORN: I’m the official historian for Major League Baseball,

Thorn says sports have always been connected to sacrifice and to the regeneration of seasons.

THORN: There is a reason why baseball begins in the spring and ends in the fall. And cricket, likewise.

DUBNER: And what can you tell us about the ancient history of sport as a proxy for war and/or violence?

THORN: Well, one reasonably well-known episode was at Ploermel, at a battle for a very small piece of land. Rather than have a massacre of hundreds of troops on each side, there were delegations formed. The 30 best men of one side against the 30 best men of another, and both sides agreed to abide by the outcome. I believe this is the origin of team sport.

This happened in 1351, during the Hundred Years’ War, between the English and the French. This event came to be known as the Combat of Thirty. Some of the historical details are disputed but generally, it’s thought that 30 knights on each side engaged in controlled combat over several hours, with breaks in between. The French won; it’s believed that four of their men were killed, while the English death toll was at least double that. Over time, this contest came to be held up as a shining example of chivalry: better a dozen dead than hundreds, yes? If you think it’s a stretch to label this deadly encounter the beginning of team sport — well, when was the last time you watched an NFL game?

Two opposing armies in offsetting uniforms, each with a captain, a rank-and-file, and marching orders, using physical violence to push into enemy territory. Even the language of war permeates the game: a “blitzing” linebacker “penetrates” the “offensive line” to “sack” the quarterback. Some people may find this militarization off-putting; some may enjoy it. And some — maybe the majority of sports fans — don’t think about it at all. They just revel in the excitement of a physical battle with stakes that seem high but, compared to actual war, are absurdly low. Except, of course, for the warriors themselves.

URSCHEL: How much brain damage do I have? I don’t know.

FOXWORTH: I played in a preseason game in the N.F.L. where a guy died in a locker room afterward.

So sport seems to have been a proxy for war at least as far back as the 14th century. In the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, it became a tool for colonialism — which helps explain how sports went global. The British Empire, as it took over massive swaths of land and people, wasn’t just spreading its politics and religion, but also its sports. It invented, codified, and evangelized a number of games, including cricket, soccer, and tennis. This was seen to serve many purposes: replacing native culture with a version the British considered superior; increasing physical fitness of the native populations, with an eye toward grooming the best soldiers; and instilling an appreciation for fair play, rule-following and, if we wanted to be just a tiny bit cynical, subjugation. The United States, in its early days, thought of sport similarly, promoting it as a form of “muscular Christianity.” I asked John Thorn about this:

DUBNER: I’m curious if you could talk about a few different elements of baseball, and how they either exemplified or maybe even encouraged, some of the behaviors that came to be known as hallmarks of Americanism.

THORN: Jingoism, bragging, cheating, all of these things have a great tenure in baseball as in America. And those things that were barely tolerated in drawing rooms were absolutely adored on the ball field.

DUBNER: I was thinking of maybe some positive attributes like fair play and rule of law and so on.

THORN: Well, fair play and rule of law are taming. The tendency to invite women to watch the games goes back to the 1850s because women were thought to be a civilizing influence — that men would not swear quite as much, they would not engage in physical confrontations.

DUBNER: Was baseball itself considered a civilizing influence, however, on Native Americans and perhaps other groups?

THORN: Sure. Because baseball was imbued with American values, or was thought to be, the export of baseball to minority communities, to foreign countries — generally through military occupation — of the rite of passage that if you were going to Americanize Japan, if you were going to Americanize Cuba, if you are going to Americanize Brazil, then you brought baseball with you. When Barack Obama and Raul Castro became closer and tried to end 50 years of hostilities, baseball was the mechanism. Because baseball, in the 19th century, was a very great thing. It was a great thing because everyone could agree that it was a great thing.

Baseball was a great thing for John Thorn himself.

THORN: I would say that sports was my way of becoming American.

Thorn immigrated to the U.S. with his family in the 1950s, when he was two years old. They were Jews from Poland.

THORN: It was a matter of inclusion, where perhaps not all other avenues were open to me. I became a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I think any self-respecting Jew would have to select the Dodgers. They were the outsiders and they included Jackie Robinson, who was an early hero for me.

Jackie Robinson was the first black player allowed to play in Major League Baseball.

THORN: I think what the Dodgers showed me and what baseball showed me was that anybody could be an American. Even me.

DUBNER: So John, how does baseball and/or other sports, affect the social and political and cultural objectives and dreams of America? That’s really what I want to know.

THORN: Well, I think sports is all about sublimation. We all think of sport as wonderful fun in and of itself, whether engaged in or spectated. And in fact, when we go to a ballgame or we watch one on TV we are affiliating with a civic entity. And we sublimate our martial instincts by pouring them into sport. For two hours, three hours, four hours, we allow ourselves and those around us to be somebody other than whom we are on a nine-to-five basis during the week or in our own households. We can paint our faces, we can wear silly hats, we can drink ourselves silly, we can yell insulting epithets at the umpire or certain players.

DUBNER: And you argue that’s generally a healthy function, correct?

THORN: Generally a healthy function because primitive instincts and aggression lurk at every moment.

DUBNER: Right. And one component of that is tribalism, right? It’s our team and the other team, and anything that our team does — one thing that I find really curious about sports is if you’re watching your team and there’s a questionable call, you don’t have to question that it’s a wrong call, if it’s against your team it’s the wrong call. Whereas if it’s against the other team it’s the right call. So we really —

THORN: Intellect is put on hold. And that’s why I “faith for the faithless,” that you have faith in your team. And your faith may not be questioned.

DUBNER: Do you think that deep tribalism is essentially a positive force or negative, or what’s the trade-off?

THORN: It’s a dangerous force when it is permitted to walk out of the stadium or out of the bar.

NEWS HOST: Fans from both teams pummeled each other with punch after punch. But it didn’t end there. Police are also investigating not one but two shootings that happened outside the stadium after the game was over.

Martha NEWSON: It is a tribal identity and a lot of football fans that I work with are very happy with that tribal label. It really rings true to them.

That’s Martha Newson, a cognitive anthropologist at Oxford. She studies group bonding and the extreme behavior that can result.

NEWSON: So before I started all this research I didn’t have a huge interest in football. But I had a boyfriend who loved football and we went to a match and I found it so fascinating. I had never been in an environment that was so emotionally charged, where grown men were hugging and kissing each other and crying together.

Newson calls this kind of bonding “identity fusion.”

NEWSON: And it’s when a personal identity and the group identity become so heavily invested in each other that they’re fused. They completely merge. And so any attack on yourself feels like an attack on your group and likewise, any attack on your group feels like an attack on yourself. So you go to these extreme lengths to defend and honor your group. So that’s the kind of psychology we’re looking at. In military insurgent groups, religious groups, nationalists, and also in football fans.

Newson argues this phenomenon comes with costs — and benefits.

NEWSON: I think sport is wholeheartedly and unreservedly a great way to bring people together. The unifying effect of just watching a football match. Even talking about it right now, I get goose pimples. All those people coming together for that collective goal, that ambition, that is really powerful, it’s a good thing. But with that comes great responsibility, a responsibility for inclusion. Racism has been absolutely hideous in football. It’s an ongoing thing. Homophobia is a huge issue which has not been tackled in football properly. Gender is another issue. There’s violence in gender. So when England loses a World Cup match, the rate of domestic abuse goes up around 30 percent. That’s disgusting.

There’s an interesting paradox here. Research has shown that being on a sports team is one of the best ways of building social trust — that is, creating strong bonds even between people from very different backgrounds. Being a sports fan doesn’t necessarily seem to conjure the same magic. It might, in fact, facilitate a kind of sorting into like-minded tribes with common enemies. You can’t deny there’s a certain homogeneity to many sectors of the sporting universe. Starting with the obvious fact that the big team sports that get most of our attention, and dollars, are male team sports. But just because the athletes are male, should it necessarily follow that the vast majority of team and league executives are male?

NG: It’s unfortunate that we’re not further along at this point.

That’s Kim Ng of Major League Baseball.

NG: So I think we were ahead on the race side — I mean, Jackie Robinson is the one example that everyone points to. On the gender side, it’s been slow to come. We’re not where we should be.

Ng has been in baseball for more than 25 years; she’s now a senior vice president of international baseball development for the league.

NG: So what we do is we try and help grow the game globally and at the same time I’ve monitored and established programs which would help clubs to scout players, evaluate them, bring parity to the market in terms of signing them.

Ng grew up in Queens, New York.

NG: Playing stickball and running bases in the streets. I was really a sports nut. Loved to play.

She went on to play softball at the University of Chicago —which is known slightly more for its academic rigor than its sports teams. She studied public policy and wrote her senior thesis on the 1972 federal legislation known as Title IX.

NG: And Title IX is basically a law that tries to enact equity and parity, and you cannot discriminate based on gender, race, etc., to institutions who receive federal funding.

Title IX led to a major surge in women’s sports in America, putting it well ahead of most other countries. That’s one of the big reasons the U.S. National Women’s Soccer team has been so dominant, especially compared to the U.S. men.

NG: So it was through that paper on Title IX that I really started to think about a career in sports.

After school, Ng got an internship with the Chicago White Sox and rose through the ranks; she moved on to the New York Yankees’ organization, winning three World Series rings there; then became assistant general manager with the Los Angeles Dodgers. What was it like being one of very few female executives?

NG: I always had to be overprepared and I did not have the leeway that a lot of the guys did. And I also didn’t have necessarily the camaraderie that they had. You know, a lot of them played minor league baseball together or major league baseball together.

Even as an assistant G.M., Ng ran into a sort of exclusion that would seem to be driven by a baseline expectation.

NG: You know, I’m walking into the major league clubhouse of a visiting park. And I have all the right credentials and the security guard would say, “No, you can’t go in there.” I’d say, “Well, I actually can go in there, look at my credentials.” And there’s just the automatic presumption of who you are or, probably in this case, more of what you’re not. You’re not an executive, you’re not an official with the ball club — you’re media, you’re an interpreter. You are something of that nature. And that takes into account both gender and being of color. So I can tell you a funny story. I was traveling with the Dodgers and the executives, and the coaching staff sit up in first-class. I’ve got Joe Torre to my left. And I’ve got Don Mattingly, Rick Honeycutt, some of our coaches in first-class, as well as the players, are boarding. And the flight attendant comes up to me and she says, “So, what did you do to get on this plane?” And I looked at her and I said, “Do you really want to know?” And she said “Yeah.” And she leaned in closer and I said, “Do you see all these guys?” She said “Yeah.” And I said, “Well, they all report to me.”

When you hear this story, how much of a villain do you want to make the flight attendant out to be? It’s the kind of judgment so many of us make every day, on so many dimensions: something doesn’t fit the pattern we’ve been conditioned to recognize, and we don’t even consider the fact that the pattern may be evolving. The swimmer Simone Manuel, who’s African-American, saw a pattern that she didn’t think she fit into.

MANUEL: Yeah, I mean, a lot of it just had to deal with difficulty fitting in.

She grew up in an athletic family in Texas and played lots of sports from a young age.

MANUEL: With the other sports, there were other black individuals, and in the sport of swimming there weren’t. And so it was really hard sometimes for me to relate to others because I kind of questioned if swimming was the sport that I should be participating in. There was nobody else on deck that was black.

There was another reason for Manuel’s reluctance to swim.

MANUEL: Yeah, I mean a lot of it comes from the culture of African-Americans. Sixty percent of African-Americans do not know how to swim. A lot of what keeps us out of the water is our hair. My mom would always tell me, “Simone, it’s just hair.” And she continuously told me this so that I kind of started to believe it.

She believed it so much that she wound up going to swim at Stanford. And then in the 2016 Olympics, where she won a gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle, and at the 2017 Worlds.

MANUEL: It doesn’t matter what my hair looks like if I’m on the podium winning gold medals and inspiring somebody behind me to hopefully forget about their hair and do the same thing as me.

Barriers broken — and records too. Inequities revealed — and sometimes addressed. Bonds formed — except when they’re not. Sport is as imperfect as any corner of society. But it’s a bit more exciting than most, don’t you think?

Thanks to all our many guests for helping us put this series together.

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Anders Kelto and Derek John, with help from Harry Huggins. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rosalsky, Greg Rippin, Alvin Melathe, Zack Lapinski, and Andy Meisenheimer. The music you hear throughout the episode was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Read full Transcript