the kings of sports

Online ‘reactionaries’ (scare quotes to avoid the notion that they are in any sense some sort of coherent group) are fond of—correctly—mentioning the lack of actual effective leadership in in government. Mencius Moldbug’s favored solution is something like a CEO model of governance, which is a term often applied to Singapore. However, the Lee government has not ran Singapore like a CEO would, but rather as a family company would interested in the long–term. Typically, CEOs do not act as effective leaders any more than our politicians, but as something like Mongol chiefs, swooping in with their hordes and carrying off as much booty as they can before moving on to the next target. There’s no reason to think that Moldbug’s model would work much better on a national scale, and there is implicit recognition of this in his hyperbolic obituary of Steve Jobs. Jobs’s willingness to get into the guts of his company and guide it along a clear and effective path stands out because it’s exceptional, rather than his being a particularly effective example of a CEO. He has so little competition, he could be rather mediocre in terms of CEOs doing what Moldbug portrays CEOs as doing.

For Americans, we can point out clearer examples: Professional sports teams. Here is a structure built entirely around competition, and of a far more narrow & defined sort than competition between businesses*, even those within the same general market. Yet, basic competence is so rare that it stands out: It’s what both the New England Patriots and San Antonio Spurs have based their franchises on.

There’s nothing particularly complex to what Bill Belichick does (and the Patriots organization behind him); it’s merely drafting and player selection without the traditional biases**, a higher than normal level of discipline, and a willingness to build around the talent that the team has rather than some abstractedly optimal set of schemes. (Not that the Pats don’t have their patterns at all, but they are willing to experiment with the tools they are presented with to a far greater degree.) Even a notorious goof–off like Chad ‘Ochocinco’ Johnson got it:

The Patriots are good. They don’t have the most talent, we all know that. They don’t have the most speed, no question. The Patriots are good, but there’s a reason why they are winning even though everybody is over age 50. It’s the fucking coaching. It ain’t no secret. … [Belichick] might be the greatest coach who ever coached.

Ocho Cinco: What Football and Life Have Thrown My Way

Of course, the ‘over age 50’ joke doesn’t really hold so much anymore, but you could say pretty much all the same things about the San Antonio Spurs right now. (Whose starters are significantly older than the starters for the Patriots teams Johnson was joking about.) Now, a lot of the Spurs’ success has been on the back of Tim Duncan (who deserves to be remembered as the best player drafted in the second–half of the 90s— sorry Kobe), who was not an underrated asset like Tom Brady has been for the Patriots, but it hardly matters; Gregg Popovich knows how to use Duncan.

Pop’s lack of tolerance for the vapid questions asked by sports media is even more notable than Belichick’s, because he’s willing to call them out more often— just watch this. ‘“Why will my team win tonight?” I hesitate to tell you why I think we’ll win or won’t win or what’s going to happen— I have no clue what’s going to happen. All I do is hope.’ It’s not that there aren’t interesting questions to be asked of coaches, it’s that nearly all coaches are so uninteresting that media aren’t particularly rewarded for being more interested themselves. (Part of this too is the ‘book of clichés’ culture that is made fun of in «Bull Durham», but that should be applied to players more than coaches.)

Why do the Spurs and Patriots have such unusually competent coaches, though? The organizations behind them. (Mind you, the competition is somewhat better in the NBA than in the NFL— Belichick towers more than Popovich does, but that’s because there are more good organizations in the NBA. I’m not sure there are more good coaches.) And it is not like being family owned is any guarantee of success in sports, either; in football, two of the most notorious historically mismanaged franchises—the Detroit Lions & the Cincinnati Bengals—are family affairs. There are obviously other factors (e.g., the NFL is an environment where incompetence is not commensurately punished), but the take–home is just that there is a deficit of what competence even looks like, in general.

To go back to Moldbug & Jobs: ‘[Fallen in our hands was] the real work of a real King… [who] could bend small armies to obey. And make— a toy.’ Making consumer electronics or managing sports franchises are far less sophisticated endeavors than governance; the fact that competence there is so rare does not exactly give one hope for any sort of personal rulership.

Hatred of professional sports is not uncommon amongst internet reactionaries (more because they are nerds than anything else, though); and while it is true that they hold too great of a place in our culture at–large in terms of concern (Steve Sailer is fond of pointing out that rich left–wingers found & fund political organizations, while rich right wingers fund their alma maters, build football stadiums, or buy professional sports franchises), the very fact that they do and still are not properly run (and that most fans don’t even notice) should give one pause.

It pays to pay attention.

* That aren’t sports franchises, of course.

** A few years ago, I started digging up Wonderlic scores, and a suspicion I had was confirmed: Intelligence is the biggest economic inefficiency in player selection, and the Patriots have been exploiting it for years. While they do draft physical freaks like Rob Gronkowski (who could not be as stupid as he acts— I never found his Wonderlic), they draft, trade, and sign plenty of physically under–par specimens who just happen to be far smarter than the average player at their position. The Wonderlic is far from perfect, however, so my data aren’t particularly great; I am certain that the Patriots exercise their own subjective strategies in evaluating player intelligence as part of their scouting technique, which they are obviously not going to be willing to chat openly about. NBA scouting doesn’t offer an easy stand–in like the Wonderlic for guessing at draft strategy, but I would not be shocked if the Spurs are exploiting similar inefficiencies; my hunches suggest they are. (I mean, there’s a reason The Onion’s running gag about Tim Duncan’s intelligence is funny.)

† I feel a strange need to defend myself: I didn’t read the whole book, but I read the pages surrounding that excerpt when an ESPN review quoted part of it. That said, if I were going to read a book written by an athlete, that’d probably be it. It’s generally thought that he didn’t use a ghostwriter; the dude is honest; and he’s an entertaining egomaniac.

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