Moneyball, Superman, Angry Royals Fans and Education Reform?

Posted on July 11, 2012



These past few days have been interesting, as I’ve followed more than usual, the festivities around the Major League Baseball All Star Game. I’ve followed the festivities in part because the game was in Kansas City this year and I lived in the Kansas City ‘burbs for 11 years up until 2008. I’m an east coast guy – born & raised Vermonter, livin’ in Jersey – college in PA, masters in CT, Doc in NYC… also taught in NH. I love east coast cities, and I probably fit the typical east coast snob profile. But some of the events that went down this week at the ASG left me feeling a bit uneasy.  Now, even as a kid, I kind of like the Royals. They were pretty damn good when I was growing up, and had that cool stadium with the fountains. While we lived in KC, we went to quite a few games… ‘cuz tickets were cheap and accessible.[1]

As I sat down to watch the Home Run Derby, I happened to be checking twitter – where I still follow some Kansas City media folks. I starting seeing tweets with the hashtag #boocano… along with links to explanations as to why KC fans should boo when Yankee Robinson Cano comes to bat.  Even as the booing actually happened… and it was quite impressive… the story I was getting from ESPN was strangely disconnected from the story I was getting from my KC tweets.

In case you missed it here’s some video from the stands at the K:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZlQk861C5c&feature=plcp

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPl9Ez8dE6w&feature=plcp

In fact, ESPN wasn’t sharing much of anything… rather, suggesting that the KC fans were being inappropriate and expressing sour grapes simply because their guy (who must suck, because he’s a Royal) didn’t get picked for the home run derby. Eventually, ESPN and also Fox would post on their websites, stories of how Kansas City fans were “classless” and rude, while never actually sharing the details behind why Royals fans booed Cano.  For my east coast peers, here’s a Kansas City run down on what actually happened, since the national media found it far more convenient to demonize the rough and tumble, classless meanies in Kansas City rather than the upstanding and esteemed Yankee Cano.

As someone from the east, who headed to KC for 11 years after living in Yonkers, teaching and attending grad school in NYC… I found KC… and its sports fans to be frustratingly mild & passive, but still enthusiastic. Rough and tumble, rude, classless meanies? Nah… those are attributes of the fan base of my team – the Red Sox (remember, I’m a born/raised New Englander) – and we’re damn proud of it!

The national media spin was that KC fans were over-reacting because Billy Butler wasn’t picked for this inconsequential event. There was no mention of the fact that Cano said he would likely pick him – for this inconsequential event. That’s what fueled the whole #boocano movement in social media. So, the whole Boo Cano thing itself was about a lie and a broken promise [whether obnoxious and condescending or simply oblivious on Cano’s part] and was really directed at Cano himself. This wasn’t about some misguided, misplaced Yankee envy from a poor Midwestern team that just can’t get its own act together.

 What does this have to do with Education Reform?

The subsequent national media spin was both interesting and disturbing to me –  and I began to see all sorts of parallels between a) the national media coverage of this event and the national media coverage of (and spin on) “education reform” (such as NBC’s Education Nation & Waiting for Superman), and b) the real inequities of major league baseball that thwart any possibility that it will ever be a legitimate, fair competition, and the real inequities of American education that thwart any possibility that kids, regardless of where they grow up will ever have equal opportunity for social mobility.

I was particularly struck by how the national media constructed a storyline that allowed them to generate sympathy for Cano while demonizing Royals fans, blatantly suppressing the actual reasons why those Royals fans were so angry. It’s rather like the demonization of teachers in the ed reform debates (finding the right visuals of teachers as angry mobs protesting, carrying pickets decrying salary cuts & furloughs, etc.). It’s just bizarre. Teachers tend to be about as angry & aggressive and threatening…on average, as, well… Royals fans!

Why, then, are the Royals fans the preferred demons in this story line, and the Yankees and Cano the upstanding victims?  This one particular blog post seems to have nailed it best:

It’s perfectly fine for Phillies fans to be passionate for their team. It’s a crime for the Royals faithful to do the same. Why? Because we’re supposed to be the doormats. Doormats do not speak out about being walked out. They do not protest their role as a cleaner of the feet of the social elite. They do their jobs quietly.

http://kingsofkauffman.com/2012/07/10/we-will-remain-silent-no-longer/?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

Even worse, doormats are supposed to feel lucky they are allowed to be the doormats for the elite. Doormats are supposed to know their place, sit down, shut up and take it. Questioning one’s place, as a doormat, is certainly out of the question! [again… this isn’t what the Cano thing was about initially… it wasn’t about salary equity… Yankee envy… etc. It was about Cano. The media response – referred to by one Boston outlet as “yankee Jazeera”, however, was all too illustrative of the media interest in preserving the inequities of baseball – and the status of the Kansas City Royals as doormats!]

What Do Moneyball and Superman Have in Common?

There was a time when Royals fans were legitimately angry and outspoken about the financial inequities of Major League Baseball. They even had the gall to stage a protest against the Yankees when they came to town in 1999. Royals fans donned t-shirts which said “share the wealth” on their backs, and about 3,000 fans with the shirts turned their backs to the Yankees.

Arguments over making baseball more legitimately competitive by capping salaries and/or aggressively sharing revenue seem to have died down since that time. Much like arguments about school funding equity or adequacy that were more prominent a few decades ago. I guess this is because in both cases we have simply come to realize that money really doesn’t matter in either case. Low payroll teams have as much chance as anyone else of winning? And of course we all know about those charter schools serving low income kids that consistently beat the odds with so few resources?

Hmmm… that still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense? Why would public sentiment shift so sharply away from these glaring inequities. Cleary, even if other stuff in addition to money matters, having a level financial playing field is still relevant? As I explained in a recent post, there is certainly no evidence that more equitable student outcomes are attainable in a less financial equitable system. And there’s certainly no evidence that baseball is fairer by virtue of the huge salary inequities!

When did we become so distracted? How? Why?

Moneyball and Superman!

The American public has to a large degree been duped by clever media portrayals of statistical anomalies and superhero disinformation.

First, let’s take a look at some of the baseball evidence. Here’s the relationship for the current year between win/loss percent and team salaries up to the All Star Break, for the American League (where salary disparities are greatest).

FIGURE 1

Now, here is a look at cumulative salaries and cumulative won/loss percentages from 2009 to the all star break of 2012.

FIGURE 2

Yeah… there’s actually a pattern here. In fact, in the AL, salary variation alone explains nearly half of the variation in won/loss percentage, when taken over time. Money may not be “everything” but it’s clearly something!

But… but… but… MONEYBALL! The concept of Moneyball and its popularity provide MLB an excuse to ignore that which makes the entire sport illegitimate. The idea that if teams just got clever with their statistical analysis – thought about baseball differently – they could realize that this salary stuff is really completely meaningless. Who needs to pay big bucks? It’s about being smart! Yeah… exactly what the big dollar teams would like everyone else to think.

Those wishing to maintain the distraction will often use more anecdotal and less relevant characterizations of the numbers – such as pointing out that in most years the highest payroll team does not win the World Series – and/or that sometimes low payroll teams do really well – MONEYBALL!

Two important points are in order here. First, even if a team does come up with a clever strategy that works well in one season like finding the cheapest players who add value to the team, as other teams catch on and adopt similar strategies, the market adjusts and those with the big bucks still win.

Second, outliers and/or outlier seasons are not a basis for making judgments about what is better policy for achieving a legitimate competitive playing field for Major League Baseball.

This is much the same argument – and a similar distraction being used in the education reform debates. The argument is that parents and kids in low income districts need to shut up and sit down, not ask for a fair share of funding. Instead, they should play moneyball! Or… uh… no money… ball. And, since they are incapable of determining the rules for themselves, we shall impose upon them a statistical system of teacher reshuffling and deselection!  We’ll moneyball their schools for them – through ill-conceived reformy state mandates… with few or no additional resources attached!

Let’s take a look at two of our least equitable states, New York and Illinois. I’ve used these graphs before in posts, and they come from this recent paper: https://aefpweb.org/sites/default/files/webform/Baker.AEFP_.NY_IL.Unpacking.Jan_2012.pdf

FIGURE 3: ILLINOIS PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICTS 2008-09

FIGURE 4: NEW YORK PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICTS 2008-09

Each of these graphs (statistical analysis explained in the linked paper) shows that in each state there are districts that have very high resource levels – after adjusting for student needs and district cost factors – and there are districts that have lower resource levels.

In each case, higher need districts, serving very low income populations and lacking the resources to get the job done have systematically lower outcomes.  In really simple terms, there are winners and there are losers – there are Royals and there are Yankees – and there are resource disparities that match.

The whole idea behind Waiting for Superman, like Moneyball, is similarly to assert (read deceive) that there are these clever costless strategies out there being used by (mainly charter) schools that simply beat the odds, while serving the very same kids and while having no special, additional resources upon which to draw.

It’s got nothing at all to do with money! Instead, like the 2002 Oakland A’s, schools that beat the odds know how to buck the standard practices of the game, recruit exceptional team players, and callously – I mean efficiently – dump those who don’t immediately produce.

Unfortunately, many modern reform strategies and rhetoric are little more than distractions from the root issues of inequity in the American Education System – just like Moneyball was a convenient distraction from the inequities that plague MLB. While there might be some legitimate lessons to be learned in each case (including lessons on using statistics in decision making, where relevant), neither moneyball nor superman validate a claim that money really doesn’t matter.  It does.

Again, it’s utterly foolish to assert that baseball is fairer by maintaining salary inequity, and similarly ridiculous to assert that equitable schooling can be more easily achieved with vastly inequitable funding.

How Education is Different from Baseball

Now, here’s the big difference between public schooling and Major League Baseball:

Educating future generations of children isn’t a freakin’ game!

Yeah – Major League Baseball will never have any credibility as a legitimate competitive sport as long as it permits some teams to spend more than 3.5 times what other teams do. Arguably, MLB has little interest in favoring such credibility over generating revenues. MLB likely benefits more as a commercial for-profit entity by maintaining the disparity than by quashing it. TV revenues are likely higher when the World Series includes big market teams. So it’s in the interest of MLB to increase the odds that big market teams make the series.  So, I accept that the revenue interests of the sport override any efforts to make it a legitimate competition. So be it.

One can make a similar case that it’s in the interest of those who have the resources in elementary and secondary education to suppress the odds of children from lower income families competing for admission to colleges and universities. But while it may be reasonable to overlook such interests in Baseball, I find it somewhat more offensive when it comes to kids and their schools.

So, yeah… I think the Royals fans were just fine when the booed Cano and the media was simply wrong for demonizing them while selectively presenting facts.

But those Royals fans were even more right when they donned those t-shirts back in 1999.  Yeah… it is the money. Money matters. Equity matters.

And don’t let Moneyball or Superman convince you otherwise.

 


[1] funny tangent – being an east coast snob [having just finished my doc work at Columbia the previous year] and understanding how ticket access works back east, when I went to get our first Royals tickets, I called in a favor through a friend in the MLB central office, to get us some extra-special seats… they gave me the phone # of someone in the Royals front office… who seemed to think I was being a total ass by trying to get a favor… free tickets… from a team that could really use the ticket revenue! In retrospect, he was totally right!

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