Ban college football?

This transcript of a debate on whether to ban college football (PDF), with Buzz Bissinger and Malcolm Gladwell arguing for the ban, Tim Green and Jason Whitlock arguing against, is a good read, not least for a few humorous zingers from Bissinger. John Donavan is the moderator.

Jason Whitlock:
 
Football, whether we like it or not, whether you understand it or not when I say it, but football is America. It is the melting pot. College football is the highest level of the melting pot. Football is the Statue of Liberty.
 
19:20:45
 
College football. Your huddled masses, your poor, your tired, people yearning to breath free. I was one of those kids. Football was my access into the mainstream and a better life. My dad didn’t graduate from high school, my mother was a factory worker. I was the first person in my family to go off to college. Football brings the poor and the rich, the black and the white, the Jews and the gentiles -- it brings everybody together, particularly at the college level. 
 
[...]
 
Malcolm Gladwell:

It's about money now? They have to get hit over the head because they can't get money otherwise?
 
John Donvan: [unintelligible].
 
Jason Whitlock:

In terms of funding all the other sports you're talking about that you like. Yes, they do have to get hit over the head on Saturdays to pay for that, absolutely.
 
Buzz Bissinger:

But Jason, Jason, you're --
Jason Whitlock:

To pay for the rowing team and the soccer team and all the other sports that no one cares about. Yes.
 
19:29:48
 
John Donvan: Buzz Bissinger.
 
Buzz Bissinger:

Your argument is a perfect argument for why football should not be at academic institutions. Make it into a minor league system then. You'll get the same benefits that you're talking about. The melting pot -- by the way, the melting pot also, I think, includes Latinos and Asian-Americans. And if you can name four Jews who played football, you win the debate.
 
[laughter] 
 

And later on:

Malcolm Gladwell:

Name the last time someone shot themself in the chest because of cell phone use?
 
Tim Green:

Malcolm, you're taking --
 
Malcolm Gladwell: No, no.
 
Tim Green:

No, you're doing -- you're taking -- you're taking, as Jason said, at aberration. You're --
 
Buzz Bissinger:

I did because I use AT&T. 
 

The audience was asked to vote on the issue before the debate, and then again after the debate, and they changed their mind from one side to the other. Read the transcript or listen to the audio to find out which way they swung.

(h/t @StartupLJackson)

Maybe this is how it ends, with lots of early retirements

Today, Yahoo Sports reported that 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis is retiring at the age of 30. It was a surprise to many that the five-time All Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler would retire with seemingly more good years ahead of him.

With the severity of the physical trauma of football becoming clearer and clearer by the day, I wonder if more and more players will choose to retire earlier in their careers, after accumulating some threshold of wear and tear and/or wealth.

Economically, it makes sense. A star player can make many tens of millions of dollars in a the span of a short career, and even a regular starter can pocket millions. If you are frugal, you'll achieve a very comfortable nest egg. At that point, is each additional marginal million dollars worth perhaps several years of your life, or a remaining lifetime of debilitating pain, or worse?

The more we hear about players suffering terribly in their old age, the more the cost side of the economic equation increases. Given that data, more and more will come to see just how rational Willis' decision is.

UPDATE (16 Mar 2015): Chris Borland of the 49ers announced today that he's retiring after just one season, and a great one, because of concerns over the impact of repetitive head trauma on his health. It's happening even sooner than I anticipated.

"I just honestly want to do what's best for my health," Borland told "Outside the Lines." "From what I've researched and what I've experienced, I don't think it's worth the risk."
 
Borland becomes the most prominent NFL player to leave the game in his prime because of concerns about brain injuries. More than 70 former players have been diagnosed with progressive neurological disease following their deaths, and numerous studies have shown connections between the repetitive head trauma associated with football, brain damage and issues such as depression and memory loss.
 
"I feel largely the same, as sharp as I've ever been. For me, it's wanting to be proactive," Borland said. "I'm concerned that if you wait till you have symptoms, it's too late. ... There are a lot of unknowns. I can't claim that X will happen. I just want to live a long healthy life, and I don't want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise."

The most contagious Super Bowl ever

I didn't watch the Super Bowl live last night, I was at a dinner with friends, out of reach of a television, so I first registered the game's presence secondhand, through social media, on the drive back home as I flipped through Twitter and Facebook. To get a contact high just from secondhand social smoke gave me a sense of just how newsworthy this Super Bowl was. One couldn't engineer a more perfect Super Bowl for maximum viral transmission in this socially networked age.

Super Bowl commercials were, of course, the original viral video, long before the internet was a thing. They continue to be, even if they seem a bit like your parents trying to post a Vine or a company Twitter account using the word fleek. Corporate appropriation of what's organically trendy is always awkward when done earnestly; far better to do it in a more craven, meta manner.

Doritos perhaps realized the lunacy of trying to engineer viral videos professionally long ago and just held an annual contest to crowdsource Super Bowl ads from the public. I'm not sure if they did so again this year, but what a clever way to enlist the ad agency of thousands of citizens yearning for their 15 minute of fame, in the process collecting videos with a style coded to wink at those sophisticated consumers who've already become accustomed to the blurred lines between the professional and the amateur, between content and advertisement.

The Nationwide Insurance ad got flak for its horrific twist ending, one which hearkened to the memetic narrative of The Sixth Sense in a tragicomic misread of what emotional tonal range an audience gorging itself on nachos and chicken wings would tolerate. The only way this ad could have landed harder was if the child at the end announced that he'd died from contracting the measles because his parents were crazy anti-vaxxers.

[Speaking of The Sixth Sense, Haley Joel Osment guest starred in this remarkable clip from Walker Texas Ranger that could have been an early draft of the Nationwide Super Bowl ad, too.]

Still, one can see why an insurance company might overreach with such an ad on this of all nights. Why spend so much money if not to enlist over a hundred million viewers to speak your name for days and days after the event?

Never in history has a clever punch line had such value, and advertisers don't bother hiding their hopes and dreams: many ads came with their own hashtags and/or URLs, even some of the more serious ads. Who ever thought we'd see what are the equivalent of virality tracking tags get so much airtime. I'd love to see a tag cloud of Super Bowl commercial themes, it would read like the collective inventory of the American subconscious: puppies, beer, boobs, hamburgers, fast cars, mythical fathers, beauty, sex, junk food, celebrities, and, in a nod to the times, website hosting and mobile games.

The halftime show seemed just as precisely calibrated to echo through feeds and timelines and blogs in subsequent days. From the moment Katy Perry emerged from the tunnel wearing a Katniss-like “girl on fire” body suit, astride a two-story golden lion float, no person with a social network account and a phone with any remaining battery life could resist proclaiming their ironic (or not) appreciation to their extended social graph. Facebook and Twitter took the collective gasp of the nation and unfurled it in vertical scrolls, one status update or tweet at a time.

Katy Perry was the perfect choice for the viral Super Bowl. She has more Twitter followers than anyone on earth. Her music is engineered in Swedish laboratories for maximum pop appeal. Her music is so catchy that it stands for catchiness; trying to decipher what Perry stands for is fruitless. Whereas Beyoncé will pose in front of a giant sign that reads FEMINISM and it will feel natural, I have no idea at all what Katy Perry feels about any subject.

We'll never know if the dancing sharks would have become an instant meme if Left Shark hadn't gone rogue, but as with many of Perry's on-stage companions, they were just psychedelic and visually peculiar enough to distract from her inability to really dance and to start another wave of online gawking. Left Shark will forever live on as a metaphoric hero for individualism, or lack of preparation, or people who just don't give a damn, or potheads, or anything, really. Left Shark is, at the most basic level, a generic viral mascot. Here's hoping the Left Shark emoji is already in the approval process in Japan or wherever the papal council of emoji calls home.

We got Missy Elliott, because everyone loves a comeback, and everyone loves Missy Elliott. We needed something for the cool kids.

Then the game. The pregame statistics indicated it would be one of if not the closest matches in history, and it was, but how it was close seemed designed for maximum drama.

One player suffer a gruesome injury. NBC could have given us slow-motion replay after replay from all different angles a la the Joe Theismann broken leg, but thank goodness they refrained.

One player caught a touchdown and then celebrated by pretending to defecate the football onto the field. The shocking thing is that NBC missed it, robbing the event of some of its potential buzz.

An epic drive led by league heartthrob Tom Brady. Then a miraculous catch. All topped off with a shocking twist ending, a decision to pass from the one yard line with now famous Beast Mode in the backfield, a choice that seemed as if Pete Carroll were trolling the internet. How better to enrage armchair quarterbacks everywhere than to have the game end on a decision whose merits were statistically murky; unleash the statisticians! If that wasn't enough, the game's final kneel downs were marred by an on field brawl, extracting a bit of moral outrage.

All this adds up to the most perfectly contagious Super Bowl of my lifetime. Maybe Buzzfeed directed it. Late night talk shows already seem to have adjusted their strategy to produce bite-sized videos that will travel smoothly across the internet the next day, a smart move since no one stays up to watch those shows live. It's only a matter of time before programs like that, or perhaps even events like the Super Bowl, Golden Globes, Oscars, and MTV Music Awards just release online press-kits as the events unfold with key viral moments encoded as animated GIFs for easier social sharing. I'm ready. Frankly, I'm tired of pointing my cell phone at the TV screen.

Give kickers the boot

Benjamin Morris notes that the consistent improvement in NFL placekicker accuracy across the years means we need to update our fourth down strategy cards.

If you’re reading this site, there’s a good chance you scream at your television a lot when coaches sheepishly kick or punt instead of going for it on fourth down. This is particularly true in the “dead zone” between roughly the 25- and 40-yard lines, where punts accomplish little and field goals are supposedly too long to be good gambles.

I’ve been a card-carrying member of Team Go-For-It since the ’90s. And we were right, back then. With ’90s-quality kickers, settling for field goals in the dead zone was practically criminal. As of 10 years ago — around when these should-we-go-for-it models rose to prominence — we were still right. But a lot has changed in 10 years. Field-goal kicking is now good enough that many previous calculations are outdated.

...

But more importantly, these breakdowns allow us to essentially recalculate the bot’s recommendations given a different set of assumptions. And the improvement in kicking dramatically changes the calculus of whether to go for it on fourth down in the dead zone. The following table compares “Go or No” charts from the 4th Down Bot as it stands right now, versus how it would look with projected 2015 kickers8:

My problem with field goal kicking is that it's boring. It's nothing at all like the rest of football. I dislike any sport which suddenly morphs into something else entirely, something worse, near the end of the contest, when things should be at their most tense and dramatic.

In basketball, a fluid, fast-paced game often ends with one foul after the other, forcing 9 world-class athletes to stand around while one guy shoots free throws. In football, if teams aren't just running the clock out or kneeling down at the end of the game, they're often lining up for a field goal, a specialized craft that has nothing to do with running, throwing, or catching the football. It's as if a tennis match that went to a tiebreak were settled by having the two players go to the sideline, replaced by two random people coming in to settle matters by playing Cornhole. I'd just as soon do away with field goal kicking in football and have teams go for it on fourth down all the time.

This is one advantage for baseball. To finish off the game, you have to get batters out just like you had to for the previous innings in the game.

Discipline

Yet secular black culture thrives on colorful stories of punishment that are passed along as myths of ancient wisdom — a type of moral glue that holds together varying communities in black life across time and circumstance. Black comedians cut their teeth on dramatically recalling “whoopings” with belts, switches, extension cords, hairbrushes or whatever implement was at hand. Even as genial a comic as Bill Cosby offered a riff in his legendary 1983 routine that left no doubt about the deadly threat of black punishment. “My father established our relationship when I was 7 years old,” Mr. Cosby joked. “He looked at me and says, ‘You know, I brought you in this world, I’ll take you out. And it don’t make no difference to me, cause I’ll make another one look just like you.’ ”

The humor is blunted when we recall that Marvin Gaye’s life ended violently in 1984 at the hands of his father, a minister who brutalized him mercilessly as a child before shooting him to death in a chilling echo of Mr. Cosby’s words.

Perhaps comedians make us laugh to keep us from crying, but no humor can mask the suffering that studies say our children endure when they are beaten: feelings of sadness and worthlessness, difficulties sleeping, suicidal thoughts, bouts of anxiety, outbursts of aggression, diminished concentration, intense dislike of authority, frayed relations with peers, and negative high-risk behavior.

Equally tragic is that those who are beaten become beaters too. And many black folks are reluctant to seek therapy for their troubles because they may be seen as spiritually or mentally weak. The pathology of beatings festers in the psychic wounds of black people that often go untreated in silence.
 

Powerful op-ed by Michael Eric Dyson in the NYTimes, with an interesting dive into the etymology of the word “discipline.”

Many believers — including Mr. Peterson, a vocal Christian — have confused the correction of children’s behavior with corporal punishment. The word “discipline” comes from the Latin “discipuli,” which means student or disciple, suggesting a teacher-pupil relationship. Punishment comes from the Greek word “poine” and its Latin derivative “poena,” which mean revenge, and form the root words of pain, penalty and penitentiary.

The point of discipline is to transmit values to children. The purpose of punishment is to coerce compliance and secure control, and failing that, to inflict pain as a form of revenge, a realm the Bible says belongs to God alone.
 

The word discipline is a fascinating one. On the one hand, it comes loaded with dark undertones when used in the modern sense of that which enforces order. “Training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character.” As in "disciplining a child."

If we speak of the child as a "disciple" then the education of that child sounds much less ominous. Discipline and disciple, both nouns, separated by just three letters, yet the difference in meaning is a chasm one needs a suspension bridge to cross.

Discipline can be just as positive a term when used to describe a type of self-control that a person possesses. A person with “discipline” is thought of as someone with persistence, a strong work ethic, mental fortitude, the ability to resist distraction and temptation.

It's in the transfer of discipline from one person to another that we wander into a twisted etymological maze.

Brittney Cooper penned a good and related piece in Salon on the differences between black and white child-rearing.

Stakes are high because parenting black children in a culture of white supremacy forces us to place too high a price on making sure our children are disciplined and well-behaved. I know that I personally place an extremely high value on children being respectful, well-behaved and submissive to authority figures. I’m fairly sure this isn’t a good thing.

If black folks are honest, many of us will admit to both internally and vocally balking at the very “free” ways that we have heard white children address their parents in public. Many a black person has seen a white child yelling at his or her parents, while the parents calmly respond, gently scold, ignore, attempt to soothe, or failing all else, look embarrassed.

I can never recount one time, ever seeing a black child yell at his or her mother in public. Never. It is almost unfathomable.

...

For black children, finding disciplinary methods that instill a healthy sense of fear in a world that is exceptionally violent toward them is a hard balance to find.

The thing is, though: Beating, whupping or spanking your children will not protect them from state violence.  It won’t keep them out of prison. Ruling homes and children with an iron fist will not restore the dignity and respect that the outside world fails to confer on adult black people.

What these actions might do is curtail creativity, inculcate a narrative about “acceptable” forms of violence enacted against black bodies, and breed fear and resentment between parents and children that far outlasts childhood.

Violence in any form is not love. Let us make sure first to learn that lesson. And then if we do nothing else, let us teach it to our children.

By the way, by whatever measure, the NFL is having a rough year. Beyond all the high profile domestic violence cases, I was surprised at how quickly the NFL has turned about face and admitted that its sport is causing severe brain damage to roughly a third of its participants.

The National Football League, which for years disputed evidence that its players had a high rate of severe brain damage, has stated in federal court documents that it expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems and that the conditions are likely to emerge at “notably younger ages” than in the general population.

The findings are a result of data prepared by actuaries hired by the league and provided to the United States District Court judge presiding over the settlement between the N.F.L. and 5,000 former players who sued the league, alleging that it had hidden the dangers of concussions from them.

“Thus, our assumptions result in prevalence rates by age group that are materially higher than those expected in the general population,” said the report, prepared by the Segal Group for the N.F.L. “Furthermore, the model forecasts that players will develop these diagnoses at notably younger ages than the generation population.”
 

We won't see the effects immediately, but perhaps we're at an inflection point for the NFL and the sport of football. We may not see immediate declines in the sport's popularity, it is a secular religion in America, a Sunday ritual deeply embedded in the lives of so many fans. But I have to imagine we'll see a decline in youth participation in football given the clear health risks.

The economics of priceless transactions

Taken together, you have a simple alternative to trading: the price of anything that affirms shared values is infinite, the price of anything else is zero or negative when the alternative is to debase or reverse a value.

Saint-saint transactions are not uncomputable though. You can order priceless values from greatest to smallest. You can do some simple, low-precision math with the infinities of pricelessness. Lives are priceless, but it is only acceptable for a mother to give her life to save  a young child, not the other way around. Often, one infinity is devalued in proportion to how corrupted it seems relative to another infinity of the same kind. So the adult life has been more corrupted by base trader considerations of adult circumstances. Therefore it must be sacrificed for the child’s life.

In general, the innocent are more priceless than the corrupt, the pure more priceless than the impure, the lofty more priceless than the base, the natural more priceless than the artificial. Some examples are harder to analyze. Soldiers giving their lives for their country are often viewed as superior, purer people giving their lives to protect inferior, more corrupt people.

To resolve this paradox, we agree to pretend that soldiers fight directly for the proclaimed values of a nation, rather than the lived values of its actual people. This is why soldiers’ families in movies are always archetypal, sometimes even cartoonish, models of perfect virtue. They are never the messed-up rolling train-wrecks that are the families of most real people. In theory, we are supposed to honor the lives of the fallen by striving harder to be worthy of their sacrifice. That of course means living more truly by the values they died for.
 

Excerpt from a fascinating post on the economics of priceless transactions. As the author notes, the rise of the internet has put a spotlight on the economics of free, but what of the opposite end of the spectrum?

Three things come to mind. One is that I recall my mother never split any bills when going out to meals with friends and family. Someone always picked up the tab only after a theatrical fight between Asian adults for the check when it landed on the table after a meal, almost a ceremony of sorts. It resembled some notion of what the author terms a saint-saint transaction with a price attached but treated as an afterthought. More important than the equitable division of the tab was affirming the friendship. Since the continuation of the relationship likely meant more meals in the future, the favor would be returned at the next meal in a the next stroke of a lifelong financial volley.

I picked up on this tradition, and after college, once I had enough income to start eating out on a more regular basis, I tried to carry it on when eating out with others. This worked well with some folks who shared that tradition, but I found the vast majority of Americans were more accustomed to splitting the check. This often led to a semi-awkward impedance mismatch after meals.

The second thing that comes to mind is that our online selves are often closer to idealized constructions of our identity than to our actual selves. This, to me, leads to the exhausting cycle of outrage on Twitter and other social networks. In 140 characters, we must express absolute outrage at every moral transgression from any public figures. After all, we live in an age where our online self, our construction of it, often reaches more people than our real selves. This makes our virtual identity critical, and after all, the cost of moral indignation online comes with little cost. Online, we are all saints.

Third is the internal struggle many NFL fans are caught up in right now. On the one hand, football fans love the sport, the cultural touchstone that is the secular religion of NFL Sunday. It is nearly impossible to dispute, however, the gladiatorial destruction the sport wreaks on its participants' bodies and minds. And, thanks to the elevator security footage of Ray Rice knocking his wife out cold with a vicious left hook, all the multitude of domestic violence cases over the years involving NFL players suddenly took on a tangible nature that's not as easy for fans of the sport to ignore.

What makes fans uncomfortable is that even if they elevate their love of the sport to an intangible and priceless stature, perhaps as some touchstone of American spirit, or some cultural bond between generations, they know that in a comparison of priceless values, the health and lives of players and the safety of their spouses and children must rank higher. It's not sacrifice if you aren't letting go of something you genuinely love.

I also loved this bit from the post:

When traders, rather than saints, control the narrative, the narrative logic is baser-than-thou. This is the logic of status-leveling humor rather than the logic of status-preserving solemnity. To understand why, consider the classic joke about prostitution:

Man: will you sleep with me for $1 million?
Woman: Okay
Man: will you sleep with me for $5?
Woman: WHAT! What kind of woman do you take me for?
Man: we’ve already established what kind of woman you are. Now we’re just haggling over the price.

In this joke, the initial offer of $1 million is actually fake-out code for “priceless.” The joke relies on treating it as an actual negotiable number later, instead of sticking to the fiction that it is a symbolic infinity. The trader here has an ulterior motive: exposing the hypocrisy of the woman’s position, thereby up-ending the presumed status relationship at the start.

The reason jokes like this work is that priceless actually is a number less than infinity in many practical situations. For something to be priceless, it is only necessary for it to be priced at a point where it can be compared with something else that is priceless.

In the prostitution example, an offer of $1 million is (if you’ll pardon the joke) big enough to be considered fuck-you money. This has a very specific valuation in the priceless economy: it is the price of liberty for the rest of your life. The woman is willing to do for $1 million what she is not willing to do for $5. Not because she has a rational pricing model in mind, but because at $1 million, she is wrestling with a high-minded internal values conflict (liberty versus purity). At $5, she’s thinking about paying for a sandwich. The joke works because it disrupts the original fiction that purity ought to be the more priceless value of the two. Indecent Proposal works as a tragedy for the opposite reason: the original fiction is ambiguous and the ending affirms values in the “right” order (watch the movie to understand why and at what cost).

This is why earnest discussions in the startup world about what your “number” might be, are deluded. Liberty means different things to different people. For some, it is a dollar and a mindset shift away. Others remain trapped even with hundreds of millions of dollars.
 

And, for those of you who come here just for technology related stories, an excerpt that veers closer:

Marketing represents a net return on investment if the irrationality it induces, via movement of the transaction into saintly regimes, increases margins sufficiently. You could measure the irrationality of a market (or equivalently, the hierarchical rationality of a reputation economy) by the amount spent on marketing, particularly in a saintly mode. A marketing-dominates-sales company is one that has carved out a defensible position: a regime behind a fixed boundary where a favorable values economy of pricelessness prevails.

This is what positioning means: drawing a boundary around a set of values that your customers will accept, that put you on top in most transactions.

As Exhibit A, I give you Apple during the reign of Steve Jobs at the top of the Apple reputation economy. That Apple at the time was primarily a reputation economy, and only secondarily a computing hardware market, is clear from the fact that there is a clear hierarchy in its market, with users at the bottom, genius-bar reps one level up, and an invisible secret church in the background with Jobs at the top. Now that he’s gone, the fate of the company depends on the ability of Tim Cook to play St. Peter well.

The Super Bowl, the outsider's description

The ethics of such an event can be hard for outsiders to understand. Fans, who regularly watch players being carted off the field with crippling injuries, are unbothered by reports of the game's lasting medical impact on its players. Nevertheless, fans and the national media can become extremely indignant if players are excessively boastful at the game’s conclusion.

Perhaps in homage to the country’s patriarchal culture, women are generally involved only as scantily clad dancers during breaks in the action. Minority rights groups have also criticized the owner and fans of one of the country’s most popular teams—the one representing the national capital, in fact—for referring to players using a racial nickname too offensive to be printed in this newspaper. Fans of the team, like those of Tottenham Hotspur, have defended the name, saying it is a term of affection.
 

From Slate, “the latest installment of a continuing series in which American events are described using the tropes and tone normally employed by the American media to describe events in other countries.”

Stanford Football — beating the odds

According to Stanford’s own Athletic Director, only about 400 out of the 3,500 players who join Division I teams every year have a chance at getting by Stanford’s admissions department. How could Stanford compete with the elite when the majority of the nation’s best recruits were ineligible to attend?

●●●●●

Trying to build an elite college football program at Stanford is a bit like moving a NFL team to Burlington, Vermont. Elite teams like the University of Texas, Ohio State, and Michigan have student bodies of 40,000 plus students and can command the loyalty of entire states or regions. Stanford enrolls under 20,000 students (7,000 undergraduates) and can’t command the loyalty of the Bay Area. Stanford Stadium seats 50,000 fans to Michigan’s 100,000. 

As a result, Stanford brings in much less revenue than schools with comparable records. A Wall Street Journal article notes that Stanford’s $9.7 million in football ticket sales in 2012 compares poorly with the $27 million average of the four teams ranked higher than Stanford at the time. Stanford’s merchandise sales are similarly bleak. 

 

Good Priceonomics article on what Stanford had to do to build a nationally competitive football team. A lot of it came down to raising more money.

The normal revenues Stanford receives from football are so low, in fact, that its 36 varsity sports teams depend on something no other school has, or would dare rely so heavily on: an athletics-only endowment worth between $450 million and $500 million that pays out at 5.5% each year, people familiar with the matter said.

Stanford needed alumni to cover the difference, and they rose to the occasion. Since Jim Harbaugh took over as coach and led Stanford onto the national stage, donations for Stanford athletics increased “53.4% and new gifts and pledges have increased by 215%.” One alumnus (the son of a wealthy Saudi businessman) pledged $500,000 because he had such fond memories of rushing the field when Stanford beat its rival Cal in 2007. Stanford benefactor John Arrillaga built coach Harbaugh a $50,000 private bathroom next to his office. Few universities endow coaching positions, but Stanford’s head coach and top assistant coach positions, as well as every scholarship for its football players, are endowed to thank donors. The head coaching position is endowed in the name of a former Stanford football player and current private equity founder who pledged $1.6 million in 1989.

 

It's fun if your alma mater has a good college sports program, and I'm glad Stanford's football team is nationally competitive this season, but it all feels a bit arbitrary and ridiculous to be many years out of college and still living and dying by the record of a team you have nothing to do with.

Despite the infusion of cash into the program, I'd love to hear more about non-cash strategies that have helped Stanford given its annual position as a recruiting underdog, though teams are notoriously close-lipped about any strategic advantages they may have hit upon in recruiting and player development. Those would be more broadly instructive, though.

Looking at Stanford's personnel over the years, it seems like team speed has always been underrepresented on the team and so the team has sought an advantage in size on both the offensive and defensive lines. Without easy access to a broad set of data, that's just a hunch, though.

Now that I'm older, I've tried, with some success, to become a more antifragile sports fan. Like a venture capital investor, I seek to be minimally impacted when my preferred teams lose, but maximally happy when my teams do well. Being a Cubs fan, emotional antifragility is almost a necessity. That's how I think of Stanford Football and the Cubs, for example. If they lose, it's expected and I don't pay it much mind. If they win, it's an emotional bonus.

I had briefly considered not rooting for any particular team for life as it is an entirely irrational behavior. I have nothing to do with the team, it seems ridiculous or even sick to leave my emotional state to something completely out of my control.

However, with my new antifragile approach to sport fandom, the downside is given a reasonable floor, and victories offer nothing but happiness upside. The dramatic thrill of having a rooting interest in a sporting contest amplifies one's thrills from watching, that is some free consumer surplus for a fairly low investment. Even if you don't have a hometown team to root for, you can earn a similar benefit simply by putting down a small wager on one side or the other. It's the reason I will usually enter a March Madness pool even though I don't really like college basketball all that much.

Back to Stanford: if they're going to play, I'm glad they at least choose to play at the big boy table. According to Sagarin ratings, Stanford played the 4th toughest schedule in the nation this year behind just Washington State, Arizona State, and Utah, and the Sagarin ratings have Stanford as the 3rd best team in the nation behind Florida State and Alabama.

The college football season is so short anyhow, every game might as well count, including non-conference games, so fans have more high stakes games to watch. The number of blowouts in college football is ridiculous. I don't know who won when Ohio State walloped Florida A&M 76-0 this year, but it wasn't the fans.

Of course, if Stanford wins 76-0 in the Rose Bowl tomorrow, I won't complain.

UPDATE: One example of a look at a strategic advantage that Stanford might have: its strength and conditioning program, devised by Shannon Turley.

And there was Shannon Turley, the architect of a training regimen among the most distinct in college sports. He is Stanford’s director of football sports performance, and for years, he felt it necessary to write letters to N.F.L. scouts to explain the Cardinal’s nontraditional approach. He stopped that practice this year in the wake of Stanford’s success.

Turley’s impact speaks as much to availability as ability. The coaches recruit speed and size and talent. He believes the best players, the ones most on the field, who sustain the most collisions, also carry the most injury risk. His first priority is to keep them on the field.

From 2006, the year before Turley arrived on the Farm, as Stanford’s campus is known, through last season, the number of games missed because of injury on the two-deep roster dropped by 87 percent. In 2012, only two Cardinal players required season-ending or postseason surgical repair; this year, only one.

In an era in which injuries are more scrutinized than ever, this has made Turley something of a celebrity strength coach. Counterparts from other colleges visited. As did N.F.L. personnel. As did Australian Rules football teams. The student newspaper wrote a three-part series about Turley. Bleacher Report compiled a big article. The National Strength and Conditioning Association named Turley its strength and conditioning coach of the year in 2013.