Scouting combines, the Wonderlic, and game theory

It looks as though the NFL is adding a new mental aptitude test to evaluate players at the scouting combine. Why put that on a blog about political science? Well, because Gregg Doyel’s Twitter response below lets us think hard about some basic problems that plague cooperation across varying contexts, whether political, environmental/ecological, or—in this case—economic. Here’s what Doyel says:

GreggDoyelCBSCollege players should band together and refuse to take the Wonderlic, etc. If the results get leaked, and low scorers mocked, why take it?2/17/13 4:29 PM

Now, given the recent Wonderlic fallout, Doyel’s reaction is totally reasonable. (And for the record, I’m a big fan of Doyel’s work; his “Hate Mail” columns are priceless.) Who wants to take a test and run the risk of getting humiliated? *If* the players *could* band together and refuse to take these tests, then the league *would* be stuck, and it *would* have to accept the new reality; with the league unable to refuse to draft or sign anyone, the players would likely carry the day.

Maybe they *should*, but they likely *won’t*, because—if, as professionals, they care about their careers—individual players have no incentive to band together like this. Yes, this comes at the cost of low scorers getting mocked, but there’s just no real collective incentive to band together.

Why wouldn’t players want to cooperate here? Well, it depends on what players care about—their career or other players’ feelings. Here’s what I mean. Imagine that those who take it get treated better (say, signed to higher salaries or signed at all) than those who don’t. True, if none take these tests, the league can’t do anything, *but* what’s to stop one or a few people from thinking “Well, if I take it and the others don’t, I’m in a great position with the league after the combine.” Sure, the ones who maintain solidarity are made worse off—because the league can single them out with smaller or no contracts, which it couldn’t do if they all cooperated—but the ones who *do* take the tests have more of the pie to share amongst themselves. So if everyone else isn’t taking the tests, it benefits any given player to take it and prove his willingness to “play ball” (pun intended) with the league. And here’s the kicker (an unintended, but surely better, pun)—there’s no incentive to be left out, so if you know that the other guys are taking it, then you have to as well if you don’t want the punitive contract (or, again, no contract at all). Yes, you’re all back in the situation you were in before, but that’s better than not getting *anything*, which is what you get if you’re one of the few that doesn’t take the test.

So what does this all mean? To the extent that players are ambitious and care about their careers (which, presumably, is what professionalism is about), most if not all will take the Wonderlic and associated tests—despite the fact that it comes with all the bad stuff Doyel hits on, and despite the fact that *if* all the players refused, they all might be collectively happier. But, ultimately, if the league rewards those who take it over those who won’t, then this tragic outcome—the result of what is essentially a multiplayer prisoner’s dilemma—will be the most likely outcome, and we won’t see much of a change in how things work, however much better the alternative that Doyel points out might be.

More on conference expansion…

Saw this telling passage quoting South Carolina’s president today (which was a bit of relief, given the haste with which I typed out the last conference expansion post and the need I had for some kind of validation for my Prisoners’ Dilemma talk):

“I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ ” Pastides recalled. “I didn’t want to be the only one left out.”

Neither do any of his peers, which has led in part to the ongoing changes in college football.

Pastides understands he and other like-minded leaders might not be able to slow the expansion train once it leaves the station — as was the case with A&M — but he would like to limit how far it goes.

And it’s pretty telling. If everyone else is expanding—setting a new bar for financial viability—then being left in the cold with bad TV markets or with ridiculously long and expensive road trips is just not what a conference wants.

We’ve seen some slowdown in expansion/elimination talk with reaffirmations from the Big XII and Big East, but you’ve got to wonder how much of it had to do with UT’s unique situation involving the Longhorn Network, which makes moving unattractive to both UT and any conference that might have to adjust its rules. (And who could blame UT for looking out for its own revenue?)

Has it all stopped? I wouldn’t bet on it, because we all breathed a sigh of relief last year, too, when only Colorado and Nebraska planned moves out of big conferences. My gut tells me this isn’t yet over. But see this post for some thoughts on why, at the end of the day, it might not matter all that much for the sport…

Conference expansion and game theory

Or, why four sixteen-team super conferences might be inevitable.

By all indications, we just might be witnessing a major reshuffle of major college sports these days, with reports indicating that we very well might see the demise of the Big XII and the Big East (at least as a football conference). While my own loyalties in their less-kind moments take some pleasure in certain unnamed teams being left standing in this high-stakes game of musical chairs, I’m struck by how many explanations we’re seeing out here for this kind of major reshuffle. Dana O’Neil calls it out-and-out greed, for instance, that leads Syracuse and Pitt to bolt the Big East for the ACC—with a healthy dose of blame also reserved for the commissioner of the Big East. (Of course, Texas A&M bolting the Big XII for the SEC is taken as more about fairness, given the unusual–cough, cough–revenue-sharing structure in the Big XII…but I digress.) So what is behind all this? It is greed? Callousness? An indifference towards “the fans” (where that usually means the columnist)?

Maybe those things are involved, and maybe not.

As far as I’m concerned, the best way to think about this is something (roughly) like a Prisoner’s Dilemma. With good TV markets up for grabs, even conferences that would prefer to stay small must take on new teams lest they be left with the garbage TV markets when a major reshuffle is all said and done. Take the SEC. My sense is that most people involved are fine with a 12-team league, but if everyone else is moving towards four 16-team super-conferences (the better to negotiate ESPN deals with?), then it doesn’t want to be stuck taking lousy teams or lousy TV markets—and the same is generally true everywhere. Therefore, the four major conferences considering expansion—SEC, Pac-12, ACC, and Big Ten (Plus Two)—could each all have standing pat, staying at something like 12 teams, as their most preferred option, but in the absence of a way for conferences to commit not to take new members, standing pat means getting stuck with colleges you’d rather not take. As a result, we’re seeing a re-alignment that very well might be everyone’s third-best option (first being, maybe, expanding while others don’t, then staying put at second), and it need not stem from greed or moral turpitude or callousness at all…just from a basic commitment problem: the inability to conferences to promise not to expand when it’s in their best interest.

What’s the solution? Short of taking expansion legally out of conferences’ hands, I’m not sure there is one. And if that’s the case, here’s hoping the SEC makes the right moves in getting us up to 16 teams…