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Sports, Economics, and Politics

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | February 20, 2021


I’ve loved sports since I was young. My parents were both religiously traditional and not well off, so taking me to watch professional sports events on the Sabbath wasn’t an option. In high school, I got a job at a nearby basketball arena so I could watch professional basketball games. After I finished setting up the seats, I could watch the game for free. I would watch soccer games on the Sabbath from the tops of trees outside the stadium, and sometimes I was able to sneak in. When I came to the US, I was most impressed by the NBA, and I became an avid Golden State Warriors fan. When forced to choose between studying for an exam and watching a playoff game (especially during their championship run in 1975), there was no contest.

Even though I love sports, I was often bothered by the total dedication to winning. The motto “winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing” seemed ridiculous until I realized how many people take it to heart. I liked players like Dr. J who was competitive enough to win but not to kill. For him, elegance appeared to be as important as victory, and he seemed cordial to his competitors. On the other hand, I didn’t appreciate how players like the Bad Boys of the Detroit Pistons sometimes combined wrestling with basketball. Attending games, I realized that for some fans, a basketball game is a war and the other team is an enemy to be destroyed (especially the Lakers). Playing dirty to win is ok as long as you don’t get caught. As my children got older, driving them to sports games and even coaching soccer became a second occupation. I noticed both among kids and, especially the parents, animosity towards the other side.

Over time, I felt that this competitive attitude was incorporated into the political arena. When I came to the US, I was very impressed (watching TV) with the comradery among legislators in the US House and especially the Senate. This seems to have slowly disappeared. Newt Gingrich seems to have brought the “winning is the only thing” mentality to Congress, and Rush Limbaugh covered politics as though he were a radio host discussing the local team. Actually, he was very funny in the beginning, but he was overtaken by the fanaticism of a dedicated sports fan, leading to irresponsible, racist, and extreme expressions that have become more common. Fanaticism and extremism are not unique to the political right. Many on the left have been as extreme and as unforgiving. When I speak with my liberal friends, they consider Republicans to be “bad people.” I’ve also met many people who consider Democrats and especially Berkeleyans as “dangerous commies.” More than once, my relatives in Israel have warned me about Antifa (admittedly, I’m more worried about the “fa”). My father always spoke of how in Europe, before the Second World War, people thought that they had to choose between Hitler and Stalin. We need to avoid this perception.

Economics highlights a key difference between sports and politics. In sports, we have zero-sum games: there are only winners and losers. In economics, we strive to identify win-win situations. The fathers of game theory, Von Neumann and Morgenstern, emphasized zero-sum games, but John Nash, portrayed in A Beautiful Mind, introduced the notion of Nash Equilibrium, where parties can reach agreements where they are both better off. This requires compromise, giving up on what you think you may get, and letting the other side win too. Game theory also teaches that if each party tries to get everything, everyone can end up worse off in what is called the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

A major intellectual flaw in Trump was that he thought in terms of zero-sum games. I like Biden because he is in the middle, distancing himself from idealistic radicals on the left and trying to build bridges with the right, and striving for accommodation and inclusion. Having a reconciliatory approach does not imply avoiding decisive actions. It means attacking problems, not people: recognizing the rights, concerns, and interests of others and trying to accommodate them. Establishing mutual respect and cooperation with adversaries will also lead to more acceptance of scientific knowledge as a source of objective information (while recognizing that science is fallible), and likely to lead to better and more resilient decision making.

I still enjoy watching sports and being a fan, but I’ve come to recognize the importance of sportsmanship. I believe we need to teach and encourage good sportsmanship to our students and our athletes, just as we teach our students English, math, and sciences.  However, I’m afraid that we’ve underemphasized other life skills that are essential for individuals and a cohesive society. These include tools from decision theory, such as basic strategies that allow us to achieve our objectives efficiently while accommodating others, as well as critical thinking skills that allow us to better assess information and establish priorities in our personal lives and as members of society. Having such skills would lead to a society that is better able to achieve outcomes where we all end up winners.

Comments to “Sports, Economics, and Politics

  1. Thanks David for a very interesting and thought provoking blog. I tend to agree with your comparison of sports and its competitive win or loose conduct and destructive winning streak in global political conflicts.
    But to achieve an ideal situation which as you have rightly mentioned that Biden is a proponent ‘ because he is in the middle, distancing himself from idealistic radicals on the left and trying to build bridges with the right, and striving for accommodation and inclusion’, the world needs more leaders of his kind.
    The planet does not need more ‘successful people’. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers,restorers, storytellers, and lovers of all kind.

    Thanks for sharing your beautiful thoughts.

  2. I think the correct quote is “winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing”
    motto “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing”

    Everthing includes the only thing

  3. Enjoyed reading your blog. Compromise and accommodation of the other side became rare nowadays. Hope your call will be heard.

  4. Hi David,
    Your politics-sports analogy is a winner! For me anyway–I watched so many soccer games where the parents were crazier than the coaches even. In one event, a parents was screaming so loudly that at the half time his daughter told him to stop being a nut case.

    And it seems this win at all costs mentality has migrated to politics…and journalism and the legal profession and business ethics. (OK, so maybe its coming from some deeper place affecting everything). I also appreciated your reference to the “inter war years”; your fathers comment about people thinking they had to choose between Stalin and Hitler. And finally, the link to game theory and economics seems really apt. That’s why I wanted to study economics–to find a consistent way of thinking about individual behavior and good social outcomes.

    That said, I don’t quite know what to make of this extremist dynamic–how to model it, think about it, avoid the worst outcomes. What was the lesson from all that mutual assured destruction thinking? Carry a big stick? Or maybe…speak softly and carry a big stick? Anyway, I’m forwarding your link to family and friends.

    • Thanks.
      I agree with your observation. The winning at all costs, and the emergence of victimization and blaming culture may lead to devastating global conflicts- we need to internalize “fair play ” to have a sustainable civilization

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