Sunday, September 27, 2009

How You Play the Game

I love the quick hook on a pop song. And I often pick up dinner at Chipotle or Quiznos rather than cook – or microwave – it. Such instant gratification is a part of us.

And yet I constantly find myself thinking that the only real value is long-term value, or more extreme, that the only thing that matters in the world is long-term value. This was my first thought upon seeing Redskin DT Albert Haynesworth facedown in the grass this Sunday afternoon. At a prime age of 28, 6 foot 6, and 350 pounds – mostly muscle – this made an impressionable image, albeit one that’s not uncommon in the NFL.

Albert Haynesworth

Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder made Haynesworth his pet-project acquisition last summer, offering him $100 million for 7-years, the largest contract ever for a defensive free agent. And Haynesworth is an invaluable contribution to this NFC East defensive line – he is fast, huge, instinctive, and can plug the run and sniff out a QB.

As Haynesworth was carted off the field today, the broadcaster’s thoughts went to the "investment" made by Daniel Snyder, who is known for throwing around large sums of money, along with coaches and players as well. But it would do injustice to view the injury of Haynesworth – who arrived with a reputation for being injury-prone – as merely unlucky.

Dan Snyder

The problem lies not so much with unfortunate circumstance but with poor underlying philosophy. The real question is why Snyder put himself in a position where he was relying on one $100 million player, rather than 2 or 3 solid players who could build depth into the roster. It’s an issue of being myopic. Of foregoing long-term value for a short-term payoff.

George McPhee

By means of contrast the city of Washington has Capitals GM George McPhee, whose philosophy of building their hockey team from the ground-up may transform the way in which sports teams are run.

Hockey teams – unlike football ones – are much more prone to being transformed by one star player. And in 2005, that star player for the Caps was Alex Ovechkin. But underneath the media circus that followed him, McPhee focused on building his team from the ground-up.

In 2003, he scrapped the team’s premier line-up of aging veterans and fading stars. He acquired younger talent, particularly focusing on the Caps’ minor league team, the Hershey Bears. McPhee explicitly eschewed short-term success:
“For starters, I should say that rebuilding and talking about being patient is easier said than done,” said McPhee. “We had a plan. It was to tear down a team and build it back up.

“The program taken to ownership (Ted Leonsis) was a four-year plan. The plan was to be back in the playoffs by then and start to contend. We made it in three years, but we were prepared to need four.”
Snyder's Brand

Over Snyder’s first 4 years, he cycled through 3 head coaches; each acquisition of a new head coach brought promises of the start of a new era of Redskins glory. In reality, Snyder was merely taking potshots into the dark – as he did with new big-ticket players – hoping that one of his moves would hit the jackpot. Not only did that not occur, but the inconsistency only helped to further break down the franchise into a gathering of high-paid stars rather than a cohesive team.

The only break to his sporadic movements came in 2004 when he was able to lure former Redskins coach and local legend Joe Gibbs out of retirement for a few seasons. Following Gibbs’ second retirement, it is not clear whether we will see a return to Snyder's old ways.

The twist is that Snyder – a self-proclaimed longtime Redskins’ fan – is known as a shrewd businessman, his rise to the top marked by executive stints with Six Flags, Johnny Rockets, and Red Zebra Broadcasting. Over his tenure he has made the Redskins one of the most valuable football teams. According to Forbes’ yearly rankings, the Redskins are currently the 2nd most valuable NFL team; they are surrounded on the list by teams that actually win like the Cowboys (ranked first), Patriots (third), and Giants (fourth). And yet Snyder's attempts to build the Redskins are anything but business-savvy, resembling something like a series of get-rich-quick schemes.

Long Term Value

Buried in this expensive mess of a football team are a few life-lessons.

All too often, individual crises and incidents are mistaken as causes for subsequent misfortune, rather than effects of past doings. The collapse of the housing market – ingrained in the public’s head as a singular event – was seen as causing the financial collapse, just as the Great Crash is often seen as causing the Great Depression. Underestimated are the factors that led up to such incidents, such as poor housing regulation of the 90’s and irresponsible monetary policy during the 20’s. Some have blamed current circumstances on the government’s willingness to allow Lehman to fall. But as The Economist points out, a Lehman bailout would’ve strained some other part of the economy. An analogy can be made to medicine, which warns of mistaking symptoms for cause of illness.

Long term growth is particularly important in football, much moreso than in hockey. As player-size has increased, so has the frequency of injuries. A 350-pound QB-chewing gorilla on defense can no longer act as a franchise savior, particularly because the sheer size of his frame poses a threat to his own legs and joints.

Another piece of advice is that it is worthless to take individual pot-shots at one’s future. Playing the lottery everyday is never a sound strategy no matter how much money you have.

There is an intellectual component to this as well: Insofar as abstract intelligence contains any value, it should be used carefully and decisively to plan ahead, utilizing current resources as best as possible.

The phenomenon of the one-hit-wonder pop band epitomizes this view. On the one hand, it is possible to produce a singular piece, one moment of greatness, which can strike it big. On the other hand, there is social acknowledgment regarding the emptiness of a one-hit-wonder. A great band is distinguished from a one-hit-wonder in its ability to produce hit after hit after hit; their work comes from a novel group of artistic minds rather than an from an instance of luck. That’s why it is somewhat rare – but not unheard of – for a non-fiction writer to be a one hit wonder, as his art depends less on muses and spontaneity than on smarts and clarity of mind. It would have been rather odd – afterall – if following the publication of A Brief History of Time, Hawkins suddenly lost his pension for theoretical physics.

The discrepancy between luck and genius is often portrayed in movies like Oceans 11, where heroes will do anything for one last chance at greatness, one last opportunity to strike it big. Their failure in these stories is marked by their myopic view: If your whole future relies on one individual con operation, one publication, one game, one football player – or even just one decision, to be made by yourself or by someone else – then you cannot blame your failure (or success) on the outcome of that one event. Rather, you are to blame for putting yourself in the sort of situation in which so much rests on so little. This is why in the best of Aristotelian tragedies the fault lies with character, not with circumstance.


Of course one cannot downplay the counterargument, particularly when it comes to living in the moment. People do win the lottery, corporations do get windfall profits, and individual athletes do save franchises.

Digging a little deeper, a primitive breakdown of the human brain reveals that its more advanced regions – the ones that distinguish human intelligence – are inhibitory in nature. In a sense, drug intoxication prevents these higher areas from functioning, leading to a lack of inhibitions.

The term lacking inhibition has cultural connotations, but it’s backed by science as well. It is a very awkward phrase when you think about it, as it implies that getting drunk or high doesn’t so much cause you to do stupid actions, as it prevents you from inhibiting those stupid actions. In the drunkard, inhibitory functions of the advanced brain are temporarily disabled; in an individual with brain damage, they’re permanently disabled.

This ties into constructs of depression and anxiety, which are often conceptualized as an over-activation of these parts of the brain: Stress is often caused by thinking too much and an inability to live in the now. Just as alcohol can turn off those advanced parts of the brain, so can other feel-good drugs, prescription or otherwise. This is all a simplification of course, but the point is to get a good look at principles that underlie long-term valuation.

Personally I tend to over-intellectualize things at times, but after seeing Haynesworth face down in the grass this afternoon, I couldn’t rid my mind of this notion of long-term value. Perhaps it is my way of not wanting deal with the Redskins’ pitiful loss to the worst team in the NFL.

'It's Not Whether you Win or Lose, But How you Play the Game'

This phrase is often seen as a euphemism to justify losing a game. And yet there is much about it that escapes the eye, such as its focus on process over outcome. The phrase usually refers to the team that loses a well-played game, but equally important is the team that wins a poorly-played game.

The latter was exactly the case last week, when the Redskins barely beat the Rams, a team whose mediocrity places them in the same class as the Lions. Embodying the phrase were the home fans’ boos to the Redskins following a touchdown-less 9-7 victory over the Rams, which was no less the home game opener.

Not unlike chess – albeit minus its us-them mentality – sound judgment and decision-making require a sober look into the future, combined with a gathering of relevant knowledge and resources, and a respect for dissenters. In many contexts - such as the price of a stock - current circumstance is only important insofar as it speaks to future value. In this sense, winning a poorly played game does more harm than good.



Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)Albert Haynesworth; (2)Daniel Snyder; (3)McPhee Scowls Down, 05/01/2009, by cyldeorama; (4)An Angry Jim Zorn; (5)IH161460, 05/21/2009, chickhawkdown; (6)Arizona Lottery and Powerball, 04/22/2008, by Monte Mendoza; (7)Poster from 2001 movie Oceans 11; (8) 20060508 - Carolyn's MRI - Image 8 of 15 - Detailed Carolyn brain, 08/26/2006, Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos (ClintJCL); (9)Depression, 05/18/2008, stillstressed; (10)Lombardi Pride, 08/25/2007, akahodag.

Video: (1)Video of the song
Sunshine (Adagio in D Minor), from Space Ambient channel, song by John Murphy, from the 2007 movie Sunshine. Sphere: Related Content

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