This is Your Brain on Sports
By L. Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers
280 pages, $26
By Budd Bailey
L. Jon Wertheim apparently likes to hang out with smart people.
You might remember his book “Scorecasting,” which came out about four years ago. He and co-author Tobias Moskowitz took something of a “freakonomics” approach to sports. For example, they crunched some numbers and figured out that football coaches are generally too conservative – most notably in the area of going for it on fourth down – and fall into the “everyone else is doing it this way, so why chance it?” trap.
Now Wertheim, who is the executive editor at Sports Illustrated, is back with a different smart guy, Sam Sommers. Their work is called “This is Your Brain on Sports,” and it’s another winner.
Sommers is a psychologist from Tufts University. The two team up to look at some subjects that usually don’t get much attention. The chapters come in rapid-fire fashion, one after another, in varying lengths.
One of the most interesting chapters, at least from the standpoint of a Western New Yorker, is a study done on leadership. Do quarterbacks have that certain something that makes them an obvious choice for the position? Do they look the part? The authors did a study in which pictures of starting quarterbacks from around the NFL were shown to people without any sign of their sport or abilities. Could fans pick out the ones who were good, just by their looks? Well, sort of. Four of the top five were good quarterbacks. But the No. 1 guy in the category turned out to be Bills’ quarterback EJ Manuel. We know now that Manuel’s future as an NFL quarterback, particularly in Buffalo, is very much in doubt. Looks aren’t everything, it seems.
Wertheim and Sommers examine the reason why fans follow losers. Part of it, they discovered, is that the feeling that comes with finally winning – if it ever comes – is so good. They opened that chapter with a discussion about the fans of the New York Mets, who in their original manuscript – which had been sent to reviewers a few months ago – were said to be suffering through a long dry spell by the team. The Mets went on a historic run through the second half of the season, reaching the World Series and thrilling their no-longer suffering fans. Wertheim and Sommers did a little emergency rewriting for the published edition that may have proved their point in a more interesting way.
There’s also an interesting chapter on the T-shirt toss that takes place at games. The authors argue that those T-shirts have little to no value otherwise. But throw them into a crowd for free, and fights almost break out over the opportunity to get them. It’s an interesting exercise in economics and psychology. Then comes another essay on whether sports lessen differences between countries and make for a more peaceful planet. Well, apparently not –sometimes hostilities can break out shortly after a competitive sporting contest between national teams.
The list of subjects goes on, including fighting in hockey (enforcers do better in home games) and how great players do when they turn to coaching (generally not well, backing up the thought that most people had instinctively on the subject). The authors’ batting average isn’t perfect, but almost all of the stories are worthwhile. Besides, if one bores you, another one will be along in a few minutes.
It’s always good to see someone think a little out of the box, and Wertheim obviously likes to do that. Let’s hope he comes up with efforts similar to “This is Your Brain on Sports” in the future.
Budd Bailey is a reporter in The News’ Sports Department. email: firstname.lastname@example.org