Sunday, January 23, 2011

Athletes, Drugs and Incentives

Since reading "The Predictioneer's Game" by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, an outstanding book about Game Theory and how you can predict outcomes by looking at movitations, I have begun to think more about how much incentives matter in everything. In fact, you could certainly blame the financial meltdown of 2008 on a system of horrible incentives.

Today, I was reading the latest Sports Illustrated "Lance Armstrong did drugs" expose, and thinking about how, taking into consideration how much incentives matter in our decision making, it is highly unlikely that Lance won all those Tours while clean. Look at it from the point of the athlete (and this goes for other sports as well). The upside of doing drugs is a whole shitload of money, fame, cars, girls, respect. No doubt Lance has gotten all of that in spades.

And the downside? Well, first you would have to get caught, which during most of the 90's and early 2000's seemed pretty unlikely. Then, you get fined or suspended. Given that deal, what would you do? Oh, I know, we all like to think we would do the moral thing and stay clean, and watch everyone else succeed while we end up selling Lady Kenmores (see "Bull Durham!). But most of us don't face these big dilemmas.

The SI article has a lot of pretty compelling evidence. Given the incentives to take drugs, it is highly unlikely anyone, in any sport, stayed clean. That some probably did should, I guess, give us some positive feeling about human nature.

Look, I rooted for Lance as much as anyone. And I would love to believe that the wonderful story he has been selling us is true. Overcome cancer to become the greatest ever in the most punishing sport on earth, then use his money and fame to cure cancer! That's an awesome story! But I have to look at the evidence, and what I know as a student of Economics and conclude that it is pretty unlikely that Lance was the only guy on a bike not on drugs, AND he kicked everyone's ass.

I wanted to add a bit of research of my own to this story, so I asked a friend who was a professional cyclist, and knows Lance (but does not like Lance at all!!) this question: If you had to guess, would you say he was using performance enhancing drugs? The response: "Absolutely he did drugs!".

So, Lance was probably on drugs. Mark McGwire was on drugs. Mickey Mantle was a drunk. Kirby Puckett was an abusive nutjob. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were on drugs. The Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus were really your parents. The Easter Bunny's eggs will make you fat and diabetic.

Good thing I teach The Dismal Science!!!

1 comment:

KKC said...

My favorite performance enhancing drug story is "Willis Reed playing on one leg" vs. the Lakers in the playoffs during the early 1970's. I believe it is widely acknowledged that Willis' leg had been "shot up" before the game. Without the drugs, he couldn't have made it onto the court. It's funny that those performance enhancing drugs appear to have been OK with everyone.