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Steven Rubio

Speaking of empirical studies, have there been any that actually support the idea that players do better in their contract years, or is this just a "common sense" notion?


What about politicians? Bill Clinton wanted to be President as soon as he learned the word, and everybody supported him on it. He had his issues, of course, but was a remarkably hard-working politician. That would seem to contradict your hypothesis. Are the best politicians those who have been discouraged and have something to prove? Would Condi Rice be predicted to be a great President as a result of your hypothesis?

Very glad to see you blogging, by the way!

Trent McBride

Before we start arguing theories about why the "contract year phenomenon" exists, can you (or anybody else) please show me statistcal evidence that it even occurs in the first place?

And I would prefer any such evidence to take into account the fact that in major sports, free agency comes at or after the ages where most professional athletes are at peak performance and into their declines. So simple direct "before-and-after" studies need to convince me that there is more than just normal decline going on.

Matt Glock

After reading your email exchange with Bill Simmons and what you wrote here I got to wondering about the relation of this to self-organization theories...

I agree with your statement that the tall basketball palyer, "has either no idea how to persevere or no intrinsic motivation." And thus finding motivation and keeping becomes one of the keys to success.

It seems that the application self-organizing systems theory to human endeavors falls short at this point because our ablility to choose messes things up. Even with the best motivations lined up and the best environment possible bad choices are made.


The idea that "we" are more liberal than we might think when it comes to sports is a bit overbroad. People inside the sports world - GM's, coaches, management - may be more liberal when it comes to players, particularly seven-foot basketball players, because supply and demand dictates they should be. The available supply of seven-footers with quick hands is so low, and the reward so great if you can find one who can play, that the world's Erick Dampiers get chances over and over again. (Or, football QB's like Jeff George blessed with a cannon arm.)

On the other hand, "we" as society at large, or the subset that follows sports, aren't liberal with our expectations at all, I don't think. The bigger a player is, the more talented, better he is paid, the more performance we tend to expect from him, and the more "we" boo when he fails. Perhaps the best example being Shaq, who is so freakishly talented that in fans' eyes, he may never live up to his limitless possibilities.


It's just a game of odds. Correlation in the population isn't destiny for an individual. I believe there are an odious few who have not only the "great natural gifts" but also the work ethic and don't abuse their children. I also wear a tin-foil hat, but never mind that.

Michael David Smith

The idea that a seven-foot basketball player hasn't developed the work ethic of a six-foot basketball player reminded me of something I wrote about football:
(scroll down to the headline that starts "If Size Matters"). I found that big defensive linemen aren't any better at stopping the run than small defensive linemen, even though nearly every NFL coach believes that bigger linemen are better run stoppers. I think it's quite likely that the biggest linemen never develop the techniques and the work ethic necessary to become great players because they don't have to. If you're 275 pounds (small by the standards of an NFL defensive lineman) and you're good enough to be in the league at all, you probably have more skill than just about any 350-pounder.


Michael David Smith wrote:

"I think it's quite likely that the biggest linemen never develop the techniques and the work ethic necessary to become great players because they don't have to."

I have always had a similar theory about women. I have always felt that the most gorgeous women often lack personality or a high level of intelligence b/c it simply wasn't required of them growing up. Many of them were worshiped from an early age for their beauty, and never needed to develop other traits in order to attract men.


We have so many objective ways to measure athletes that I don't think it makes sense to speculate how much desire a player has vs. his intrinsic ability; over time, the player either performs well or does not. I think Simmons' complaint about the "contract year phenomenon" had more to do with the foolishness of GMs handing out massive guaranteed contracts based on a single outstanding year, then getting burned when the player regresses to previous levels of performance.

As for Robby's comment about gorgeous women, let me just say: cheers. Sadly, the only people who agree with me on the subject are guys not having any luck with women of any kind at that particular moment, gorgeous or otherwise. In fact the subject only seems agreeable to single guys who've been dumped recently. Nobody bothers to discuss the subject with his girlfriend around, if he's got one. As a rule, the women we know haven't consciously developed the kind of personality one needs to appreciate that level of insight, so when they're around it's probably best we keep it to ourselves.

J Wynia

This often gets talked about in computer programming circles with regards to programmers who come to the subject via a Computer Science/Math background vs those who teach themselves from a background in something like Sociology.

The thinking often goes that someone who has a non-computer background and ends up in programming had to really want to do it to learn it *entirely* on their own.

As full disclosure, I came to programming after getting a degree in English literature and writing, so I'm probably predisposed to like the theory.

I think all of this (including the beauty) points back to the idea that character, high levels of skill, etc. are driven most by adversity in whatever form it comes.

For the beauty topic, the beautiful women that I have known who *are* intelligent and interesting are also, without fail in my anecdotal experience, those who faced adversity in some other arena of life.

They were beautiful, but were poor or had a learning disability that they didn't understand until late in life, etc.

Those who put themselves through school, start businesses with no startup capital, overcame underprivledged upbringings, etc. to go on to great success tend to point to this being true. Their success always *seems* to be more longstanding, deeper and resonates with us as being somehow "better".

Now, whether this idea is just idealistic thinking on our part or actually holds true is a question I'm not qualified to answer.


I like the "attractive woman" theory mentioned above, but I'd suggest that we remove the sexist overtones that might cause some people to balk at it, and instead apply it to all people, male or female.

The theory would then be that people who are considered throughout their lives to be very attractive (based on what that means for women and men in our society, ie. women who are thin and blonde, say, or men who are tall, lean and square-jawed) receive favourable treatment from others, and hence will have to work less hard for what they earn. Those who are more "average" in looks learn early on that they will need to work harder to achieve success, and therefore they end up cultivating more rounded personalities and a wider set of life skills.

For anecdotal "proof" of this theory, we could look at Hollywood: by definition, movie stars are a microcosm of the most attractive people in our society, and their personal lives are a sea of broken relationships, spoiled and selfish behaviour, and inane air-headed sound bytes.

John G.


My iteraration is the ugly lead singer of the rock band . . . they almost always can blow.

Chris Jara

I've had a similar "guideline" for choosing basbeball players for fantasy leagues. I would do well going after players in their final contract years and also everyday players reaching the "sweet spot" age of 25-26.


Most of these comparisons are subject to the "all else equal" caveat.

If 2 players are both starters in the NBA, and one is 6-5 and the other 7 feet, all else equal the 6-5 dude might be expected to have a bit more "technique" because he's less able to rely on his size.

But, if you take the average 6-5 person and the average 7-footer off of the street, the 7-footer is more likely to be a good basketball player and to have more basketball skill, because he's probably had more opportunities shoved in his face over the course of his life to be a basketball player.

I've often found attractive women to have more "personality" (to a point), because I think they might be given more opportunities to interact with others and hone their "social skills." ... even if, in those opportunities less is demanded of them.

Eric J

I thought of the most common "real world" iteration of the "Contract Year" - Senioritis. LOTS of bright, motivated, hard-working High School students get their college acceptance letters and start taking it easy.


i agree with robby's comments on women. i was a computer science major at a large state university. the difference in attractiveness in women in my computer science classes and my psychology classes were extremely apparent.

Ryan McConnell

Can we get back to whether this phenomenon exists at all before we analyze it to death? Even if it can be proven-- which I doubt -- what about all of the non-psychological variables (playing time, other players, age, injuries) that go into such an analysis? For instance, Erick Dampier, the supposedly lazy seven foot center, played for an bad Golden State Warriors team (37-45) the year before he left for free agency. The only valuable player on the team other than Dampier was Jason Richardson, who, despite being only 6'6, was second in the team in rebounding. Dampier then goes to the Mavericks, a very good team (58-24) that has a variety of scoring and rebounding options, most notably in superstar Dirk Nowitzki. The end result? The Mavericks play the 30-year-old Dampier fewer minutes (2403 vs. 1609, total), he struggles with a stress fracture in his foot and, predictably, he has a worse season. But if you look at his per 40 minute average, his numbers only declined slightly (15.2 ppg to 13.5; 14.8 reb to 12.5) while shooting a higher percentage for the Mavs.

Not to belabor the point, but let's look at this another way. Did Atlanta's Joe Johnson suddenly become a harder worker since leaving the Phoenix Suns in the offseason? If you look at his numbers the same simplistic way that Gladwell and Simmons looked at Dampier's decline in performance, you'd assume that he finally grew into himself and became a conscientious worker this year. The truth, obviously, is that he played for an excellent team last year that didn't allow him to be the star of the squad like he can for the dreadful Hawks.

I respect Simmons's passion and admire Gladwell's intellect, but in this case, I'm going to need a lot more proof before we put players like Erick Dampier on the psychologist's couch. Frankly, I expect more from Gladwell, who has made a career of challenging silly conventional wisdom like "the contract year" phenomenon.


Apparently there's some evidence for the contract year phenomenon in the current book Baseball by the Numbers. My understanding is it isn't a huge impact in baseball, but it is there.

In talking with one of the book's authors in another blog, he said they hadn't done any studies of basketball, but due to the way the game is played it might be even easier to not give 100% than in baseball, thus leading to a bigger discrepancy between contract years and "normal" years.


An article in the NY Times
talks about the NFL and its salary issues (cap, non-guaranteed contracts etc).

It has this quote from Gil Brandt who was a VP for player personnel with the Cowboys on not giving guaranteed contracts (before free agency):

"Not Roger Staubach, not anybody," said Brandt, a senior analyst for NFL.com. He added, "What concerned people is if you guaranteed someone satisfaction in this highly competitive sport, would he compete the way he would if the money were not guaranteed?"

Ryan McConnell

I have no doubt that people think that athletes get lazy and don't perform as well as they did when they were working for the big contract. People, even (especially?) experts, believe in a lot of faulty conventional wisdom. By necessity, most of these athletes are driven by competition, having engaged it in since the time they were children. They're also driven to succeed and to help their teams succeed. There's plenty of motivation beyond their own financial needs to give their utmost effort.
But I'm interested in what Baseball Prospectus has to say about the "contract year" phenomenon and whether they controlled for age and all the other factors. Just off the top of my head, I wonder what impact the fact that the big players in the free agent market (Yankees, Dodgers, Mets, etc) all have very large ballparks, thus deflating offensive statistics.


Have to qualify this by saying I haven't read it, but the chapter in Baseball by the Numbers dealing with the contract year did find that while a lot of it is related to the age at which free agency tends to take place--in the players' 30s, when their skills are usually in decline--there is a noticeable improvement among players in contract years even when that factor's accounted for.

Ben S.

I find the conversation about “Lazy” centers very interesting and would like to add two points that I think are relevant. First, “Lazy” is a highly normative term but noone really explored it. I would argue that (in addition to the valid and interesting point about the importance of work ethic for big men vs little in the NBA) that for big men, training has a higher cost than for little ones. By this I mean, that centers and other inside players deal with a much greater physical cost of the game. Training (even just running) is much more likely to hurt joints in the ankle, knee and the back. They probably also have to train harder to keep up agility and other footwork that is likely to come more naturally to smaller and more nimble players. Moreover, during the long season, they receive much more physical abuse being fouled and otherwise knocked about. They also have farther to fall when they hit the ground.

The second point is that Bill Simmons seemed to be surprised by the phenomenon and to think that the phenomenon is unique. My initial reaction, on the other hand, was that this is a rather obvious part of normal life. People always make tradeoffs, and subjugateother pursuits like family obligations and even personal health for the big contract. What gets you through that is the knowledge that the situation is temporary. This isn’t unique to sports at all. A lawyer trying to make Partner or a Salesman trying to win a big bonus will both put in extra time and effort to make the big payday. I know from experience that third year law students start “phoning it in” as soon as they get their job offers and. I am much more likely to work late instead of going to the gym or spening time with loved ones in November (bonus time) than March. Maybe rather than “phoning it in” employees/athletes are returning to a more reasonable life balance. I think this phenomenon is more obvious in sports because the results are quantifiable and we are watching every minute. Also, more than other professions, athletes’ entire adult life finances (40-60 years) depend on two or three contracts. It only makes sense for them to double their efforts going into free agency. The only astonishing thing I see is teams’ continual willingness to offer big guaranteed contracts to players who turn it up in their contract year without pay-for-performance.


Gary said:

"The theory would then be that people who are considered throughout their lives to be very attractive (based on what that means for women and men in our pier, I think Ryan has it spot on; the numbers don't add up to a serious drop-osociety, ie. women who are thin and blonde, say, or men who are tall, lean and square-jawed) receive favourable treatment from others, and hence will have to work less hard for what they earn."

I agree the proposition is much less distasteful when you take the sexist language out. In fact, Gladwell (and isn't it weird to write about someone in the third-person on his own blog?) wrote about this in *blink; he called it the Warren G. Harding effect, as I recall.

Ty Mackey

In football, I don't think it's the offensive lineman that tank after signing a big contract (with a big guaranteed signing bonus) but the defensive linemen.

For the offensive lineman who doesn't play hard, he still has to deal with his conscience, because if he doesn't try, his quarterback gets killed. No one gets hurt if a defensive lineman doesn't try.

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