Friday, December 13, 2013

Fixing the NHL's Discipline Problems

The recent game between the Bruins and the Penguins highlights the shortcomings of the NHL's discipline system. It's hard to say how effective it has been since it was instituted after Matt Cooke ended Marc Savard's career. I honestly don't watch enough games to keep track of things, but, there doesn't seem to be many fewer hits to the head than there were before the system was established. Or even if the incidents have decreased, that decrease might be entirely from Matt Cooke no longer routinely hitting people in the head. Which I guess is something. But there is still a lot of dangerous plays happening and there is way too much confusion and ambiguity around how to punish these plays. Luckily, a bookish intellectual living in Somerville is here to save the NHL. Here's how I would fix the NHL's Discipline problem.

Systematize the Suspension System: Right now, a player gets suspended for as long as Brendan Shannahan says he gets suspended. Whether it's fair or not to criticize Shannahan's judgment—wait, no, it is. Far too often, Shannahan makes his decision based on story lines and public relations. If it looks really bad, you get a long suspension. If it doesn't look too bad, no matter how dangerous the play was, you might not get a suspension. And if you're a star player in the playoffs like Shea Weber you might not get suspended at all. (Just a fine.) This is not just a problem with Shannahan, but a problem with human judgment. There will always be an element of judgment in anything like this, but the more we can minimize it, the fairer and more effective the discipline system will be. How would the system work? The NHL would establish classes of dangerous plays. For example, a flow-of-play, on-the-puck dangerous play might be a Class C infraction, like if, in going for a legal hit, a player's arms, elbows, or shoulder, unintentionally made significant contact with an opponent's head, would carry a 2-game suspension for the first offense, and then additional games for each additional offense after that. These classes can make distinctions between (and should certainly include) plays involving sticks, fists, shoulders, and elbows, as well as plays targeting the upper or lower body. (Lower body stuff in particular is being neglected I think, especially given how many fights start with one player taking a shot at an opponent's knees.) This system doesn't have to be massively complex, just give enough structure that it is not always the responsibility of a human judge to assess the discipline.

Render the Fact of Injury Irrelevant: For the most part, a player can engage in a wildly dangerous play and get away without punishment if the opponent is not injured. I think we all know that if Marchand had gone off on the stretcher we would all be talking about Neal's knee to the head as one of the dirtiest plays of the last few years. If the play is dangerous, it's dangerous and that's it, and that fact needs to be formalized in order for discipline to be a meaningful deterrent to dangerous plays. Does this mean someone could end up with a 10-game suspension for a play in which his opponent was totally unhurt? Yes. But the goal of the discipline system is not to punish injurious plays but to prevent dangerous plays. That said, I would be totally cool with formalizing some kind of “severity” extra consideration. For example, if the league wants to add a greater penalty to a play because they believe it was an unusually severe example of the dangerous play, I think it would be fair to include the fact of injury as evidence in their case for the extra punishment, but not as proof for the extra punishment.

Formalize the Benefit of the Doubt: What was the difference between Orpik's unpenalized hit and Seidenberg's penalized hit? The benefit of the doubt. Essentially, the referees gave Orpik the benefit of the doubt; that he'd committed to the hit before the strange puck bounce off the boards put Erikson in a dangerous position and his target was Erikson's chest, even though there was substantial contact with the head. They assumed he was making a good hockey play, and the responsibility for the injury Erikson suffered, rested in the nature of hockey and an unlucky bounce. Seidenberg was not given the benefit of the doubt on his check. The result is that no one is really sure what constitutes an illegal hit to the head, which means that, if you've got a chance to really deck a guy, it might still be worth the risk. One way or the other, the league needs to formalize the benefit of the doubt and write into the rules something like, “If the referee is unsure whether an illegal hit to the head occurred he should assess the penalty.” Or not assess the penalty. The important thing is that everyone knows that if the play is borderline, as most plays are, it will be called the same way in every game and every situation.

Reform the Instigator Penalty: (Yeah, I've harped about this before, but it's relevant.) I don't know if fighting deters dangerous plays. I don't think anyone knows for sure one way or the other. But enough people, with all different relationships with the game, believe the idea that it is going to stick around for the foreseeable future. However, the structure of the instigator penalty compromises whatever ability fighting may have as a deterrent. A player who decides to engage in a dangerous play, knows that there is an extra deterrent against coming after him. However, I don't think we should get rid of the instigator role entirely. Too many fights are started after perfectly legal hits. Here's how I'd change things. After a fight, if the referees believed there was an instigator to that fight, they would formally label that player an “instigator.” After the game, the league would review run of play preceding the fight. If they believe there were no dangerous plays, the “instigator” is suspended for one game (and an additional game for each additional time he is an “instigator”). If they find a dangerous play, that player is not assessed the suspension. If the dangerous play they do find, fits one of the classes of suspension, that player is suspended under those rules. In this way, players are punished, both for unnecessary fights and for dangerous plays. (Sidenote: I don't entirely understand why a society perfectly cool with MMA and boxing has a problem with institutionalized fighting in hockey. That's not an endorsement of fighting in hockey. I honestly don't really know how I feel about it, but it does strike me as a tad incongruous.)

There is a chance that hockey (and football) is coming to a crisis point. The players are now moving so fast and are now so big and strong that plays that were safe for decades are now dangerous. To put this another way, our skulls haven't gotten any thicker even as the rest of our bodies have gotten bigger and stronger. Which, of course, brings about some of the most difficult questions around the nature of sport. How much risk is justified for our entertainment? What do we do about youth sports where, by definition, the kids playing are not responsible for their own well-being? When do the dangers of sport overtake the joys and whose joys have precedence? I honestly, hope we don't end up needing to ask these questions, but unless the discipline system is fixed, we will.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Biggest Bang for Your Local Buck

If you’re reading this blog, I’m going to assume you know all of the economic benefits of shopping with locally owned businesses. (If you don’t here’s a post I did for the bookstore with lots of data.) Executive summary: Karma wheel, it all comes back to you. Or to put this a different way; profitable locally owned businesses are good for the locales in which they are owned and operated. The more profitable they are, the more they can donate, the more taxes they pay, and the higher the employees salary, all of which is good for you. I'm also going to assume that you're not an eccentric millionaire and that you want to do as much as you can, within your means, to contribute to your community. Here are some ways to amplify the economic benefits of your local spending, without actually spending any more money.

Pay in Cash: Credit cards are convenient, but that convenience comes at a cost. Some of it is interest payments and customer fees, but much of that cost is paid by the stores themselves in the form of merchant or vendor fees. (This is not a knock on it, but if you've ever wondered what's in it for American Express with the whole Small Business Saturday thing, this is it.) In the long term, these fees lead to more expensive stuff, as the fees are built into the cost of goods, and in the short term they can be a major burden on small businesses. After staffing, credit card processing fees tend to be the next biggest single non-discretionary expense. There are no fees for cash, of course. Cash, though, takes some planning ahead. At PSB at least, if you place an order online and choose the “Pay in Store” option, not only will the books be set aside for you, you’ll also see the exact total and will only have to take out what you need. This is a little trickier if you're shopping at a store without e-commerce, but, if you've got one of those fancy computers that also make phone calls in your pocket, you can calculate your cost. You spend the same amount, but the store makes more profit.

Take a Half Day During the Week: Things tend to be a little slower at stores in the mid-afternoon and mid-morning during the week. If you can arrange to shop during those times, not only will you have a relatively quiet, relatively stress-free shopping experience (and all the bookseller help you can stand if you're at PSB), you’ll lessen the rush on the weekends making it easier for other shoppers to shop. Spreading out the sales also makes it easier for employees to do the kind of maintenance (like re-shelving books and bringing down overstock) that make it easier for everyone to find what they're looking for. A store in good working order, with enough staff time to give the personalized service that makes shopping local such a pleasant experience, and a generally less Hunger Games atmosphere, all lead to more sales and more profits. (And just take a minute to dream with me here, and imagine your weekend, when you've done all the shopping on Wednesday.)

Bring Your Own Bag: Dude. Seriously. Are you still getting a bag whenever you go shopping? Sure, taking a bag isn't the most evil thing you can do, but it's probably the easiest evil thing to not do. Just put a collapsible bag in every single satchel, handbag, purse, carry-all, you've got (and maybe one in every coat). I mean, seriously, last I counted, we still only have one planet and last I checked, we're still punching it in the taint. Yes, there are a lot of things we're doing that are far worse (Hi there, mountain top coal mining and deep water oil drilling. Also, fuck you.) but these little daily habits add up when everybody does them all the time and they don't require a miracle of science to fix. At the store, I will give you a bag if you want one and I'll do it with a smile, because I don't know what is in your life that has brought you to this particular decision. I know there are times when a bag is totally justifiable and so when I'm behind the counter, in the moment, I always assume a customer takes a bag because it is one of those times. But, fuckin' seriously, dude, you have hands, you probably want Boston to not be underwater when your grandkids are adults, so fuckin' carry that shit out. Phew. OK. More to the point, bags are one of those little costs (like replacing all those pens that disappear) that chip away at profits. Most stores accept bags, pens, etc, as part of their operating costs, but that doesn't mean you need to use them. (Seriously, did you just “forget” I handed you that pen, like 3 seconds ago?) If you don't, the store makes more profits on the sale, the more profits they make, the more taxes they pay, the more inventory they buy, the more their employees make, the bigger the impact your dollar has on your community.

So to summarize: see you on Wednesday when you bring your own bag and pay in cash.

One more point to wrap this up. Shopping local is not a nostalgic pity party. It is not about preserving the good old days of ye olde maine ftreet fhop. This is rational self-interest. Yes, there is an emotional content to shopping locally (and given that humans are pretty emotional entities, it seems like that argument does belong in the whole “rational self-interest” thing but I don't want to make any economists cry right before the holidays) but there is also significant monetary value as well. Given all the data, even Ayn Rand would shop locally, except when she owned stock in national and international corporations. And that's really how you should think of shopping locally. (Swish.) You are simply buying from a company in which you own stock. The dividends aren't paid out the same way, but they are undeniable. And these three strategies will help increase your return on investment.