A Philosopher's Blog

Knowing I’m Not the Best

Posted in Philosophy, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on November 26, 2012

Long ago, when I was a young boy, I was afflicted with the dread three Ss. That is, I was Small, Smart and (worst of all) Sensitive. As a good father, my dad endeavored to see to it that I developed the proper virtues of a young man.

As part of this process, I was sent to basketball camp. I was a terrible player with no skill and I had no real interest in the sport. I much preferred reading over shooting hoops. However, I went to the camp and tried to do the best I could within the limits of my abilities.

During one drill, the coach yelled out for the best player to run to the center of the court. Being honest in my assessment of my abilities I did not move. The coach made the other boys do pushups and made me do double the number, since I had failed to consider myself the best. I thought this was very odd since this sort of thing seemed to encourage self-deception and that seemed wrong. I recall quite well getting a lot of abuse for my actions, which made me think about the matter. I did know better than to discuss this with anyone, but I have thought about it over the years.

One the one hand, I do get the point of such self-deception. After all, it could be argued, that a person thinking incorrectly that he is the best would help him do better. That is, thinking he is the best will push him towards being the best.

On the other hand, such self-deception could be problematic. After all, a person who wrongly thinks he is the best and operates on this assumption will not be acting rationally. Of course, there is a clear challenge here, namely being motivated to be the best while still being realistic about one’s abilities.

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NBA and Pay

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 28, 2011
Various Federal Reserve Notes, c.1995. Only th...

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While baseball is supposed to be the American sport, we Yankees are also rather fond of basketball. As might be imagined, the ongoing NBA strike has caused dismay to the loyal fans (a group I do not, in fact, belong to).

The strike, like most strikes, is the result of a dispute between the employees (in this case the NBA players) and the owners As the players see it, they are not being fairly compensated for their efforts. The owners disagree. Because of this impasse, basketball fans will not be seeing any NBA games for a while.

On the face of it, this sort of strike might strike most people as rather absurd. After all, the mean average salary in the NBA is $5.15 million and the median average salary is $2.33 million. The low end salary is about $300,000. Given that the average household income in the US is $50,000 it would seem that the players have nothing at all to complain about. After all, the lowest paid player is still vastly better paid than the average American household.

On one hand, it is easy to dismiss the NBA players as being greedy. After all, almost anyone in the world would be very happy to make that sort of money working hard, let alone playing a game. These players are, obviously enough, extremely well paid and it would be rather odd to say that they are suffering an injustice because of their salaries.

On the other hand, the fairness of a salary is not simply a matter of the amount being paid.  To be specific, the fairness of a salary cannot be judged simply by the dollars being paid.  Other factors must be considered as well, such as the value and amount of the work being done. For example, if I said that someone was paid $12,000 a year it might be tempting to say that she is underpaid. However, if you then learn that the person only works one hour each month, then you might change your mind and think that she is actually overpaid. But, if your learn that each hour of work she does generates $5,000 in profit for her employer, then you might change your mind again and think that she is actually being underpaid for what she does.

In the case of the NBA players, it is not simply a matter that they want more money. Rather, they want a larger percentage of the profits (which, of course, means more money). The NBA players are able to command such high salaries because their play generates massive profits and they believe that they deserve a greater share of the profits that they generate. The owners, who generally do not get out on the court to play in the games, believe that they are (as owners) entitled to a significant share of the profits.

While the NBA players are coached and trained, people obviously pay the rather steep ticket prices to go see the players play. They do not go to see the owners count money. As such, the players are the main source of profits and, it could thus be argued, should be paid based on this contribution to the profits. The owners, in turn, should receive compensation based on the value that they contribute (that is, to the degree that their actions generate profit).

Thus, while the NBA players enjoy rather hefty salaries, the dispute is still the classic dispute between the workers and the owners over who is entitled to what percentage of the income.  As noted above, the theoretical solution is easy enough: the workers are entitled to the value they create through their actions and the owners are also entitled to the value they create. Anything else would seem to be theft. As might be imagined, sorting out this division can be rather tricky. In the case of the NBA, people come to see the players. But, of course, the owners also play a role in making the professional games a possibility. After all, if the players just played on a public court and passed the hat for money, they would obviously not make the money they do now.

This same question arises in other cases of employment. For example, FAMU charges $124.01 per credit hour for in state students, and out of state tuition is $552.03 per credit hour. This does not include other fees. I have 193 students taking three credit hours this semester and will have at least 160 in the spring.  As such, my labor does bring in a fair amount of money for the school. This, of course, only includes my teaching and excludes my administrative work (which is 20% of my assigned work-my four classes per semester are only 80% of my assigned work). As you might guess, my salary is way, way less than what the university charges my students to suffer through my classes. Naturally, there are various expenses involved with the students being in my class-the cost of the buildings, administrative costs and so on. As such, perhaps my salary is fair-that is, when all the legitimate costs are subtracted from what I bring in to the school what is left is what I am, in fact, paid.  However, if what I am paid is less than what I generate (minus the other legitimate costs) then my salary would seem to be unfair to the degree I am underpaid for my efforts.

Of course, my university is not aimed at making a profit and hence this almost certainly changes things. When a for-profit business is considered, one rather effective way to make a profit is to pay workers less than the value they actually create through their labors. As many other have argued, a profit tends to require that someone is either being paid less than the value they provide or is paying more than the value they receive (on the customer end). The stock counter is, of course, that the people who get less or pay more value what they get (either the paycheck or the product/service) more than the other party.  To use a made up example, imagine that my workers value the time they put into making one of my widgets at $1, but they actually contribute $2 to the value of the widget. That would enable me to (at least) make $1 profit per widget with no one feeling they have been treated unfairly. Of course, if they knew that their work was worth $2 rather than $1, they would no doubt see me as acting unfairly. Of course, I could also profit from the customer. If it cost me $5 to make and sell a widget and my customers valued it at $6, then I would make $1 profit per widget at the expense of the customer. Of course, if they knew that the widget could be bought for $5, they would probably feel cheated as well. Of course, if I could convince them that I have a right to a profit (that is, money for nothing and perhaps some chicks for free) then they would think that it was fair. The challenge is, of course, justifying that profit-after all, it does seem to be by its very nature money for nothing. If it was money for something, then there would seem to be no profit left over for that money would have to go to something.

But, one might object, my brief discussion is simplistic and naive and fails to properly capture the reality of the financial situation. That is, profit can be generated without anyone being treated unfairly and without concealing any facts.

Going back to the NBA players, it is obvious that they are very well paid. But it is not obvious that they are actually being treated fairly by the owners.

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Should College Athletes be Paid?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on November 7, 2011
NCAA College Football 2K3

Hey, shouldn't the actual football players get a taste of the money?

I was an unpaid college athlete (well, aside from getting 2 credit hours, boxed lunches and some running stuff). In my case, this seems fine. After all, I did not generate any revenue for my college (watching cross country and track was free). However, some athletes (most notably football and basketball players at the top sports schools) do generate massive revenues for their schools. These revenues enable obscenely high salaries for coaches, the construction of massive stadiums, and so on. There is a massive gravy train of money and the players only see a minute fraction of this in terms of scholarships and some perks.

One stock argument against paying college athletes is that they are compensated by their scholarships. In some cases, this compensation is adequate. However, in many cases the scholarship payout is minuscule compared to what the player actually brings in. After all, the top sports schools have revenue streams that rival those of the professionals and, as is well know, the pros are very well paid indeed. As such, this argument has merit only in limited cases, such as for schools whose sports revenue is on par with what is paid out in scholarships.

Another stock argument is that the college athlete is supposed to be a noble amateur, unsullied by the stain of money. I do actually value this sentiment. After all, I was (and am) an amateur athlete who competes for the sake of the competition and to be better in my sport. I am not in it for the money (obviously enough). However, this notion is laughable when it comes to the big money sports. After all, the universities are quite willing to sully themselves with piles of cash and business deals with sponsors that come from their top sports. One suspects that this is a not so noble lie told to the players and fans so that certain folks can keep all the money. In any case, these sports are sullied with money and various other scandals to the degree that the noble amateur is a complete fiction in the cases of the top schools. The high end college teams are, in fact, professional in all respects other than actually having paid players.

This is not to say that there are not noble athletes at the top sports schools who play for the sake of the sport . There are. They are, however, being shamelessly exploited by the universities. Also, there are clearly professional athletes who are noble athletes-it is, obviously, possible to get paid and remain that noble athlete. An unpaid person is not thus made noble-just poor. Naturally, a player who accepts bribes to throw games would not be noble-but that is another matter. As such, the noble amateur story is a not so noble lie.

My view is that universities should drop the pretense and pay the athletes based on what they bring in for the school. Otherwise they are shamelessly exploiting these athletes and enabling others to profit massively on the work of others. That is, obviously enough, unfair.

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Tastes of Greatness

Posted in Philosophy, Running, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on July 25, 2010

My first experience with moments of greatness was when I heard people talking about an amazing game of basketball my father had played. It was essentially a pickup game played with the other people working at the summer camp, but my dad had done some amazing shots, apparently making baskets by shooting with his back to the hoop. Later, I heard another such story: when my dad was playing baseball in high school his speed was questioned. So, he entered a track meet and set the school record for the mile wearing baseball shoes and without any training. That record stood for quite some time.

I didn’t think much about such moments of greatness until years later and in a somewhat silly context. I was playing Halo 3 and for a few seconds I had a taste of nerdtastic greatness: my fingers flew like lighting, working the controller like a maestro playing her violin. Everything else faded into shadows and I had complete concentration. My opponents moved in slow motion and were effortlessly cut down by my terrible, swift, gun.

Halo 3

I had that experience a few more times while playing Halo 3, but it was never something I could do consistently. As such, it was but a small taste of the nerdy greatness that some people must dine on regularly. I have also experience this from time to time in other games, such as World of Warcraft-I will play my character to near perfection, cutting down my opponents in PvP or handling a raid boss with ease.

Of course greatness in video games is a rather lame sort of greatness. However, I have had tastes of greatness in more significant matters.

Those who have followed this blog probably know I am a long time runner. I was good in college (All Conference) but never great-except for those few times when I truly ran at the top of my ability. In those moments I felt pure, eternal and complete. I and the run were all that truly existed, the other runners and the spectators were just dim shadows. That feeling is, to say the least, amazing. While I have never achieved true and consistent greatness in sports, I have been up the mountain high enough to see the peak and thus I can really appreciate what the true greats experience. I must admit that I have felt a small twinge of jealousy and some regret-like a minor hero gazing up to Mount Olympus and seeing the gods dwelling in unreachable greatness.

I have also felt this in my other endeavors, such as teaching and writing. I have cranked out many publications, including books, but none have been great. Good, yes. Truly great…alas, no. However, I have felt that bit of greatness that one can experience while writing-the words simply flow smoothly and flawlessly, saying what I wish to say. No, not just what I wish to say-but what I should say. Great writers, can, of course, do that fairly consistently. That is what it is to actually be great-to be able to maintain that level. To be able to stay at the peak and not slide back down the mountain.

It would be, I think, easy to be a bit bitter about being merely good. After all, knowing all too well how much better other people are and really understanding that they have regularly what I can only have in very limited moments can be a bit depressing. To use an analogy, it is like having a few bites from a gourmet meal and knowing that people get such a feast regularly.

However, perspective really helps here. I think I have done the best I could do in most of my endeavors and there is no shame in that. While it sounds like a trite thing, what does matter is to go out there and do your very best, to know that you could not have done any better. Not in the sense that you fell short, but in the sense that you rose to such a height. There is great honor in doing this, more than merely doing well but falling short of what could be done.

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Lebron James

Posted in Philosophy, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on July 10, 2010
LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in...
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While I haven’t been interested in basketball since I played (badly) as a kid, I inadvertently learned way too much about Lebron James. This was, of course, due to the recent obsession in the media about where he would sell his ball handling services.

Along with the rest of the world I learned that he would be going to Miami and leaving Cleveland.  When I went to school in Ohio, Cleveland was known as the place where the river burned, “the mistake on/by the lake”, and “Columbus’ idiot brother.” This made me wonder what James was doing there, but I’m fairly sure that large stacks of cash were involved. In any case, his departure has made me a little sad for the folks in Cleveland-after all, they are no longer the home of the King, but back to just being a city which had a flammable river.

Speaking of mistakes, the media obsession over James seems to fall into that category. Sure, he is a great player and he gets paid vast sums of money to do what he does (and does it very well). However, what he does should be put in  perspective: he runs and jumps around on a court with a rubber ball. This hardly seems to be something worthy of such massive media coverage-at least outside of media devoted to sports. It does make sense for ESPN to cover this “story”, but for the “real” news channels to devote so much time to the “story” shows that the media folks either have way too much time to fill or that they really have no real sense of what should be considered news.

I do admit that he does play with great skill. As a vastly inferior athlete (at my best I was only all conference in college and never went pro) I respect his abilities. I also do agree that impressive athletic performances can be newsworthy. For example, if someone sets a new record for the marathon, then that is something I would consider worth covering, preferably in a short segment stating the record and perhaps a clip of the finish. However, the news coverage of James has not been of an amazing athletic performance but rather an obsession about where he would go. Hardly the stuff of real news.

Then again, perhaps it is news. After all, as millions of people are unemployed, one man is able to demand and receive a fortune to run and jump around on a court. This says a great deal about our culture and our values.

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