Monday, September 07, 2009

The Pittsburgh Steelers as an organism   posted by Razib @ 9/07/2009 11:39:00 AM

There's a strange post over at The New York Times titled Steelers Are a Highly Evolved N.F.L. Species. The author goes into Richard Dawkins' The Self Gene to draw some analogies, but I don't feel the characterization of Dawkins' ideas are clear enough that the analogy even has a chance. But, there is a real set of facts to be observed. The Pittsburgh Steelers have the most Super Bowl wins of any team, despite being consistently outgunned in terms of money due to the structural nature of the their local television market. The author above wants to suggest there is a particular organizational genius which the Rooney family presides over. I'm skeptical of this. I suspect that the "genius" is simply institutional stability. Before 1970 the Steelers sucked, and everyone felt sorry for the late Art Rooney. Since 1970 not only have the Steelers captured the most championships, but they have the best win to loss ratio of any professional football team. And it is since 1970 that the Steelers have been characterized by an incredible stability of coaches, only two between 1969 and 2007 (with Mike Tomlin being the third in the post-1970 period). If life is an expectations game then it is likely that individuals employed by the Pittsburgh Steelers might exhibit a longer time horizon simply because of the overall stability of the personnel. Not only might this result in more judicious decisions in terms of the long term health of the team (as their interests are more closely tied to those long term outcomes), but the stability in personnel may also generate and esprit de corps which may serve to substitute for the lost income that entails from remaining with the Steelers organization (naturally, the very reality of consistent winning may also mean that the Steelers can pay less for more since high quality talent does want to win by and large).

Of course, the random things do happen in sports. I always say sports writing is like political writing, way too many specific facts, but no real robust theoretical framework. It's meant to entertain like historical fiction, not illuminate like a textbook (this is very evident in SportsCenter, where the reporting of facts are supplemented by a lot of entertainment). So there will always be people looking for "causes" for trends which may just be flukes. Consider the peculiar alternation between the ascendancy of the AFC and NFC since 1970.