Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Sports analogies

Kudos to the extremely astute commenter on Halftime hit-and-run. Her or his comment deserves some play on the front page of MoneyLaw.

Point 1: Position-specific drafting. As to my proposition, "Performance, not pedigree, is the best predictor of performance," Commenter responds:
Adrian Peterson[T]he proposition on the table [is] whether it is the ONLY predictor. . . . [I]t would be entirely rational to take into account [Adrian Peterson's] terrific performance so far, and proceed to ask why other teams passed on him IF they were similarly situated -- the inquiry might reveal, for example, reasonable suspicions about his longer term prospects, like being prone to injury. In this case, I suspect [that] . . . none of the other teams needed a RB as much as they needed to plug other holes. Peterson was, after all, the top RB drafted.
Fair enough. If you need a left tackle, you might pass on a halfback, no matter how athletic or filled with "potential." For the same reason, a law school might recruit a tax teacher and pass on a comparably situated proceduralist.

Point 2: The college game. Commenter says that "liken[ing] CV entries to draft positions" is "not the right analogy." Instead, "[d]raft position is like other interviews, callbacks, or offers," while "CV entries are like making a determination about Peterson because he was recruited by, and excelled at Oklahoma."

Culpepper and MossOnce again, fair enough. And now the issue is whether NFL scouts are as readily bamboozled by a player's alma mater as some law school faculty recruiters appear to be. For what it's worth, two former Minnesota Vikings, long gone before the team in purple started scouting Adrian Peterson, had relatively modest college pedigrees. Randy Moss went to Marshall; Daunte Culpepper attended Central Florida. Who cares? Those two were the most fearsome receiver/quarterback combination of their time. The only reason I know where Moss and Culpepper played college ball is the fatuous insistence of some sports commentators on reciting professional players' NCAA pedigrees.

Point 3: sports analogies. And now Commenter is really hitting her or his stride:
The basic issue with the grasp at sports analogies in your post, and on this site in general, is whether one can establish objective metrics and agree on which ones matter, something that's particularly hard in an area where who wins and loses doesn't show up in lights. I fear the [analogy] to running yards, yards per carry, or TDs might be number of publications, status of average journals, and top 10 journals. Even staying on the football field, my guess is that someone would want to know about the quality of the opponent's rushing defense (I think Chicago and SD aren't doing well this year), the success of the average back in the offensive scheme (it used to be thought that you could put a high schooler in the Denver offense and he'd gain a hundred), etc. Putting that aside, what one is after in a law school is more like the intangibles that govern why Charlie Batch still has a job, not the factors that Fantasy Football seizes upon and exaggerates.
Hot damn, Commenter. You sure know your football.

Michael OherOne quick point in reply: I like sports analogies for a reason mentioned in passing by Michael Lewis in The Blind Side: The Evolution of a Game: "Sports [is] the closest thing in America to pure meritocracy, the one avenue of ambition widely thought to be open to all." This is wrong, of course, on normative as well as descriptive grounds. First, to the extent sports are meritocratic, we must "[p]ity the kid inside [Michael Oher's old housing project] who was born to play the piano, or manage people, or trade bonds." Second, the whole point of The Blind Side is how close Michael Oher's conspicuous physical gifts came to being missed and thrown away in the meat grinder of American social injustice.

We hate Notre Dame!Ultimately, Commenter, I agree that the real challenge "is whether one can establish objective metrics and agree on which ones matter." That quest is hard enough in sports, let alone in law or legal education. Football is notoriously much harder than baseball to evaluate, which may explain in part why this forum's authors resort more readily to baseball as a source of metaphors and analogies. In baseball, any outcome besides an out carries positive value for the team at bat. In football, fourteen-yard plays from scrimmage are usually quite valuable. But on third-and-15, a slant that goes for fourteen yards is disappointing, and the same play is downright lethal on fourth-and-15. Nevertheless, all sports offer clear-cut conclusions: The Red Sox won the 2007 World Series. The Rockies, alas, did not. Notre Dame has been mathematically eliminated from bowl consideration this season. Praises be . . . . And so forth.

Legal education offers few if any comparable clear-cut metrics. I'll close by suggesting some measures that have rarely arisen in discussions among law professors, even in this forum, and almost certainly never in many law school faculty lounges:
  • What students made before they matriculated at a particular school.

  • The rate at which they passed the bar, especially relative to other candidates for the bar who attended other schools.

  • Those students' overall economic well-being, as measured by income, indebtedness, and other gauges of prosperity, after one, five, ten, twenty-five years beyond graduation.
I ask these things because whatever we do in hiring, faculty governance, and academic administration amounts to nothing if our students flunk the bar, remain chronically unemployed or underemployed, or find themselves worse off than they might have been had only they pursued the best option available to them besides attending this school.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great post, as is the original post. A couple of comments:

1. "The only reason I know where Moss and Culpepper played college ball is the fatuous insistence of some sports commentators on reciting professional players' NCAA pedigrees."

I take issue with the fatuousness of announcing pedigrees. Note that many people are both college football fans and also college graduates. When discussing great players of yesteryear, where they went to college is often mentioned - not as pedigree, but as information. It might be relevant because the school was an alma mater, because it was in the same conference as an alma mater, because it was close to a hometown or home state, because it was a surprise because the team was terrible but produced a great player (or vice versa), because we remember how well they played in college, or a million other reasons. I think that's why sportscasters do the same - plus even more reasons given that their job is to cover football.

If it were pure pedigree, you might hear it from baseball sportscasters. Because college baseball is not followed or watched by fans, where baseball players played in college lacks the relevance and salience of that in football.

2. With respect to whether law faculty care about such things as bar passage, employment, etc., I think the analysis is more complicated than presented here. I suspect that there are three groupings.

A. At the top schools (according to US news) faculty need care little about such things - financial aid is good, LSATs are high (which correlates to high bar passage), bar passage and employment are high, so the students will for the most part land on their feet - the focus instead is encouraging students to NOT earn as much money - public interest, academia, etc.

B. As lower ranked schools (almost certainly third and fourth tier, and probably well into the top 100) such things are critically important, if only for selfish reasons. Increased bar passage and employment rates means higher U.S. News rankings, which (sad to say) is important for a whole variety of reasons. I am proud to be at a school where we constantly ask how we might improve the future of our students and take pride in the value we add to the potential they bring in.

C. This leaves a group of schools somewhere in the middle. These schools would like to think of themselves as in the top tier (and their faculty likely could be in the top tier but for the fact that there is limited space there), but in reality their students more likely face the problems of the lower tier of schools.

Apparently (according to Jeff Harrison), Florida is one of those schools. Consider that the Florida (49th) LSAT range is 155-161, and Florida International (T3) is 153-156. To the extent that LSAT is correlated with bar passage, despite the rankings disparity. I can't speak to how the faculty think at each school but I suspect FIU is more concerned about increasing its bar passage and employment rate numbers, despite the fact that its students are similarly situated at least with respect to likely bar passage (to the extent LSATs correlate).

Just some food for thought.

11/07/2007 8:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good post. I very much like your suggestions at the end of the post, Jim.

But it points, to me, to a huge, largely unaddressed issue: why don't we value good teaching and service to students much these days. Increasingly, schools all the way down the rankings are valuing law review articles, and law review articles, and law review articles. The necessary corrolary is that they are de-valuing teaching and student service. After all, every second spent with students outside of class is time away from scholarship. Teaching better or helping enhance the value of the law school experience for students -- esp. struggling students -- is not visible the way that extra article, or that better placement is. As a result, every faculty member has an incentive to shirk the students and spend more time on research. There are benefits to this approach, to be sure, but I don't see how the benefits accrue to the students.

So isn't there some tension between an approach to measuring law school performance focusing on scholarship-over-everything else, versus what the post concludes law schools really need to be doing? To be sure, we could resort to the old saw that better scholarship makes one a better teacher. But from my experience, that's true in only a limited number of cases. Generally speaking, the faculty member who sprints out of class to her office, or who does the bare minimum in the classroom, is the more valuable faculty member, in the current scholarship above all else system. Students, it seems, are just tuition paying bodies who fund research opportunities. Any thoughts on how to deal with this problem, if indeed it is a problem?

11/07/2007 11:18 AM  

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