Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Heisman isn't what you think it is.

In a few hours from my writing this post the winner of the 2012 Heisman Memorial Trophy will be announced. The mythology and atmosphere of the prize are perfect for what the Heisman is, a beauty contest, but they mislead the many into believing there is an objective order at work. Kevin Gemmell at has a great article defending the Heisman, and I have to agree with many of his points. However, he stops short of a meaningful understanding of the key difference I believe I have identified. Namely, that we are recognizing someone who has lucked into winning the beauty contest rather than definitively achieved the status of "outstanding college football player in the United States"--the trophy's official meaning.

Here are my main faults with the Heisman:

  • It is ironic that in the most quintessentially team team sport, the most celebrated individual award at the college level is bestowed. We should already be suspect that there is less meaningfulness in the award than conventional wisdom holds.
  • There is certainly an element of Keynes' beauty contest going on in the voting where voters are attempting to vote a ballot they expect others will respect. The easiest way to do this is to vote congruently to the perceived typical ballot. 
  • But at the same time there is rampantly poor voter performance including nearly fraudulent behavior. Leaving candidates off ballots because including them hurts the chances of a voter's preferred candidate undercuts the legitimacy of the award. Voting early is also a problem. The bias in voting cannot be overlooked when evaluating if the process is flawed. 
  • The criteria is unclear and inconsistent. Gemmell holds this as a feature, not a bug. He may be right, but it still argues against the idea that this process produces an objective result. Running with that a little more, we have to recognize that statistics drive this award. And not just any stats, cumulative and simplistic stats. Stats that have little to do with a team winning football games but a lot to do with an individual winning awards. Stats that are highly correlated with winning but that have weak casual or predictive effect on winning. That is a very key distinction. Do you realize that most teams who lead the game at half time go on to win the game? If you find that meaningful, reread the sentence again until it fails to impress you. Coffee is for closers. If stats are your guide to Heisman immortality, they should be stats that indicate contribution more than just participation.
  • The pretentiousness of the prize must also be mentioned. For all the reasons above, we cannot be so pious when considering the prize. 
If we gave a Heisman Trophy in business, Apple would win for its beauty narrowly edging out Wal-Mart who is a finalist based on size. Yet, the goal of business is to make a profit. Both of these firms are very profitable, but Microsoft achieves about 50% more profit per dollar of revenue than does Apple and Exxon Mobil is more profitable than Apple and Wal-Mart combined. The goal of a football team is to win games and the objective of an individual football player should be to contribute to his team's winning. Just as our hypothetical Heisman Trophy for business is recognizing the wrong firms, the real Heisman Trophy is flawed in process such that the recognition fails to be very meaningful.

Truthfully, I am more impressed by awards like Oklahoma's Don Key Award. From SoonerSports:
Oklahoma coaches describe the award as the highest honor an OU football player can receive while playing for the Sooners. The Don Key Award is the only individual award given in Oklahoma football. It goes to the player who best exemplifies the many superior qualities of Key, both on the field and in the classroom.
That award is subjective, but it is limited to the subjectivity of a highly informed coaching staff. It goes to the player or players who contribute to the team and achieve individual success almost as a byproduct.