A Sports Analogy that Works

by Don Boudreaux on July 5, 2011

in Competition, Complexity & Emergence, History

At lunch today with my brilliant younger colleague Bryan Caplan I mentioned that I’m now reading Titan, Ron Chernow’s 1999 biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.  (It’s a pretty good read so far, but I’m only a quarter of the way through the book.  My opinion of it might still rise or fall.)

I commented to Bryan that one notably irritating aspect of the book is Chernow’s frequent expression of surprise that Rockefeller was such a good and giving man to his family, friends, and community (even before he was rich) yet so doggedly effective at running his business in ways that made life very difficult for his competitors and many of his suppliers.  Chernow unquestioningly assumes that a good, deeply Christian, and generous human being would not so vigorously and unrelentingly outdo rivals, even to the point of – and without regrets – running those rivals into bankruptcy, as did Rockefeller.

Upon hearing the above, Bryan said “I wonder if Chernow would write a biography of a great sports star and, finding that star to be an upstanding and generous soul at home, express surprise that that star was unapologetically aggressive and competitive while on the playing field.”

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Jason July 5, 2011 at 2:15 pm

Isn’t the sports star worse in this analogy, since for them to win someone else must lose. But when Rockefeller won many people benefited from his successful products.

Don Boudreaux July 5, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Yes. Good point. Like all analogies, this one isn’t perfect – but where it fails to track market competition is, precisely as you say, that sports (at least from the participants’ perspective) is a zero-sum game. Market competition is positive-sum.

vidyohs July 5, 2011 at 10:22 pm

Our sports star doesn’t play in a vacumm, and though he definitely plays for pay, the results of his successful play seems to bring a lot of vicarious benefit to his fan base.

I think the use of the sports analogy was excellent because I played sports for so long. In bonafide competition I never let anyone hit a pitch when I was on the mound, and I never let myself strike out just to make the opposing pitcher feel good. Nor did I shank a shot in basketball because I felt sorry for the opposing team, nor let an opponent score on me if I could stop him.

And, I am the nicest guy you’d never want to know on and off the field.

SheetWise July 6, 2011 at 3:41 pm

I like Bryan’s analogy — and it is often often observed in private v. public behavior. As for the other comments, I don’t see the zero-sum aspect of sports. Poker, yes (maybe) — sports, no. In the last Tyson v. Holyfield fight, Tyson got $30 million and Holyfield won $35 million (the worst example I could think of) — but the previous fight had to have been lost to create such a fever for a rematch. Hardly zero-sum, all things considered. Sports is pure business, and winning or not may be a strategic choice. In either case, it is cut-throat.

Jack W July 6, 2011 at 11:30 pm

Jason: I think you are missing something important in your analysis: Sports Fans. When an athlete wins a game, the fans of that team savor the victory long after the athlete stops playing. For instance, when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, my family, including my relatives in Ireland, were out celebrating throughout the night. The Cardinals may have lost the series, but Red Sox Nation was surely exuberant for years on end.

Scott G July 5, 2011 at 3:03 pm

I read that book about 10 years ago and thought it was great. It’s difficult to remember details from 10 years ago, and I admit that my understanding of economics was small in comparison to what it is now, but I felt Chernow was fair to Rockefeller. If I were to re-read it now I would probably find some areas to criticize. Rockefeller certainly isn’t praised in Chernow’s book as he is in Folsom’s The Myth of the Robber Barons.

No doubt Chernow shows that Rockefeller was an incredible businessman. What Chernow misses however, is that through Rockefeller’s self interest and the market system, he is one of the greatest benefactors in human history. In a Smithian and Hayekian way, he is one of the most benevolent and altruistic human beings to ever have lived. One could argue that by providing what others wanted (in other works sympathizing with their wants) that he became one of the wealthiest men in history.

Further, he created more positive liberty than anyone of his time and maybe second only to Bill Gates in human history. I don’t know how to compare the amount of liberty he created with others who provided negative liberty.

If one were to rank human beings by the amount of liberty he or she created, Rockefeller would up there with Smith and Hayek.

Maybe I should remain my blog, Cafe Rockefeller.

Don Boudreaux July 5, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Thanks. I believe that, given that Chernow’s understanding of economics is unsurprisingly pedestrian, Chernow is very fair to Rockefeller.

Frank33328 July 5, 2011 at 3:55 pm

With all due respect, I don’t think sports are zero sum. The output is entertainment and the customers are the fans. Ignoring current strikes (for NFL and NBA), I think Fans today get a better product, better options (more teams, more venues including Direct TV, Cable, Internet coverage, etc., etc). The value of the economic pie has certainly increased for both the fans and participants. Also, the “losers” of a games are not vanquished but play another day and the players only competitors for their jobs are other emerging players on their own teams and free agents (not the opposing team). I think the analogy is pretty good.

Don Boudreaux July 5, 2011 at 3:58 pm

The ‘zero-sumness’ of sports are within the games themselves. Of course they provide entertainment to spectators, as well as both enjoyment and (in many cases monetary incomes) to players. But unlike when, say, I trade you my ham sandwich for your pepperoni pizza, in each sporting event there are winners and losers.

Frank33328 July 5, 2011 at 4:35 pm

I think you are viewing it too narrowly. When Mr. Jones buys a Toyota, Ford lost the game that particular game. But there are other games for Ford. A game (or match) is like an individual transaction. In sports as in any business there are many transactions available.

To your analogy, when you trade your sandwich from my pizza, yes with both win but the guy who offered you the apple, that you rejected in favor of my pizza and was therefore MY competition, lost.

RC July 5, 2011 at 5:59 pm


I don’t think a game is like an individual transaction.
If customer A buys a Toyota over a Ford, then both A & Toyota benefit, while Ford ends up empty-handed.
If customer B buys tickets to watch his Chicago Bulls take on the LA Lakers, then regardless of the outcome all 3 parties – the Lakers, the Bulls, and B – benefit.
The difference is that in the second case it is the competition that generates value for the customer. In the first case, the customer does not want competition in itself, but a good car.


Frank33328 July 5, 2011 at 6:29 pm

You are ignoring the unseen in the second case. Customer B buys a ticket to the Bull/Lakers but DID NOT exercise his other options (a ticket to a baseball game, or footbal game, or alternate basketball game, etc). The unseen options he did not select are the invisible losers of the transaction.

RC July 5, 2011 at 7:28 pm

OK. I agree with you now.

vidyohs July 5, 2011 at 10:26 pm

So what Don, in each sale or non-sale there are winners and losers, I out bid you for the job. I win, you lose; but, our fan base (the customer) always wins.

Same with sports, without the losers there would be no sports and no winners. Competition without an opponent is like clapping with one hand.

John D. R. was on the field just like Babe Ruth, just a different field.

MarkB July 5, 2011 at 4:22 pm

There’s rather a big difference between beating an opponent on the playing field and putting him and his family in the poorhouse. It’s called playing a game for a reason. At a time when there was no social safety net, losing in business could mean no food in the children’s mouthes.

kirby July 5, 2011 at 4:27 pm

And losing in sports could get that guy fired, and you know what they say about people without an education: The only jobs are chucking, plucking, and landscaping.

Slocum July 5, 2011 at 4:38 pm

But professional athletes who lose competitively and are cut from their teams very often do end up bankrupt within a short time.

tdp July 5, 2011 at 5:42 pm

80% of all NFL players go bankrupt after retirement because most of them never learn how to save money and also get suckered into bad investments.

BonnieBlueFlag July 5, 2011 at 4:48 pm

“It’s not personal; it’s business.”

Matt July 5, 2011 at 5:22 pm

I wonder if Chernow would write a biography of a great writer of biographies and, finding that writer to be an upstanding and generous soul at home, express surprise that that writer was unapologetically aggressive and competitive while on the publishing field.

Matt July 5, 2011 at 5:23 pm

By Chernow’s logic, he should have written a flawed book so as to be generous to his competitors who also write biographies, no?

Don Boudreaux July 5, 2011 at 5:33 pm


tdp July 5, 2011 at 5:49 pm

“Chernow unquestioningly assumes that a good, deeply Christian, and generous human being would not so vigorously and unrelentingly outdo rivals, even to the point of – and without regrets – running those rivals into bankruptcy, as did Rockefeller.”

I don’t think the “deeply Christian” thing has anything to do with it. I’m assuming the presumption is that Chernow (like many people) thinks Jesus would not approve of capitalism or competing aggressively on the free market, but at the time Jesus was teaching economies were far less advanced and the world was much closer to zero-sum than now, and the way one behaves in a market economy connecting billions of people worldwide to earn a living is not necessarily the way one would behave, especially with regard to altruism, towards family and friends or individuals seeking charity.

Ron H. July 5, 2011 at 6:22 pm

…but at the time Jesus was teaching economies were far less advanced and the world was much closer to zero-sum than now,

Although I doubt there is sufficient evidence available to prove the point one way or another, I think you would find that other than the differences due to technology, the basics of economies then and now are pretty much the same.

tdp July 5, 2011 at 10:36 pm

They didn’t have the same access to goods and services from around the world (competition), and advances in technology lead to more ways to generate value from resources (the available pool of resources expands once we find new uses, so what was originally a fixed, zero-sum amount becomes expanded). It was also harder to generate new resources/uses for things, so the world was more zero sum then than now, simply because the economy, while operating in much the same manner as today, was smaller and less-connected, even in a crossroads like the middle east.

Ron H. July 5, 2011 at 10:59 pm

Did you notice that I qualified my statement with “other than the differences due to technology? They are substantial, and I think technology covers most of your objections.

I don’t think human nature has changed in 2000 years, and I would expect people worked to improve their well-being by serving others, just as Adam Smith described 1800 years later. There was trade, manufacturing, money, credit, services of all kinds, and just about everything else we have now, except those things that require modern technology, like Mortgage Backed Securities.

vidyohs July 6, 2011 at 6:03 am

You got it, Ron H. The basics of capitalism and markets were laid long before man left the caves. By the time Jesus was born markets, trade, and capitalism were as sophisticated as technology would allow.

Mike July 5, 2011 at 5:58 pm

80%. Is that true?

tdp July 5, 2011 at 10:39 pm

I read it on ESPN.com or in the newspaper somewhere during an article about the subject. Makes sense since most of these guys never had money before and are suddenly on top of the world, plus so many of them don’t learn how to do anything else. Add in all the money they spend on knee operations and hip replacements when their careers are over and one could go bankrupt quite quickly.

Peter P. July 5, 2011 at 7:14 pm

Even Rockefeller was unemployed (this would melt most liberals)…
“Each morning, he left his boardinghouse at eight o’clock, clock in a dark suit with a high collar and black tie, to make his rounds of appointed firms. This grimly determined trek went on each day-six days a week for six consecutive weeks”-Page 44

On John D. work ethic from the early days…
“Starting each day at 6:30 A.M. he brought a box lunch to the office and often returned after dinner, staying late. One day he decided to throttle his obsession. “I have this day covenanted with myself to be seen in [the office] after 10 o’clock P.M. within 30 days”-Page 49

Don N July 5, 2011 at 11:16 pm

I thought Chernow was quite fair if not entirely sophisticated in dealing with the successful/devout capitalist subject. This ought o be basic stuff for a talent such as Chernow. Nonetheless, if you want to see raw seething disdain in a biographical treatment, read Cannadine’s “Mellon”

Yam Slemho July 6, 2011 at 5:03 am

When Contador attacked Shleck in last year’s TdF when the latter dropped his chain, that was unapologetically aggressive – but almost universally condemned as unsportsmanlike.

Not intended as a comment on Rockefeller… just pointing out another flaw in the sports analogy.

vidyohs July 6, 2011 at 6:05 am

“When Contador attacked Shleck in last year’s TdF when the latter dropped his chain, that was unapologetically aggressive – but almost universally condemned as unsportsmanlike.”

?????? What are you talking about?

gregworrel July 6, 2011 at 9:35 pm

Vidyohs, you are not a fan of le Tour??? Those of us who watch the Tour de France know exactly what he is talking about. Often, when a rider has a mechanical problem, his rivals will wait, rather than attack. There is an unwritten code of fairness in bike racing, though it is open to interpretation. Lance was known to wait on more than one occasion if a chief rival was in a crash.

Alberto Contador was last year’s winner and gained critical time on his main rival, Andy Schleck, when Schleck had to stop to put his chain back on. Schleck and others saw it as unsportsmanlike. Contador was booed when he took to the podium at the end of the stage.

Yam Slemho July 7, 2011 at 7:26 am

As gregworrel has pointed out, I’m speaking of the greatest sporting event of them all: the Tour de France.

Aside from the many other things to recommend it, in my opinion Le Tour exemplifies more than any other sporting event what Hayek refers to as the “echelon fashion” of progress[*] [Constitution of Liberty, ch. 3], whereby a rich elite (pro cyclists + rich amateurs who dream of being like them) pioneer the use of new and expensive equipment so that in the future such items become mass-produced and are eventually available for everyone at an affordable cost. I currently race on a $1000 bike… the Pros ride bikes that cost $10,000. And in the not-to-distant future, ordinary people will be commuting on that technology at a tiny fraction of today’s cost…

I’m not sure it can be said that any new equipment pioneered by footballers and baseball players will be contributing to the general benefit of society in any not-to-distant future, but maybe I’m wrong…

Yam Slemho July 7, 2011 at 7:29 am

forgot the footnote in the above
[*] this is quite apart from the fact that riders also ride in an echelon in order to maximize protection from the wind :-)

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