Wertheim challenging sports norms

In his career, Jon Wertheim ’93 has proven sportswriting is more than just about going to a game and reporting the score. At a Saybrook College master’s tea on Tuesday, Wertheim, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated who predominantly covers tennis, addressed about 40 students on sports-related topics ranging from the intersection of sports and economics to the current state of sports media.

After graduating from Yale, Wertheim attended the University of Pennsylvania Law School. But upon graduation, Wertheim described his time as a lawyer as “misery.” At the time, there were a number of legal cases involving sports personalities, so Wertheim identified an opportunity to apply his legal knowledge to a topic he loved — sports — and took a job at Sports Illustrated.

Since taking a job at Sports Illustrated in 1996, Wertheim has covered a sport he loves, tennis, while also writing on issues ranging from steroids to Mike Danton, a hockey player recently released from jail who tried to have his agent killed, a subject that will be featured in this week’s issue.

Wertheim’s most recent project, “Scorecasting,” is a book about the overlap of sports, economics and decision-making that he co-authored with economist Tobias Moskowitz.

“There is so much standardization and data that sports are an effective way to study these issues,” Wertheim said.

This large set of sports data lends itself particularly well to an analysis of the omission bias, Wertheim said. The omission bias is a cognitive principle by which an individual would rather remain passive and not risk the blame for a particular action than take the blame for a bad decision.

Wertheim said that while this principle is applicable to corporate America, it also applies in sports when referees “swallow the whistle” because they don’t want to make calls when the game is tight.

An example of officials’ desire to retreat away from calls is the tendency of an umpire in the MLB not to call a ball with a 3-0 count because he would rather the player hit the ball and put it in play than risk taking the blame for his call. He said referee calls generally decrease in frequency towards the end of games.

“There is a case to be made that maybe we don’t mind in the last minutes of a game if athletes are determining the outcome,” he said.

After his discussion on the omission bias, Wertheim fielded questions from students, many of whom shared Wertheim’s passion for tennis.

Wertheim said tennis is interesting to cover because of the wide range of personalities that he faces.

“The dirty secret about tennis is the great trips,” Wertheim said. “The other thing is everyone’s nuts…there is this personality component. Sometimes it goes too far in one direction, but it’s fun to explore people … being an athlete is crazy land.”

Wertheim also discussed the changing landscape of media. He said there will always be a place for good writing and analysis — it just might not be in the form of a print newspaper. He added that he is indifferent as to whether his writing appears in print form or online. He said blogs are a great opportunity to write.

“Saying ‘I’m a reporter and they’re making me blog’ is like saying, ‘I’m in the NBA and they’re making me play minutes.’ These are opportunities that didn’t exist before. Just run with it, and don’t lose sight of the fact that you do it because you like writing and telling stories,” he said.

The audience, which included student journalists and athletes, responded positively to Wertheim’s talk.

Paul Wainer ’11, an economics major, said Wertheim offered an interesting view on the application of an economic principle to sports.

“Wertheim was very down to earth and open,” he said.

Becky Sackler ’12 said she reads Wertheim’s tennis column each week, and Tuesday’s tea was a great opportunity to get his insider’s perspective in person.

Wertheim is currently a visiting professor of English at Princeton University.

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