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Reading one of Andrew Sharp’s whimsical #HotSportsTakes yesterday on Grantland (which I still agreed with in parts), I discovered this tweet from Detroit Tiger’s ace/2011’s American League Cy Young winner/Kate Upton’s “on-again” boyfriend Justin Verlander1:

Just a quick aside: Verlander’s current profile-description-about-me thing on Twitter reads: “My house smells of rich mahagony and I have many leather bound books! -Anchorman”. Hold on, I have to go follow Justin Verlander on Twitter. Back. Wait, I have to tell Justin Verlander that he’s misspelling mahogany.

Okay, back. Hang on, that’s not even the quote, Ron Burgandy mentions the leather-bound books first… one sec.

Okay, all set. Remember this?

It’s David Ortiz, at home in the playoffs, hitting a game-tying grand slam off Tigers’ closer Joaquin Benoit with two outs in the eighth inning. What if after circling the bases, Ortiz had screamed this into the cameras:

I’M THE BEST HITTER IN THE GAME! WHEN YOU TRY ME WITH A SORRY PITCHER LIKE BENOIT, THAT’S THE RESULT YOU GON’ GET! DON’T YOU EVER TALK ABOUT ME! DON’T YOU OPEN YOUR MOUTH ABOUT THE BEST!

Questions to consider: Would baseball be better or worse? How quickly would Ortiz be forced to apologize (if at all)? Would people like to see him suspended? Would people be concerned he was taking performance enhancing drugs that also affected his behavior? (And wouldn’t people find this outburst just f#!%ing bizarre?)

Setting aside those questions, one thing is clear: if Ortiz had said that, Verlander, and presumably other Tigers pitchers, would throw 95+ mile-per-hour fastballs at Ortiz’s head.2 Baseball has a built-in corrective mechanism for such antics. There is a league office to fine players, the risk of ejection, and rarely a beaning will start a full-scale brawl, but players learn to keep their showboating to a minimum, lest they spend the rest of their at bats fearfully ducking for cover.

This got me thinking about other sports. As a fan, my general perception is that the NFL and NBA have more rude, childish behavior than the NHL and MLB. Perhaps this has more to do with the physical consequences–both their magnitude and their ease of execution–players can inflict on one another.

Such physical dangers are relative to the baseline for the sport. Football is quite physical already. The little catfights NFL players get into, while perhaps drawing a 15 yard penalty, do not pose any additional pains. Basketball has a lot of contact, although less forceful. Shoving matches and the occasional punch are more or less on par with the physicality in the game itself.

Baseball and hockey are different. In MLB, physical contact is very rare, while pitchers can easily brush off opponent hitters. Hockey has a lot of hitting, though it’s often more fluid than in other sports. A hockey player is a scarred player, but longer-term tears and breaks are less common.

Like baseball, hockey has a built-in mechanism for players who show off, taunt, and are generally just dicks. Enforcers and fighting are ingrained in hockey, and the two-minute penalties that come with them are frequently off-setting. NHL fighting penalties are usually not worse than any other penalty, and the players who receive them are usually less skilled. The NHL and MLB have milder deterrents for hitting back.

Is there actually less needless, immature, look-at-me, plain obnoxious behavior in MLB and the NHL than in the NFL and NBA? It’s hard to say. An exhaustive study would take a lot of thought and work. Googling a few things and drawing sketchy conclusions, however, is not too hard.

The table below shows the number of Google hits for some particular search terms, as of earlier this afternoon, January 23rd, 2013. The search terms are on the left; for example, the NFL search terms were “nfl”, “nfl football”, “nfl playoffs”, “nfl taunting”, “nfl taunts”, “nfl trash talk”, and “nfl insults”.

Trash Talk by Sport, Google Hits, 1/23/2014

[league] + “…” NFL NBA NHL MLB
[league only] 118,000,000 186,000,000 52,300,000 105,000,000
[league + sport] 553,000,000 360,000,000 189,000,000 136,000,000
Playoffs 126,000,000 98,000,000 61,400,000 87,700,000
~([league + sport] – Playoffs)~ 427,000,000 262,000,000 127,600,000 48,300,000
Taunting 515,000 241,000 147,000 132,000
Taunts 533,000 295,000 162,000 189,000
Trash Talk 13,800,000 11,600,000 956,000 1,050,000
Insults 2,710,000 1,900,000 392,000 296,000

Neat-O! While “taunting” and “taunts” did not yield much difference, there are many times as many hits for “trash talk” and “insults” in the NFL and NBA than in the NHL and MLB. Might that be conflated by the fact that some leagues are more or less popular than others? That is why I have included baseline numbers for each league. How about the fact that MLB is in the off-season currently, while the NBA and NHL are in full swing, and the NFL’s popularity is likely peaking as Super Bowl XLVIII nears?

Those are valid concerns, also this is not a scientific study in any way. To maybe-sorta-kinda get an idea, here are the Google hits for each sport’s “trash talk”, as a percentage of the playoffs-adjusted number of Google hits for [league + sport].3

Trash Talk by Sport, Google Hits Percentage, 1/23/2014

[league] + “…” NFL NBA NHL MLB
Trash Talk 3.23% 4.43% 0.75% 2.17%

There you have it! Football and basketball have to put up with more of this nonsense than hockey and baseball because it is easier for hockey and baseball players to punch back, with more bite, and fewer punishments from their leagues’ offices. From an individual (or microeconomic) perspective, running your mouth is more costly in the NHL and MLB than in the NFL and NBA.

As much as I might respect Sherman as a football player, and loath his (un)professional conduct, I have got to hand it to the Stanford communications major. He is really good at what he does. In the span of just a few hours he gave us this:

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Seattle SeahawksAnd this:

Screenshot (89)The adage “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” is there, if you want it. But in this case, I choose another old favorite: hate the game, not the player.


  1. Tagline for this already-extensively-titled post: “the intersection of Andrew Sharp, Cy Young, Kate Upton, and Justin Verlander”. Catchy, right? 
  2. If not immediately, in the midst of a tight playoff game, then later in the series during a game that was in hand, or certainly in a game this coming season. 
  3. Ie, the number of hits for “nfl football” minus the number of hits for “nfl playoffs”. Why this number? It scales better than other figures to the number of hits for “trash talk” and “insults” across all four sports, and more importantly, WHY NOT
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Earlier today while cleaning up my Favorited Tweets on Twitter, I came across one I’ve been meaning to look into for a while. It was a “TwitPic” of a simple chart, conceived at UCLA in the early 1970s. This is it:

Vermeil 2 Pt Chart

Credited to Dick Vermeil, an assistant coach at the time, versions of the chart have been around longer, but for whatever reason, this is “The One” that still hangs around college and NFL sidelines, albeit perhaps with a few minor changes unique to each coach. It’s fairly evident that, while getting on the right track, there are some serious problems with the chart, which Vermeil himself has long acknowledged (Battista).

Generally, the chart says to go for two when you can make the lead (either yours or your opponent’s) a small multiple of three (FG) or a multiple of seven, also valuing the 17 point lead and the 10 point deficit. Interestingly, the chart suggests going for two when down by one and by nine, something I certainly can’t recall a lot of coaches doing these days. Since 2006, only three times have offenses attempted a two point conversion when down by one, and only once when down by nine. NFL coaches don’t treat the chart like an ironclad law. Have they changed it for the maximum strategic advantage? Not quite.

Coaches still seem a little hazy about how the game clock affects two point attempts. The chart has nothing to say about the amount of time left in the game, but certainly it’s a factor. If it’s the first quarter, even if you can tie the game, why risk it? There are many possessions left for each team. But with under a minute in the 4th quarter, every coach would go for two to tie the game. When does it become necessary? Depends who you ask. In a 2002 Miami-FSU game with 11:44 left in the fourth quarter, FSU kicked the extra point to take a 13 point lead. Miami subsequently scored two touchdowns, holding FSU scoreless to win the game. FSU coach Bobby Bowden said afterward:

I don’t go for two early. If we missed it, a touchdown and two field goals would beat you. (Hutton)

Apparently, 48+ minutes into a game can still be “early”, and Bowden, head coach of a major NCAA Division I football program, was concerned about Miami scoring on three possessions, even though it would only take two to beat FSU. Herman Edwards, former head coach of the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs, liked to wait until 12 minutes remained in the game before considering a two point try (Battista). In 2011, then NFL.com analyst Michael Lombardi (now general manager of the Cleveland Browns) expressed his own thoughts:

Continue to add points. Do it until the amount of possessions remaining is dwindling. The discussion to go for two should never occur until the fourth quarter, when possessions are limited. (Lombardi)

It turns out that even before the 4th quarter, going for two can still be the strategic play. Harold Sackrowitz, a statistics professor at Rutgers University, is as expert as anyone on two point conversions, having spent years studying them and tinkering with probability models. He accounts for potential future possessions, the time left, the score, and even the probability of converting given the strengths and weaknesses of the offense and defense. And with all of that in mind, he knows teams should start considering to go for it in the middle of the third quarter (Battista).

How have two pointers fared recently? Using Pro Football Reference’s Play Finder, one can see that of the last 500 two point conversions attempted in the regular season (as many as they’ll show at once, going back to November 2004), 49.2% (246) succeeded while 50.8% (254) failed. Of the 31 attempts so far in 2013, 45.2% (14) have succeeded while 54.8% have failed. Actually I was a little discouraged by those numbers. 500 is a pretty fair sample, and with a 49.2% success rate, I suspect it yields the same number of expected points as an extra point (due to its much higher, still not 100% success rate). Are teams just going for two in the wrong situation or the wrong time, or are they going for two in the wrong situation, or the wrong time, and still not going for it enough? Mr. Sackrowitz thinks yes, and that teams should go for it more. Vermeil, now retired after a renowned coaching career, agrees:

I don’t think it’s a situation you can perfect. I do say this: I believe it’s probably you don’t go for two points often enough. Now that I sit and watch on TV and don’t have that pressure, I can say, “You guys are chicken.” (Battista)

As time goes on, it will be interesting to see if they are proven right.

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