When obtaining a post-secondary education in Economics and/or Business related fields, one typically spends a considerable amount of time studying various models of decision-making. Arguably two prominent reasons for teaching those models to students not targeting an academic career—most notably the majority of undergraduate students as well budding MBAs—are a) to provide them with frameworks to forecast and foresee the decisions of others and b) to sharpen their ability in making decisions themselves (which, in turn, is closely related to a)).
For their lack of opportunities to make significant decisions themselves while still in training, we typically resort to (real-world) examples featured in the business press or to (fictitious) business cases. In order to provide them with practice, we jointly tackle questions as in “how would you decide in this situation” or “what do you predict as the likely outcome of that scenario” in class. To put it bluntly, we teach them how to read, analyze and understand subject-specific articles. In the age of “fake news” and ubiquitous news coverage, I truly hope we also teach them how not to.
I typically challenge the class to feed each other with interesting and currently published information related to course content. Recently, a student of mine sent me this article published in the Economist linking the National Football League (NFL) with game theory. This student conceivably made a brilliant choice. The major sports leagues in the United States constitute an arena of decision-making commonly beloved by students, game theory is exciting as it adds the strategic component and The Economist is a highly reputable media outlet of business and politics. On the surface, I could not have chosen better myself.
In short, the article describes the contract situation between the (in recent decades) chronically unsuccessful Buffalo Bills and Tyrod Taylor, their current starting quarterback (the one who throws the ball), in early 2017. The Buffalo Bills benched Taylor for their last regular season game on New Year’s eve. At this point, Buffalo had no chance of reaching the playoffs anymore, i.e. it was de facto the last game of their season. After Taylor had played through a groin injury for several weeks, he opted for surgery at the very beginning of the offseason, i.e. 3 days after the last game (in which he did not feature).
The Economist argues that both actions, the Bills benching Taylor for their last game as well as Tyrod opting for surgery were direct consequences of the incentive structure inherent to their contractual situation. While, as claimed in the article, Taylor was an above average (top third) quarterback at an average quarterback salary, the Bills had the option to cut Taylor for negligible expenses until the beginning of March. However, if Mr. Taylor was rendered not fit to perform football services, the Bills would owe him close to $30M if they fired him.
This, for the Economist, constituted a so-called prisoner’s dilemma, a strategic stand-off between multiple parties in which each party has an unequivocally optimal action, which, if employed by everyone relevant to the game results in the socially worst scenario. In other words, the Bills had an incentive to bench Taylor for the last game whereas he should try everything possible not to be fit to play during the offseason (at least until March). What is more, it was stipulated that the Bills overlooked that they were in fact caught in a repeated prisoner’s dilemma with varying actors, that is other players with who they would have to deal in the future.
The main predictions based on their analysis were that, while not explicitly claimed, it was likely that the Bills were either going to fire Tyrod Taylor while injured (a costly endeavor) or opt not to due to the financial penalty of doing so although they would prefer to part ways. In any case, acting according to their best option would somehow sever the bond between the Bills and their quarterback. Moreover, by not realizing the more general implications of crossing a star player, the Bills would significantly reduce their chances of hiring popular players in the future. All of these implications taken together would even prolong and worsen the Buffalo Bills drought and their absence from the playoffs (17 years and counting). Lastly, it was argued that Rex Ryan, the coach of the Bills until their last season game was fired by the club’s owners since he disagreed with benching Taylor for the last season game.
In fact, the Buffalo Bills and Tyrod Taylor did not part way in the offseason of 2017. Instead, they renegotiated Taylor’s contract to keep him as a quarterback on a significantly lower salary. During the season the Bills took Kelvin Benjamin, a highly rated wide receiver (the one who catches the ball) from the Carolina Panthers, under contract. While the Bills traded assets (future draft picks) for the receiver and the trade was not directly Benjamin’s decision, it seems unlikely that the Bills would part with valuable options for today’s college players for an athlete who was not eager to play for the franchise. As of week 15 of the current season (two more games to follow), the Bills show a record of 8 wins and 6 losses and are at the brink of qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in 18 years.
While one time negative results do most certainly not refute the validity of predictions in the first place, a strategic analysis delivers similar results. A football player who opts for surgery only 3 days after the end of the season, a surgery which has an average recovery time of 7 weeks for non-athletes, does not seem to try everything possible to be deemed unfit when March comes around. If Taylor was above average in quality but paid below peers of his level, would it not be optimal for the team if he took care of his injuries as quickly as possible (to ensure his availability for team as long as possible before the start of the next season)? Many teams in various sports bench their star players in games that are inessential to their season goals. Why was this such a particular move in the case of the Buffalo Bills and Tyrod Taylor and why does this move necessarily carry negative consequences for an already injured player? Why, if Tyrod Taylor was overpaid against the league’s standards, did he agree to continue on the team for a substantially lower salary? Is it more likely that the Bills fired their head coach over a singular disagreement regarding the line-up or due the fact that Mr. Ryan did repeatedly not manage to lead a talented team to the playoffs and that he had an abysmal record in close games?
The model-theoretic analysis of the quoted article is as little capable of answering those questions as its predictions coincide with what unraveled after its publication. Bar a very few superstars, the National Football League (NFL) and its teams have tremendous power over their players as most NFL players would be expected to earn only a tiny fraction of their actual salaries if they were not to make it into or would have to exit the league. This fact paired with a salary cap, which ensures talent to the distributed across teams, guarantees teams significant bargaining power.
Dazzled by the institution of a reputable magazine and by the connection of buzz words and sports, I initially forwarded the article to the remainder of my students without any specific comments. After thoroughly reading and reflecting, however, I decided to scrutinize the article in class. In addition to teaching students how to filter business press articles and other relevant outlets for information and conducting an analysis based on these premises, I believe we ought to realize that, in a world characterized by the ubiquity of unfiltered content, teaching them to challenge this very information is the first crucial step towards a successful analytical contribution. While this sounds trivial, it clearly has to begin with questioning the intentions of author and publisher when reading an article. Whether the creators of an article intend to push a dogma, support a particular political view or simply myopically attempt to maximize readership, abstracting from those intentions should be the very first step in the process of filtering information.