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Game theory

TUESDAY, JANUARY 22, 2002 — Once or twice every few decades, circumstances align to transform a sporting event into a community event. Game Six of the 1975 World Series met that standard. The late-game heroics of Carlton Fisk and Bernie Carbo still resonate in our memory-obsessed city. The same can be said for last Saturday’s playoff match-up between the New England Patriots and the Oakland Raiders. For those who spent the night at Aria, here’s what happened: the Patriots overcame a 10-point deficit with just about seven minutes left in the fourth quarter. In a snowstorm. Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s decision to lobby for a game in prime time and the snowy weather conspired to create a highly watched game. Tom Brady, Jermaine Wiggins, et al., made it special.

Already a couple of debates about the game are raging. The most clamorous involves the decision of referee Walt Coleman to reverse his call that Brady fumbled and declare it an incomplete pass, which preserved the Patriots’ chances. It fell to ultra-connected Boston Globe columnist Will McDonough to render this debate moot. McDonough explained that under NFL rules, any forward movement of the quarterback’s arm must be called a pass. "When Walt Coleman overruled himself and changed his call from fumble to incomplete pass, the right call was made," McDonough quoted the NFL’s Greg Aiello as saying. "People are saying this is a controversial call. By the rule, it was not." The rationale behind this rule — which may be changed, according to today’s papers — is simple. The league wants to take the referees out of the business of deciphering the quarterback’s intent — a proposition not unique to football or even to sports. In the legal realm, the "strict liability" doctrine, which holds people liable for certain actions regardless of their intent.

The second debate centers on the quality of Saturday night’s game. Boston Globe sports columnist Bob Ryan, pontificating on WBZ’s Sports Final with Bob Lobel, argued that the game could not be considered great because players could not perform to their maximum capacity in the snow. Ryan likened it to Game Five of the 1984 finals between the Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, when the temperature reached 97 degrees. Here the generally terrific Ryan, who is mostly a basketball and baseball man, erred. Ryan neglects the elemental nature of football. As kids, nobody dreams of playing basketball in the Amazonian rain forest. But when I was young, as soon as snow fell, we’d grab a football, head for the back yard, and pretend to be Sam "Bam" Cunningham. Lambeau Field in Green Bay is a sacred place to football fans for this very reason.

The first Patriots game I can remember caring about was the famous 1976 Raiders-Patriots playoff in Oakland, the one robbed from New England by referee Ben Dreith’s fictive "roughing the passer" call on Sugar Bear Hamilton. I watched that game — alone in my room — on an old black-and-white TV with no knob. Finally, after 26 years, Patriots fans are avenged.

A CURIOUS STORY about Robert Reich led the Business & Money section of the Sunday Boston Globe. The headline read, "Robert Reich, Economist?" The subhead continued, "Lack of formal training in the field doesn’t deter drive to fix the state’s finances." This highfalutin hit piece featured several bitter academics complaining that gubernatorial candidate Reich, a graduate of Dartmouth, Oxford, and Yale Law School, failed to meet their standards of scholarship. "It’s clear to me that he doesn’t have much formal training in economics," sniped Laurence Kotlikoff of Boston University. Another complained that Reich "is interested in fixable problems and what can be done to fix them. That’s not the mission of an academic economist." Finally, the academy confesses: we don’t care about practical problems. For his part, Reich — who is more like a 19th-century political economist, as former FTC chief economist Frederic M. Scherer pointed out for the Globe — doesn’t deny any of this. He readily admitted in the story that "my strength is applying economic policy to real-world problems."

So where’s the story? Petty academicians don’t like a fellow professor luxuriating in the limelight. In 1996, Reich proposed a $38.7 billion budget. That was more than double the budget Governor William Weld proposed for Massachusetts the same year. Reich may have his flaws, but this sniping from fellow professors certainly doesn’t touch on them.

Issue Date: January 22, 2002

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