|June 18, 2012||Posted by Josh Boldt under Activism, Adjunct Professors, Education, Work|
I finally watched Moneyball last night. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time on a baseball field—several years as a catcher, and then a few more as an umpire after I stopped catching pitches. Baseball impacted my life more than any other sport. Which is why I was interested in the theme of Moneyball, but I had no idea how applicable that theme would be to my current work.
I was vaguely familiar with the Billy Beane story when it happened a decade ago. The film helped explain Beane’s popularization of the method by which he used statistical analysis to reduce players to a number and how he subsequently began conducting drafts and trades for the Oakland Athletics based on this metric. Beane made a pretty big splash with this idea that would later come to be known as sabermetrics, named for the Society of American Baseball Research.
Moneyball is clearly written and directed to glorify the work Beane did. His character is played by Brad Pitt and he’s depicted as a visionary who revolutionized baseball. It’s easy to get caught up in the story which paints Beane as a supreme underdog battling against teams who have five times the budget of the A’s. Beane is a rogue manager who will do whatever it takes to win. He re-envisions the way players are scouted and contracted in a way that maximizes his disproportional budget. Basically, he wins against all odds. A true American success story. What’s not to love?
Well, the film conveniently glosses over the dark side of Beane’s system of “moneyball.” Players are treated like livestock—traded and cut at a moment’s notice with no regard for the impact it might have on them. In one scene, Beane makes a dozen or so phone calls during which he shifts players around like a kid might trade those players’ baseball cards. But the energy of the scene is manipulated so well that you get caught up in it, pulling for Beane’s success. When he gets what he wants, we’re happy. We share his excitement. It’s easy to forget he’s just uprooted half a dozen families and shipped them across the country. That he’s pulled kids out of schools and hung For Sale signs on a handful of homes. Instead, we see Beane as a hero. He’s slaying the giants and winning with a terrible hand. As Beane so aptly puts it, “We are card counters at the blackjack table and we’re going to turn the odds at the casino.”
Beane’s perfidy is further masked by the two trades we actually witness, wherein both players quietly acquiesce and accept their fates without even a question. “Oh, the players are fine with it,” we’re left to assume. This style of treating people like property has no losers. Everyone wins and no one really gets hurt. I admit I got caught up in the story and I was pulling for Beane. I was hoping players would gracefully accept their fates and not give the hero too much trouble.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized Beane isn’t really the victim, nor is he the true underdog. The film fails to recognize that Beane is really just part of the problem. The new economy of baseball which has begun to control the game over the last few decades doesn’t really care about the game any more. Maybe it never did–I don’t know–but it has certainly become more clear than ever before. In the film, we’re constantly reminded that the New York Yankees have a $200 million dollar budget and that no other team can compete with their recruiting power. In other words, it’s all about money. Whichever team best manipulates its budget, is the team that “wins.” Towards the end of the film, the Boston Red Sox owner reminds Beane that “one of the luxuries of money is it buys a lot of things, one of which is the ability to disregard what baseball ‘likes.’” Translation: it’s not about the fans or the game. Of course, with that mentality, the players—the people who actually do the work—matter only as much as the dollar value assigned to them. And what about the game itself? How much can the game really matter when all that counts is the money that can be milked from it?
Academic Moneyball in Action
In America, we have a tendency to glorify the individual who takes lemons and makes lemonade, but we never consider how many lemons get squeezed in the process or what happens to them when all their juice is gone. One of the most profound lines in the movie is delivered by a nameless radio show caller who critiques Beane’s methods, saying, “You can’t approach baseball from a statistical ‘bean count’ point of view. It’s won on the field.” This underscores the point that it’s the actual players who ultimately control the success of the sport.
The Moneyball storyline is incredibly relevant to the current status of higher education. Many of our universities are competing against the New York Yankees. I get that. Everyone is facing budgetary imbalances that are unprecedented. Increasing the reliance on contingent labor is a form of “academic moneyball.” Teachers are now assets that can be liquidated at will for the sake of the budget. However, I believe this is a short-term solution that is actually creating a much bigger problem. Once we decide to stop “winning games on the field,” the entire focus of our educational system shifts to one that inevitably leads to self-destruction. Once we start playing moneyball, it can never again be about the game.