Horses and Zebras (September 2017)

One of the very first things that young physicians are taught is that when you hear hoofbeats you should think of horses, not zebras. It’s great and very useful advice; aphorisms become aphorisms for a reason. If there are hundreds of horses out there for every zebra, you want your doctor to be really good at spotting horses. But what happens when a zebra shows up? Well, for one thing, that well-worn adage turns out to be worse than useless; it actively points the diagnostician in the wrong direction. And, as it happens, there are zebras all over the place.

Even though the absolute number of any given rare illness — usually defined as a prevalence of fewer than 1 cases per 1,500 people —can be vanishingly small, rare illnesses are, overall, reasonably common: estimates peg the frequency at somewhere between 6% and 8% of the population [1]. You almost certainly know someone afflicted with a zebra, even if you don’t know that you know. The problem is that these illnesses are, generally speaking, diagnostic nightmares. Patients regularly endure astounding lapses between symptom onset and diagnosis; in one survey nearly a quarter of respondents reported waited more than five years before being correctly diagnosed [2]. The reasons behind this aren’t totally clear, but almost certainly relate to doctors’ relentless pursuit of, and greater comfort with, horses.

Such profound diagnostic failure implies not only that we’re exposing patients to needless delay, cost and sickness, but also that corralling zebras might require something besides our usual set of diagnostic tools. The trouble is that, if a patient spends several years— not to mention astronomical sums — chasing the identity of her illness, it stands to reason that she’s been exposed to every diagnostic modality that could reasonably be expected to yield a solution (and probably quite a few that couldn’t). Between the plethora of exams and tests that these patients have already been subjected to, and digital libraries that have collated all of our medical knowledge into searchable databases, it’s fair to say that our struggles with zebras don’t stem from a dearth of useful information. These mysteries aren’t typically unlocked by some late arriving silver bullet; they’re solved by someone synthesizing the available data and figuring out the answer. So maybe the smart way to approach a tricky diagnostic problem might be just to have lots of different doctors take a shot at it.

That, at least, is the animating insight behind a software firm called CrowdMed. Their platform, which was launched in 2013, aims to speed the diagnosis of rare illnesses by tapping into the intelligence of a wide network of “medical detectives”: a previously unconnected array of health professionals, med students and laypeople from around the world. The detectives each evaluate the patient’s case, and suggest a diagnosis; the set of suggestions are then aggregated and ultimately presented to the patient as a list of possible diagnoses, ranked by likelihood of being correct. But the heart of CrowdMed’s pitch isn’t merely that they’ll collect second (and third and fourth) opinions; instead, they’re arguing that they can unravel vexing medical problems by getting a group of diverse diagnosticians to work in concert.


CrowdMed is seeking to leverage the problem-solving capacity of groups. This idea — that groups of people working together can realize a level of performance or intelligence that exceeds that of its smartest member — has a long intellectual history, as detailed in James Surowiecki’s 2005 book, The Wisdom of the Crowds [3]. [A sentence worth of examples]. Though Surowiecki makes a reasonably compelling argument that crowdsourcing approaches are well suited to addressing a variety of problems, it’s obvious that not all groups are smart or capable of making good decisions. A mob of people reinforcing one another’s marauding isn’t smart, and a coterie of investors inflating a bubble isn’t making good choices. Surowiecki acknowledges this, and suggests that a group’s problem-solving capacity is tied to its adherence to a set of essential conditions.

Chief among these are diversity and independence. In diverse groups the members each have a unique perspective or individual “private information”; constituents of independent groups aren’t unduly influenced by one another. The smartest groups have both these elements, and dumbest have neither. Diversity is critical to ensuring that the group evaluates as many potential solutions as possible, whereas independence helps prevent individual errors from becoming systematically biased. Groups that lack independence and diversity are prone to fixating on an incorrect answer, and, worse yet, will often fail to consider the correct solution at all. The result can be as dramatic as the Tulip Mania in 17th century Netherlands (fueled by a group who was neither diverse nor independent), or as mundane as a mutual fund investing in the wrong stock. In either case, the group’s characteristics prevent it from taking advantage of its collective intelligence.

It’s not clear that CrowdMed’s cadre of sleuths is diverse or independent, at least not in the sense contemplated by Surowiecki. By design, there are essentially zero barriers to participate as a CrowdMed solver; the company encourages everyone, regardless of whether they have a medical background or training, to try to solve the cases. The result is a rather heterogeneous assortment of diagnosticians: 38% are male, 24% from outside the United States and 42% weren’t involved in medical industry [4]. The service is still relatively small — 357 total case solvers in the period between 2013 and 2015 — and it’s certainly reasonable to expect it to become more cosmopolitan and gender-balanced as it grows. Overall, CrowdMed profiles as a rather diverse group in terms of demographics.

But demographic diversity isn’t the same as informational diversity. The stipulations that Surowiecki discussed have nothing to do with whether the crowd is gender-balanced or multinational or trained in a particular field. Instead, the salient question is whether the various group members are able to contribute unique private information. But since the patient uploads all the relevant data and images, and all solvers have access to same online resources, it’s more or less impossible for any of the solvers to possess what might be considered private information. The solvers are able to ask the patients specific questions, but even the records of those interactions are fully available to all other solvers. The private information necessary for diversity is structurally excluded from the CrowdMed platform.

To be fair, though, it’s possible that CrowdMed’s solvers achieve diversity not through an abundance of private information but by virtue of eccentric interpretations of the available facts; perhaps, if everyone puts a unique spin on the data, it can compensate for an absence of private information. In a way, CrowdMed seems to be counting on this: in 100% of its cases, doctors—more than one, usually—have taken a shot at a diagnosis and come up short. Given such a daunting starting point, it’s not totally unreasonable to suppose that an unconventional approach might be required to crack these cases. So, that 40% of CrowdMed’s solver base is comprised of people who work outside of the medical field would seem to both be well-suited to CrowdMed’s challenges and assuage concerns of insufficient informational diversity.

However, though dependence on non-medical minds might be a boon to diversity, it has the potential to undercut CrowdMed’s operation in other ways. Surowiecki’s book (and the entire notion of crowd-based decision making) can easily be read as an indictment of reliance on expert advice. After all, crowdsourcing methods are beneficial only if they offer superior performance to a traditional non-crowd decision maker. But those comparisons are, critically, between a crowd and a single expert. Accordingly, Surowiecki and others caution us to limit our reliance on solitary, lone-wolf decision makers. That said, experts—people with enough knowledge and experience to make meaningful contributions to the crowd’s deliberations — remain indispensable. There’s no reason to believe that experts (doctors, in this case) are less valuable to crowds than laypeople, or that a crowd of laypeople is preferable to a crowd of experts. On the contrary, it’s clear that in this realm, diversity can only be beneficial when accompanied by expertise. If, for example, a significant portion of a crowd lacks medical expertise — and thus the capacity to contribute meaningful ideas to the discussion — not only can you be fairly certain that a correct solution won’t emerge from that section of the crowd, but you also risk bogging down the true experts by forcing them to sift through the output of the non-experts. This is precisely the quagmire that CrowdMed and its armada of detectives finds itself in. The overall consequence of CrowdMed’s problem-solving method is to rob the group of its potential advantages in efficiency and potentially reduce the crowd’s intelligence to below that of its smartest members.

Despite that, CrowdMed’s process has been, at very least, a qualified success. About half of its clients would recommend CrowdMed to a friend, and close to 60% reported that the process led them closer to a diagnosis; this certainly suggests that the process is providing customers with real value. But, unsurprisingly, that value is disproportionately attributable to the superior contributions of expert group members: solvers in the medical field are, on average, rated more than 20% better than their non-medical colleagues. The only salient difference between those two groups is level of relevant expertise. Crowdsourcing, as it happens, isn’t that much different from traditional problem solving: either way, you need people who know what they’re talking about.


Surowiecki’s book opens with a famous anecdote. Francis Galton—the famous statistician and legendary polymath — finds himself at a country fair. For a small fee, the fairgoers were invited to guess the weight of an ox; whoever is closest to the mark wins the pot. Close to 800 people got in on the action. When the guesses were averaged, that figure ended up being only one pound off from the actual weight of the ox. The crowd had, collectively, made a nearly perfect prediction. Galton was duly impressed and the first seeds of the crowdsourcing revolution were planted.

The Galton story is a tidy illustration of the potential of the sort of crowdsourcing that CrowdMed is trying to tap into, but paradoxically also hints at its limitations. While only a portion of the country fair crowd were genuine experts — butchers, farmers and the like — everyone who guessed had at least some rational basis to make a judgment. Each guesser, for instance, would have known his own weight and could use that to at least ballpark a guess for the ox. Close to half of CrowdMed’s sleuths, on the other hand, aren’t involved in the medical field at all; they can’t be expected to have even basic knowledge to make a rudimentary diagnosis, let alone identify some esoteric disease that has evaded the detection of several previous doctors.

Perhaps more importantly, the crowd was able to successfully determine the weight of the ox in large part because with such a wide range of independent guesses, each participant’s individual biases and errors essentially canceled one another out. The process systematically eliminated outliers and pushed the estimate toward the fat middle of the bell curve.

But rare diseases aren’t found in the middle of the bell curve. They are, by definition, uncommon outliers that ignore conventional wisdom and frustrate our usual approaches. And, because of that, their solutions don’t lend themselves to the aggregation of a sea of piecemeal contributions. They ask that one smart person take a step back, put it all together and recognize that it’s not an ox, at all. It’s a zebra.


[1] Rode, Joachim. “Rare Diseases: understanding this Public Health Priority.” (2005).

[2] Faurisson, Francois. “EurordisCare2: Survey of diagnostic delays, 8 diseases, Europe.” (2004).

[3] Surowiecki, James. The wisdom of crowds. Anchor, 2005.

[4] Meyer, Ashley ND, Christopher A. Longhurst, and Hardeep Singh. “Crowdsourcing diagnosis for patients with undiagnosed illnesses: an evaluation of CrowdMed.” Journal of medical Internet research 18.1 (2016).

Cash Rules Everything Around (Him): The Blacklisting of Colin Kaepernick (November 2017)

I. There Are No Second Acts in the Lives of Quarterbacks

Before he was the symbol of a movement, Colin Kaepernick was a quarterback. And a good one, too. In 2011, he was drafted in the second round by the San Francisco 49ers, with the hope that, after a few years on the bench, he’d develop into the franchise’s next great quarterback. Fate wasn’t that patient. Midway through Kaepernick’s second year, starting QB Alex Smith was sidelined with a concussion and a still-green Kaepernick was thrust into the spotlight. He did not disappoint. He promptly led the 49ers to the conference championship game, and, the following year, to within a few plays of winning the Super Bowl. A star was born.

That was nearly five years ago. Today, Kaepernick is an unsigned free-agent, relegated to giving interviews about how he’s working out to stay in shape and anxiously waiting for another chance to get back into the game. Nobody is calling.

This is curious. By any reasonable estimation, Kaepernick’s performance since his Super Bowl appearance has been mixed. Although he’s endured the constant churn of turnover in his team’s front office, coaching staff and roster, it also appears that enemy squads have become more comfortable defending his dynamic, run-heavy style. Kaepernick’s teams haven’t sniffed the heights of his halcyon early days — his win-loss record over the last two seasons is 4-20, which is certainly suboptimal — and, since he plays the most important and high-profile position in American sports, some of that blame inevitably found its way to his feet. That just comes with the territory. But none of that even remotely suggests that Kaepernick wouldn’t, right now, today, be a useful starting – let alone backup — quarterback for at least a handful of NFL teams, all of whom at least ostensibly are trying to win football games. All sorts of statistics — traditional and “advanced” — suggest that even during the nadir of his 2016 season, he was performing at around the league average. Star players have vocalized their bewilderment at Kaepernick’s continued unemployment. ESPN ran a piece asserting that there’s “no on-field precedent for a quarterback as active as Kaepernick to linger in free agency without a job after serving as a regular quarterback the previous season, let alone one as effective”. And all of this is taking place parallel to a raft of grumbling and griping about the declining quality of offensive play around the League. Yet, the response of the NFL establishment has been the equivalent of a shrug emoji.


I should confess that, so far, I’ve been a bit disingenuous. The truth is that to any NFL fan — or to anyone who, at any point during the last year or so, has wandered upon a cable sports talking head program, a sports radio scream fest, or pretty much anywhere on the internet — Kaepernick’s ongoing unemployment isn’t even mildly puzzling. It’s actually pretty straightforward.

For years now, before the two teams go to war on the gridiron, the players on both teams stand during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner. There’s no strict rule or law mandating any of this, but, up until recently, it’d gone completely unquestioned. So, it was at least a tiny bit remarkable when, prior to a preseason game in 2016, Kaepernick opted to sit, rather than stand for the anthem. When asked after the game about his actions, Kaepernick said “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder”. The statement was quite obviously a direct reference to the series of police violence incidents that, in recent years, has given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.

The NFL noticed, but didn’t seem to mind too much. In a press release the next day, they affirmed that “[p]layers are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the National Anthem.” The 49ers released a similarly anodyne statement. Kaepernick continued his protests throughout the preseason (though at one point he decided to kneel rather than sit, in an effort to show respect to current and former members the U.S. Armed Forces). It appeared to be a non-issue. But, as the season began, and America’s attention turned more fully to its true national pastime, the spotlight on Kaepernick intensified. By the end of the season’s first month a national poll reported that Kaepernick was, by far, the most disliked player in the NFL; 36% of fans said they disliked him “a lot”, as compared to just 10% two years earlier.

Kaepernick’s protests, which continued unabated throughout the season and were seconded by a handful of NFL players and athletes in other sports, did receive some encouraging feedback. His popularity and profile among African-Americans nationwide (and black NFL fans in particular), for instance, jumped substantially. Just as notably, groups of police officers and veterans have each held rallies to show their support for Kaepernick and his message. But at the same time, the weight of the animus towards Kaepernick has been crushing. Jim Brown, the legendary NFL running back and trailblazing civil rights activist, claimed that he would prefer to protest “in an intelligent manner”. NFL executives, for their part, were quoted (off the record, of course) calling Kaepernick “un-American”, “a traitor”, and the most hated player among NFL front office types since Rae Carruth — that’s the same Rae Carruth who, by the way, is currently in prison for conspiring to murder the mother of his unborn child. Even if that characterization was exaggerated for effect, the shape of the sentiment toward Kaepernick among NFL management was undeniable. So, after Kaepernick’s departure from the 49ers at the end of the 2016 season, the failure of any other team to pick him up was neither surprising, nor especially difficult to parse.

In my estimation, though, the least interesting questions surrounding the Kaepernick affair revolve around whether the NFL’s unwillingness to hire him rises to the level of a conspiracy or if the owners have explicitly colluded to deny him employment. For one thing, tacit and explicit collusion can work equally well — either way, Kaepernick is fated to remain an armchair quarterback. More importantly though, a quixotic search for the smoking gun that proves collusion inevitably leads us away from discussing how the NFL’s filibuster of Kaepernick is wholly driven, rationalized and perpetuated by its insatiable profit motive.

How do we know? Because it’s a story as old as Hollywood.


II. When You Combine Ignorance and Leverage, You Get Some Interesting Results

The interplay between talent — actors, writers, directors and the like — and management in Hollywood has always been a function of leverage. The dictum is as evident now — with talent guilds discovering the impotence of their strike threats in the face of diversified, multinational conglomerates whose bottom lines aren’t especially reliant on producing movies — as it was during the so-called golden age of the studio system. Back then, and up until the late 1940s, the studios had a policy of what was known as block booking; basically, if a theater wanted to buy the right to show a highly-anticipated big-budget movie headlined by a superstar, they were also forced to purchase a whole slate of other films, which, inevitably, were decidedly less anticipated, rarely featured A-list talent and consequently were much cheaper to make. Because of this policy, studios could produce an incredible number of movies, and still be certain that nearly all of them would be profitable. And, as a nice little side benefit, this arrangement also meant that the studios’ bottom line was independent of the quality of the talent involved (since the films were going to make money no matter what). The big studios had cemented their position as the only game in town; there was really nowhere else for an ambitious actor or writer or director to take her talents. It was as if all the players were stuck on rookie contracts, with no hope of ever making it to free agency. The studios had all the leverage, and the talent had none.

But nothing — not even anti-competitive schemes that place gross restrictions on the movement of labor — lasts forever. In the late 1930s, federal antitrust litigators took aim at the studio system and, although block booking wouldn’t be officially outlawed until 1948, made clear that the foundation of the studios’ financial certainty was on shaky ground. With their golden goose imperiled, the studios and their lawyers fought tooth and nail to preserve the status quo, and actually succeeded in delaying the inevitable for close to a decade. But the writing was on the wall. The studios’ old way of doing business was on its last legs.

If the decline of the block booking system portended catastrophe for the studios, it promised a brave new world for Hollywood talent. In an industry free of block booking, exhibitors would be free to make independent (read: uncoerced) decisions about which movies they did, and did not, want to see. Studio profitability would be tied to the critical and commercial reception of their offerings, and prominent talent with an attached imprimatur of quality filmmaking would inevitably be pushed to the forefront of pitches to both the exhibitors and the public. Successful actors and writers would, in turn, be empowered to seek out the best deals for themselves, secure in the knowledge that the studios needed them, not vice versa. Leverage works both ways.

Like all aspects of American life in the 1930s and 1940s, though, the imminent ascent of Hollywood’s working class was complicated by the prevailing political climate. The second Red Scare, which began in the late 1940s and crested about five years later, followed and fed a growing national hysteria over the specter of communism in the United States. The building panic led directly to a host of attempts by various arms of the government to root out any communist influence, often in the most public and brazen manner possible.

Chief among these was the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Convened in 1938 with a mandate to investigate alleged disloyal and subversive behavior, no person or organization — public or private — was beyond its reach. Hollywood managed to largely duck the Committee’s wrath for nearly a decade, but in the end got caught with a haymaker. In October 1947, prompted in part by the Hollywood Reporter’s publication of a list of supposed communist sympathizers, HUAC undertook nine days of hearings into allegations of communist influence in the film industry. Drawing from the Hollywood Reporter list as well as a few other sources, the Committee placed 79 people on its witness list; nineteen of those, citing First Amendment free speech protections, declared that they would not give evidence or otherwise cooperate with the investigation.

Eleven of those nineteen were eventually called before the Committee. One of the eleven ultimately chose to cooperate; the other ten forever etched their names in Hollywood lore. Each of the ten “unfriendly witnesses” refused to respond to some variant of this now-famous query: “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist party?” Some tried instead to read statements asserting the unconstitutionality of the proceedings, but were quite literally shouted down by the Committee members. In short order, each of the Hollywood Ten was charged with contempt of Congress, and subjected to criminal proceedings in the House of Representatives.

The Ten had the support of a number of prominent Hollywood denizens — John Huston, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart among them — and, at first, it seemed like the studios and management would back them too. About a week after the Ten’s indictment, the Association of Motion Picture Producers (at the time, the leading trade association for the film industry) took out a full-page ad in the New York Times affirming their steadfast support; “tell the boys not to worry,” proclaimed Eric Johnston, the Association’s president.

Three days later, Johnston met behind closed doors with 48 film company executives at the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan. When the men emerged from the hotel, Johnston completed an astonishing about-face. “We did not defend them,” Johnston claimed, in diametric opposition to his previous statements. “We do not defend them now. On the contrary, we believe they have done a tremendous disservice to the industry which has given them so much material rewards and opportunity to exercise their talents”. The industry’s new position was soon memorialized in a press release that came to be known as the Waldorf Statement.

After the Waldorf Statement, the rebuke of the Hollywood Ten was swift and uncompromising. The Ten were indicted for contempt of Congress and eventually sent to prison for a year. After their release, the Ten (each of whom had been habitually employed by various studios prior to the Statement) were unable to acquire jobs in Hollywood, and in some cases, even had fees for previously completed work withheld. Well-qualified, experienced men with known histories of success — and who wanted to work — were systematically denied employment by the cartel of management interests that controlled their industry, simply because they had made an unpopular political expression. Hollywood had officially entered its blacklist era.

Sound familiar?


III. A Nation Divided Against Itself Will Still Watch Movies

It’s fairly obvious, but still worth pointing out: the Hollywood blacklist was, without a doubt, a reflection of the politics of its time. Deteriorating U.S.-Soviet relations abroad, incipient McCarthyism at home and recent memories of the worst possible manifestations of extremist ideology made the vilification of communism an easy sell for politicians of all stripes. But red-baiting in Hollywood and elsewhere would have fallen on deaf ears had communism not already made significant inroads in America. Since they’re now (correctly) remembered as mistreated martyrs and lionized as intrepid champions of free speech, it’s easy to forget that, at one time or another, each the Hollywood Ten were, in fact, avowed communists. And it wasn’t just them: in the late 1930s, just as HUAC was gathering itself, Communist Party membership in the United States peaked at around 75,000, and the party had positioned itself as synonymous with organized labor in a variety of industries. To a significant portion of Americans, communism wasn’t some phony apparition; it was an ever-present and preeminent threat to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

In that context, it wasn’t all that unreasonable, or even particularly objectionable, for HUAC to open its inquiry by asking the Hollywood Ten about their Communist Party affiliations. Party membership wasn’t per se illegal, and the suggestion that the Ten might hold those beliefs was in line with their own previous public statements. What was objectionable — and all the more so with the benefit of 70 years of hindsight — was that a refusal to answer the Committee’s questions triggered a government-sanctioned conspiracy that prevented the Ten from obtaining employment anywhere in the film and TV industry.

In 1947 though, questions of the propriety of HUAC’s actions and the ethics of blacklisting alleged communist sympathizers divided America along now-familiar ideological lines. In a Gallup poll taken the week the infamous Waldorf Statement was released, 36% of respondents disapproved of the Committee’s investigation — but 37% approved. More to the point, 47% said that they thought that the Ten should be punished for refusing to say whether they were members of the Communist Party; only 39% thought they shouldn’t. And as you might expect, supporters of HUAC were, by and large, exceptionally anti-communist. When it came to the Red Scare, it seems, you were either with us, or you were against us.

Kaepernick’s protests arrived in similarly polarized political climate. The yawning chasm in our modern world between, well, take your pick — right and left, white and black, Republican and Democrat, the Cowboys and everyone else — has been well documented. Unsurprisingly, Kaepernick’s protests haven’t escaped this self-segregation: in a Survey Monkey poll taken just a few weeks after his protests began, 44% of respondents were “not supportive at all” of his actions, whereas 29% were supportive. Meanwhile, despite a rapid rise to stardom and high profile Super Bowl appearance, Kaepernick was, as recently as two years ago, a player that most NFL fans didn’t have strong feelings about one way or another; these days, post-protest, he’s among the most well-liked players among black NFL fans, and he’s the single most disliked player by white NFL fans. Eight out of ten Republicans think his protests are inappropriate; eight out of ten Democrats feel the opposite. Only a small sliver of fans remains undecided or even neutral. Everyone is choosing sides. Either you’re with him or against him.


IV. It’s the Economy, Stupid

The prevailing political climate may have been necessary to the birth of the blacklist — but it wasn’t sufficient. In order for the blacklist to exist, much less persist for decades and halt the careers of hundreds of people, Hollywood had to take specific actions to put it into motion.

It’s not immediately obvious why they did. Certainly, there was no legal imperative; the HUAC’s investigation allowed the studios to sever ties with the Hollywood Ten and others without fear of sanction from the National Labor Review Board, but didn’t obligate them to do so. And, as we saw earlier, the studio’s initial position (prior to the Waldorf reversal) was that they would continue to employ the Ten as usual. Likewise, it’s not as if the studios were forced into enacting the blacklist by overwhelming public consensus: the general opinion on the appropriate fate for the Ten was pretty evenly split (and the anti-Ten crowd was notoriously older, fervently anti-communist and less likely to spend money on movies). More than that, the political leanings of the industry — a melange of west coast liberal creatives and somewhat more conservative east coast Wall Street-types— hardly demanded the castigation of alleged communist sympathizers. Hollywood could have just as easily gone the other way.

As it turns out, though, movie studios are profit-maximizing entities. And, in 1947, the film industry saw peril everywhere it looked. Antitrust regulators were about to lay waste to the block booking that supported the old studio system. Moviegoers were migrating in droves from cities to the suburbs and, incidentally, away from movie theaters. Television was just beginning to assert itself as a competitor for the dollars and attention that had previously been earmarked for Hollywood. Organized labor, mostly in the form of talent guilds, was starting to assert itself. The industry was beset on all sides by existential threats. It was in this moment that Hollywood crystallized its view of the blacklist as a tool not of ideology, but of economics.

The blacklist — perhaps inadvertently, but certainly fortuitously — afforded the film industry, if not a way out, then at least shelter from the storm. Participation in the blacklist positioned Hollywood to make some cash by producing anti-communist propaganda at the behest of the government. Similarly, it also alerted the studios to the potential for exploiting America’s political divisions with partisan films designed to inflame nationalistic fervor. Even more obviously, the blacklist gave studios a pretense under which to replace expensive talent with cheaper facsimiles; a screenplay from famous superstar writer (and Ten member) Dalton Trumbo, for example, was always going to cost the studio vastly more than a similar tract from almost anyone else. More generally, the willingness of the studios to band together and act in concert through the blacklist sent a chilling message to industry labor — stars and scrubs, alike: the power to blacklist is the power to destroy.


In 2017, the National Football League, despite its catbird seat at the center of America’s sports consciousness, shares a lot of the anxieties that plagued Hollywood in 1947. Barrels of digital ink have been spilled prognosticating the League’s demise at the hands of, variously, flagging middle-class participation, mendacious mishandling of a burgeoning epidemic of concussions and fracturing media consumption patterns, among other unidentifiable evils.

A lot of this hand-wringing, of course, conveniently ignores the NFL’s apparently robust balance sheet. Forbes, in their role as the ultimate arbiter of such things, pegs the value of the average NFL franchise at over $1 billion dollars, which dwarfs the worth of teams from other leagues in America and around the world. League revenues have hit a series of all-time highs in recent years, and their growth rate easily outstrips inflation and that of the overall economy. Not exactly the picture of a league in crisis.

However, like a cleverly designed zone defense, the reality is a bit more complicated than it first appears. The keystone of the football’s fiscal dominance is, without a doubt, its television revenue. As you’d expect of a federally protected quasi-monopoly, the NFL has, again and again, induced the broadcast networks (plus ESPN) to out- and even over-bid one another for the right to America’s rapt attention for a few hours each weekend. The total bill comes to well north of five billion dollars per year, which is where more than two-thirds of the League’s income comes from. That’s a lot of money, even for franchise-owning scions.

But, the television networks, themselves being rapacious oligopolistic capitalist enterprises, aren’t in the business of effecting massive transfers of wealth to the League just for the hell of it. On the contrary, television viewership is undergoing a metamorphosis that, at least arguably, justifies the increasingly exorbitant sums that the NFL is able to extract in exchange for its broadcast rights. In the last few years in particular, older customers have begun more commonly watching programs on DVR delay (and presumably skipping the ads), younger ones are “cutting the cord” by refusing to pay for cable service altogether and viewers in all demos are splitting their attention over an ever-widening array of entertainment options, both on and off the tube. Individually, each of these circumstances represents a crisis for the networks; together they’re a cataclysm that both depresses the advertising value of any given TV viewer, and, crucially, inflates the relative value to advertisers of “DVR-proof” live events. And, in terms of any of an assortment of viewership metrics, the NFL remains the gold standard of live event programming: year in and year out, the most watched television shows are football games. Because of this, the NFL has been able to position itself as the preeminent conduit through which corporate America can access a significant (young, male and, hopefully, profligate) audience for their wares. This logic underlies companies’ willingness to pay the broadcast networks enormous sums to run commercials during football season, which in turn justifies the broadcast networks in handing the NFL Scrooge McDuckian stacks of cash for the right to air the games. The entire edifice turns on the maintenance of stellar TV ratings, which consequently are the keystone element of the League’s appeal to advertisers, and, it follows, its financial hegemony. When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell perseverates over his desire to “protect the shield”, he might as well be imploring his lieutenants to “protect the television ratings”.

As of late, though, the shield is beginning to crack, or at least show some signs of wear and tear. After being fairly stable for several years, ratings were down across the board during the 2016 season. Viewership on Thursdays, Sunday afternoons, Sunday nights and Mondays, each slid more than 10%; the League found itself compelled to give away extra commercial slots in order to make up for the shortfall. Plenty of reasonable explanations for the dip have been put forth; the most optimistic of these (and, unsurprisingly, the preferred position of network executives) seemed to be that our attention was being temporarily diverted by the contentious 2016 election. But when the post-election numbers failed to recover to 2015 levels (and ratings fell even further in the early weeks of the 2017 slate) it became obvious that the networks’ rose-colored interpretation was, at best, incomplete. Instead, a number of less transient (and, to the NFL, more worrisome) factors appear to be at work, such as a dearth of relatable and recognizable superstar talent, fragmentation of fan attention across multiple football delivery platforms and a general decline in cable TV viewership.

Depending on whom you ask, there is at least one other possibility. Coincidentally or not, the beginning of the downturn syncs up with the public’s acknowledgment of Kaepernick’s demonstrations. Now, that timing, plus polls showing that a strong plurality of football watchers dislike Kaepernick and consider his protests inappropriate or unpatriotic, is basically the entirety of the body of evidence suggesting that the ratings slide is secondary to some sort of boycott by aggrieved fans. On the other hand, viewership did recover (albeit incompletely) after the election, the dip is in line with ratings declines across all sports and granular data shows that even though Americans watched less football in the aggregate in 2016 than before, about the same number of people tuned in at some point or another, which is inconsistent with a boycott. On balance it seems a little presumptuous to blame the ratings dip on the protests, but reasonable people may still disagree.

Either way, a fair-minded evaluation of the League’s Nielsen performance is beside the point. Viewership has been (relatively) weak, and the NFL is casting about for possible culprits; Kaepernick, plausibly or not, embodies one of those possibilities. What’s notable, and worth discussing, is that the very notion of Kaepernick, in one way or another, costing the League money guarantees that NFL management will view his demonstrations through a different lens than the general public—which is the same sort of thing that happened with the Hollywood blacklist all those years ago.

Like the Hollywood Ten before him, the public discourse around Kaepernick is inevitably framed as political: lauding HUAC’s crusade was a stand against communism, just as backing the anthem protests was, at least initially, indivisible from supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. But NFL teams, to the extent that they can be characterized monolithically, don’t think like that. The NFL is a business, run by businessmen who regularly subjugate their personal ideologies in the pursuit of a fatter bottom line. As Art Modell, the former owner of the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens once quipped, “we are bunch of a fat cat Republicans who vote socialist on football”; they “vote socialist” because they’ve decided that that’s the path that will make them the most money. To an NFL owner, Kaepernick’s politics and the protests they spawned aren’t an ideological problem, they’re an economic one. And, whether it’s the NFL or Hollywood or anywhere else, economic problems demand economic solutions.

The basic monetary argument for colluding (explicitly or not) to keep Kaepernick out of the League is pretty straightforward. Polls suggest that a third of NFL fans are less likely to watch or attend a game due to the protests; Kaepernick’s presence in the League might hurt the attendance, and, more important, television ratings, for not only the team that signs him, but the other 31 clubs as well. Protect the shield, protect the TV ratings. In addition to mollifying a significant portion of the viewership, the blacklist has the added “benefit” of discouraging other players from speaking out on this, or other, issues. Remember the message that the studios sent to the Hollywood Ten: the power to blacklist is the power to destroy. The sword of Damocles dangling overhead will make anyone more likely to toe the company line.

Those are only the most direct effects of the blacklist. In reality, the owners’ economic interest in excluding Kaepernick is quite a bit more sophisticated and forward-looking. Again, the Hollywood blacklist provides the playbook. The House Committee’s investigation of the Hollywood Ten came along just as the industry was growing concerned with the flourishing power of its labor force. The studios needed a win. The NFL doesn’t find itself in exactly the same position — the League is coming off back-to-back-to-back routs of the players’ union in collective bargaining negotiations, after all — but a profitable relationship with labor is as critical to the NFL as it was to studio system-era Hollywood. In both cases, collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) are a zero-sum game. The lawyers have, characteristically, managed to make it seem much more complicated than this, but the heart of NFL CBA negotiations is the owners and the players’ union haggling over how to split the League’s revenue. Every dollar that is allocated to the players is a dollar that doesn’t end up in the owners’ pockets. The union can and does ask for concessions on other issues, but to the extent that they win them, it’s inevitably at the expense of reducing the percentage of revenue earmarked for the players. The blacklist creates a brand new issue to bargain over: during the next round of CBA talks, the union will undoubtedly demand assurances that players be permitted a forum to exercise their constitutionally-protected right to freedom of expression without fear of reprisal. The League might well eventually concede the point, but not without exacting a pound of flesh — or at least a few thousand ducats — first.

And then there are political benefits. Kaepernick’s demonstrations have, in certain circles, been conflated with anti-American or anti-military sentiment — which, to be clear, is a wild, and maybe even willful, misinterpretation of the facts. Still, a stand against the protests will be seen by some as a defense of America, its military and “traditional” values. Playing into the anxieties of right-leaning politics in the midst of a profoundly polarized political environment may not end up as profitable for the NFL as it was for the Hollywood studios — I don’t know that the federal government is going to buy tickets to football games or anything like that — but it can’t hurt. Exploiting political divisions is sound economic strategy. And so it will ever be.


V. The Buck Stops Here

I wrote and reported the bulk of this piece in late September 2017, which meant that I was writing while keeping one eye on ESPN’s chyron—in part waiting for a team to take the plunge and sign Kaepernick, but mostly because I wanted to see what President Trump was going to say next. He was, as always, prolific. While campaigning for a Senate candidate in Alabama, the President, apropos of very little, encouraged NFL owners to cut players who followed Kaepernick’s lead by protesting during the anthem. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’” The reference to Kaepernick wasn’t even thinly veiled.

The comments touched off the most politically charged weekend of football in memory. Liberals were incensed that the President would use such pejoratives to refer to protesters. Players were enraged that they might be made to pay for exercising their First Amendment rights with their jobs. Owners were shocked that President Trump had disturbed the delicate detente between himself and the League. Trump, for his part, doubled down with a series of tweets that seemed engineered to draw the ire of the players, the League and anyone who supported the anthem protests.

Whatever the true intent of Trump’s statements — and it’s worth mentioning that he appears to have galvanized supporters on his side of the political spectrum — the result was predictable: on the first Sunday after his comments, dozens of players either knelt or raised fists during the anthem, many more than had previously. Every game featured protests of some sort, including three teams that opted to stay in the locker room altogether. The back and forth continued into the following week, with Trump insisting that it was “very important” that all players stand for the anthem while predicting (or perhaps threatening) that the League would face a “tremendous backlash” if the protests continued.

The intensity of the protests did diminish somewhat during the second weekend after Trump’s comments, though there’s no real reason to think that any of the participants were heeding the President’s warning. Instead, in the hope of finding shelter from a monsoon-level political shitstorm, teams meandered towards some sort of neutral expression that would mollify the public, escape the President’s wrath and, most of all, shift focus back to football. While a few players continued to kneel or raise fists, many teams chose to stand with their arms interlocked with some even imploring the fans to do likewise. These ersatz demonstrations managed to both cynically co-opt Kaepernick’s dissent and simultaneously provide the League with some stirring visuals and the patina of First Amendment freedom fighting. Somehow, “unity” emerged as the politically anodyne watchword, even if it’s not particularly clear who or what was meant to be brought together or what that had to do with police brutality. Either way, the protests had been completely transformed into an act of defiance in the face of Trump’s overreach; Colin Kaepernick’s original message about the treatment of minorities by law enforcement has been lost in the fray. And, all the while, the man himself remains unemployed.


Blacklists are made to be broken. By 1960, thirteen years after the initial persecution of the Hollywood 10, the blacklist had come to ensnare the careers of hundreds of artists while anti-communist sentiment retained a fever pitch. The exclusion of blacklisters was the new normal. But then, actor Kirk Douglas announced that Dalton Trumbo, one of the Ten, would be credited with the screenplay for Douglas’ film Spartacus. Trumbo was also to receive credit for writing Exodus, which came out in the same year. The ban had shown some cracks earlier — Alfred Hitchcock, among others, had worked with blacklist members on television projects, for instance — but Spartacus was the straw that broke the blacklists’ back. Within a couple years, talent with (real or imagined) communist sympathies were free to work in Hollywood again.

Douglas has spent the better part of a century framing his support of Trumbo as an act of ideological heroism, and there’s probably some truth to that; certainly it must have required real intestinal fortitude to go against the grain in the midst of such a pitched political climate. But it’s also abundantly clear that every aspect of the decision to credit Trumbo was financially motivated. As it happens, Exodus and Spartacus weren’t the first projects that Trumbo had worked on while blackballed—he was eventually credited with close to two-dozen screenplays written during that period. Trumbo was available as ever, but — conveniently for Douglas — at a substantial discount from his usual rate. This wasn’t uncommon; it was eventually uncovered that Douglas had at least four blacklisted scriptwriters working for him, all at bargain basement prices. Meanwhile, Universal, Douglas’ studio, was characteristically hesitant but hoped that the presence of Douglas, a superstar at the time, would make acknowledging Trumbo less precarious. Still, they refused to sign off on the Trumbo credit until a surreptitious poll of moviegoers found that Trumbo’s name was unlikely to hurt box office receipts. Ideology and politics never entered into the equation. The rest is history: Spartacus was an enormous hit; at the time it was the most profitable film in Universal’s history. And the rest of Hollywood took note: there was money to be made by partnering with blacklisted talent. After that, the blacklist never stood a chance.


The President’s intemperate criticism of Kaepernick’s protests left the NFL owners between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, the owners had, right up until this fracas, been staunch supporters of Trump: they’d voted for him, given millions to pay for his inauguration and even gifted him a Super Bowl ring. Trump was their dude. But, in spite of their touching bromance, Trump had brazenly lowered the League into disrepute, jammed a wedge between the owners and many of the players and generally thrown sand in the gears of their smoothly running business model. This aggression will not stand.

Predictably, the owners’ first instinct was to reach for their wallets. The first weekend after Trump’s comments saw owners throughout the League engaged in a number of invariably awkward displays during the anthem: some stood with the players, arms interlocked, others fumed in the press box, and in one special case, Jerry Jones of the Cowboys led tightly-choreographed kabuki where he knelt with the team before the anthem, and then stood with them during it. The following week, though, it was back to business. The League held meetings with the owners, and then with the owners and a group of players. The players, by and large, wanted assurances that their First Amendment rights wouldn’t get trampled. The owners were more concerned with their Holy Trinity — TV viewership, luxury suite holders and corporate sponsors — all of which, they claimed, were being jeopardized by the unpleasantness triggered by the weekend’s protests. The suggested solutions ranged from the unproductive (requiring that players stand for the anthem) to the absurd (commissioning “Team America” patches for the players’ jerseys). Ultimately, nothing was settled; as ever, the only thing the owners could agree upon was that protecting their revenue stream was job one.


The one thing that nobody seemed to be discussing, at least not openly, was signing Colin Kaepernick. Months before Trump entered the fray, Kaepernick revealed to reporters that, going forward, he planned to stand for the national anthem. The ideological rift that caused the owners and Kaepernick to view the anthem differently has apparently been bridged. But, as with the Hollywood blacklist, it was never about ideology, at least not really; the decision to sign Kaepernick or not was, and continues to be, all about money. If the owners want this controversy to go away, it’s hard to imagine an easier or more effective strategy than employing Kaepernick and letting America watch as he salutes Old Glory. It’s just as obvious, though, that no team is going to make that move without running it by their accountants first.

But the moment that happens, everything will change.

Legalize It! (December 2017)

Why Do Sports Leagues Bother Fighting Steroid Use?

Few things in life grant me equanimity quite as reliably as the aggrieved wails of old-school sports types denouncing alleged — but also, to be fair, pretty clearly actual — steroid users. I was reminded of this recently when, apropos of not all that much, Joe Morgan, the legendary second baseman turned decidedly less-than-legendary broadcaster, published an open letter to baseball Hall of Fame voters imploring them to hold the line and continue to deny entry to anyone and everyone known to have availed themselves of performance-enhancing drugs. Morgan’s singular zeal for his cause has long been beyond question, and he deftly drove home his point by larding his missive with phraseology that might as well have been lifted straight from the 2017 Woke Dude Handbook. Here’s a snippet: “The more we Hall of Famers talk about this — and we talk about it a lot — we realize that we can no longer sit silent. Many of us have come to think that silence will be considered complicity.” Stripped of context, you might have supposed that Morgan was railing against the ongoing systematic discrimination by law enforcement towards people of color or maybe even our society’s persistent normalization of the sexual assault and denigration of half its members. Not even close. Instead, Morgan is fixated on a bunch of rich dudes who, decades ago, (probably) used some widely available pharmaceuticals to marginally improve their performance at a child’s game. We all have our crosses to bear, I guess.

Now feels like as good a time as any to admit that, even as an inveterate and largely unashamed sports fan, it’s difficult for me to imagine a more artificial and meaningless construct than the Hall of Fame. Retired jocks are just as entitled as anyone else to hang their self-worth on the arbitrary assessments of strangers, but it seems to me that the diehards up in the nosebleeds have mostly concluded that ex-post declarations do little to alter the truth of what happened between the lines. Still, one of our greatest philosophers insists that it ain’t ’till it’s over, and so if Joe Morgan wants to spend his golden years crusading against Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza, then more power to him.

While Morgan’s Hall of Fame campaign may be relatively harmless, his rush to equate PED usage with moral failure isn’t. To me, Morgan’s particular variety of reductive thinking is largely invalidated by a litany of objections that I’m constantly reciting to a rotating cast of friendly folks who are guilty of nothing worse than trying to unwind at their local sports bar. If you haven’t had the pleasure, here’s the short version: even putting aside the reality that PED use has always been remarkably widespread and resilient to regulation, steroids — much like, say, vitamin supplements and hypobaric tents — are the inevitable result of scientific attempts to improve human performance and outlawing them only serves to misdirect resources, encourage arbitrary punishments and privilege those with the wealth or wherewithal to avoid detection.

I’ve got that speech pretty much down — it’s long-winded and a little pedantic, but still decent — though I’m not quite self-deluded enough to believe that it’s ever changed anyone’s mind. Sports fans, even the amiable ones who will indulge my rants, tend toward an absolutist belief in the chastity of their heroes’ athletic achievements. Curiously, this intransigence doesn’t seem to extend beyond the playing field; police blotters are lousy with athletes who’ve committed heinous acts richly deserving of opprobrium but are instead welcomed back to the pitch with open arms. I either can’t or more probably am just too frightened to unpack what that says about us. Another time, maybe. For now, we’re left to grapple with de facto rules of the game that uniquely frame steroid use as a capital crime.

As far as I can tell, this preoccupation with punishing PED users can best be understood as an effort to avoid cognitive dissonance. As a matter of course, we invest an unfathomable quantity of time, money and psychic bandwidth into following sports. There are lots of perfectly defensible reasons for this: tradition, tribalism, crippling gambling addictions, among many more. But the expenditure is, by any measure, staggering. The trouble is that we’re well past the point where an honest reckoning with how we’ve chosen to direct our collective energies would trigger anything other than widespread self-loathing. We’d be risking being left with something resembling a nation full of Mets fans, surely a catastrophe too horrifying to contemplate. We’re pot committed.

There are probably more circumspect methods for managing this conundrum, but none are as easy and superficially painless as digging in our heels and telling ourselves that, in fact, our sports obsession is justified by not only the majesty of the games but especially the nobility of the players. We’ve even developed an entire lexicon to aid and abet our self-deception: the football field is the gridiron, teams wage battle, players are warriors. The language of war has been completely co-opted and repurposed. Discussing our pastimes in such grandiose terms lends an air of legitimacy to the habit of sinking countless hours into watching, say, the Browns’ weekly ritual of pissing away yet another game, or whatever the equivalent is in your neck of the woods. Likewise, as our internal assessment of the importance of sport is buoyed, the language surrounding the games feels more and more justified. Wash, rinse, repeat.

This rhetorical house of cards is built on the idea that players’ performance is “on the level” or “above board” or “not fueled by the ruthless exploitation of the most sophisticated drugs that modern science has to offer”. It’d be much harder, I’d imagine, to conceive of athletes as warriors, much less heroes, if you also believed that their accomplishments are merely the morally suspect fabrication of some pencil-necked geek in a lab. And if athletes and the games they play aren’t worthy of pedestal we’ve collectively placed them on, then what exactly is all this time and money and heartache for, anyway? When it comes down to a choice between undoing a significant pillar of our worldview and scapegoating the few steroid users foolish or unlucky enough to get have gotten caught, there’s really no choice at all.

The inevitable consequence of all this is the deification of famous athletes who, thanks to our elaborate semantic gymnastics, we’re inclined to view as flawless avatars of physical and moral excellence. This impression is ardently reinforced by the Joe Morgans of the world, whose public image is inseparable from the popular view of pro athletes, and by the plethora of faceless corporate entities — leagues, team owners and sponsors — who bank billions each year on the backs of other people’s athletic exploits. Meanwhile, the rest of society is left lionizing and striving to emulate a group of twentysomethings selected exclusively on the basis of a narrow and non-transferrable skill set and who, in their defense, never actually asked to be role models in the first place.

I don’t think there are any easy answers, but there is a simple one: legalize it. I’m indifferent about the legal standing of PEDs — this is absolutely not an issue that Congress should be devoting any time to whatsoever — but sports leagues would do well to abandon their unyielding tack of rooting out and persecuting every single steroid-related infraction. Back at the sports bar, you can often catch me theatrically pounding my fist on the table while obnoxiously insisting that decriminalizing steroids will save leagues from the quixotic task of policing ever more sophisticated drug use and actually make it easier to give great athletic talent its due — all of which I believe to be factually accurate. But, between me and you, I could give a shit about that. Half the fun of following sports is in arguing about players and teams from across varying contexts, and the balance sheets of billionaire team owners are so not my problem. Instead, the more meaningful outcome of a laissez-faire drug policy would be to throw a wrench in the cycle that urges us to uncritically laud, and eventually canonize, modern sports stars. An open drug policy would, in short order, cast a shadow of drug-fueled doubt over every exceptional on-the-field performance. Many players would, of course, ostentatiously proclaim their innocence, and, some of them will even be telling the truth. Others won’t be. I have no idea how those ratios would shake out, and I’m not at all sure that it matters. The point is that, after the last decade’s outing of dozens of formerly beloved stars as guilty of perpetrating what Morgan believes to be a “steroidal farce”, the sports-watching public is unlikely to be so credulous again. Instead, everyone will be presumed steroidal until proven innocent. I get that that’s not exactly the American way, but, conveniently for us, we’re not in a court of law. We’re out here in these streets, trying to nudge our kids away from the habit of hailing pro athletes as the personification of integrity, morality and rightness. With any little luck, maybe we can even get them to stop thinking of these guys as role models.

Joe Morgan is all about the kids, too. He believes that “[f]amilies come to [the baseball Hall of Fame] because they know it’s special. To parents, it’s a place they can take their kids for an uplifting, feel-good visit. It’s a place where kids can see what true greatness is all about. It’s a place where youngsters can dream that one day they too might get in.” Maybe, one day, they’ll start dreaming bigger.