Jonathan Chait, football guru

I’m not sure that anyone who reads The American Scene is all that interested in college football, but just in case, you may read on to see my vicious horsecollar tackle of Jonathan Chait.

This morning Slate re-posted a 2002 essay by Jonathan Chait on the “myth” that college football teams from the South are faster than those from the North. It was a dumb piece then, and it’s still dumb now. The “Southern Speed Myth” may well be a myth, but Chait doesn’t provide any evidence that it’s so. This is actually a classic example of throwing a few statistics at an issue to make it sound as though you’re a serious mythbuster, when in fact the statistics are irrelevant and the myth remains unexplored. So let’s roll up our sleeves and get to the bottom of this world-defining issue:

Chait: “Southern teams and their fans have perpetuated the myth by making a fetish of their recruits' dazzling 40-yard dash times . . . The only objective measure available for college athletes is the electronic timing performed by pro scouts at the NFL Draft Combine. Casey Calder, an Internet college football analyst, compared the times of skill position players from Northern schools versus those who played in the South. He found that wide receivers from Northern schools actually outran their Southern counterparts: The Northerners, on average, ran the 40 in 4.502 seconds, while the Southerners ran it in 4.548. Southern and Northern cornerbacks finished in a virtual dead heat, 4.535 to 4.555, respectively.” But the Myth focuses on overall team speed, not just speed at certain positions; plus, the NFL Draft Combine only tests players who have a legitimate shot at making the pros, which means that many of the slower players from any and all schools will not be part of the testing. The sample of players that Chait chooses skews the data considerably.

Chait again: “Or consider high-school 100-meter dash times. I looked at the 10 fastest times posted by high-school runners over the last two years in two states, Michigan and Florida. The Florida average was slightly faster, 10.77 seconds versus 10.78. But the two fastest Michigan runners, Kelly Baraka and Charles Rogers, outpaced anybody from Florida. Both, by the way, play Big 10 football.” But the Myth isn’t about the speed of any old residents of Northern and Southern states, or even about the speed of athletes; it’s about the speed of football players — and, once again, about overall team speed, not the track times of two particular players. But Chait thinks he has done enough serious research to deem the idea that Southern football players are faster than Northern ones a “canard.”

Just think about last year’s national championship game between Ohio State and Florida. Florida probably didn’t have anyone as fast as Ted Ginn, Jr., one of Ohio State’s wide receivers; but the Florida defense overall was much, much faster than Ohio State’s offense, which is why OSU’s quarterback Troy Smith had the worst day of his life. (Ginn’s early injury didn’t help.) Games like that are what sustain the Myth, which — at the level of generality that invokes amorphous concepts like “North” and “South,” and fails to ask where players come from, as opposed to what college they attend — probably is a myth. If there is any substance to the idea at all, it is probably that some Southern coaches place a greater emphasis on recruiting the fastest players at every position. But in any case, Chait doesn’t do anything at all to support his claim. Damn Slate for re-posting this canard!