Friday, August 12, 2011

Blue Collar, White Collar, and No Collar Productivity (Response to Henry Abbott's Essay on Keith Richards)

A few weeks ago Henry Abbott wrote an essay on Keith Richards and public relations. He noted that Keith Richards did a lot of crazy things and is praised for it. However, NBA players tend to keep their struggles, partying, and addictions hidden, or are judged for it by fans. He hinted that perhaps there are also racial components to this dilemma.

Blue Collar Productivity

As I read the essay, I felt strongly that perhaps another perspective other than race might fit better. That perspective is blue collar productivity as advanced by Frederick Taylor and other management gurus at the turn of the century. Essentially, it is easy to break down many types of manual labor into steps. If I am tightening the lug nuts on car wheels for an assembly line, an analyst can come by and measure how long each step (reach for the screwdriver, twist each lug nut about 5 times, etc.) should take in seconds. It's then relatively easy to calculate how many lug nuts I should be able to tighten in one hour. Under this type of measurement, any breaks I take or any experimentation I do to try to change the way I work is lost time, and thus lost productivity. It's rather Puritanical in its strong belief that any idle time accrues to the devil's workshop rather than Factory, Inc., if you will.

Most NBA fans tend to see their stars in such a light. Consider the harsh condemnation of Vince Carter when he chose to attend his graduation rather than sit in his hotel room before the Sixers-Raptors game about a decade ago. Any time not spent practicing or preparing is lost time. If you're not in the gym, someone else is, and that player will be outdoing you in Game 7 when it matters. We also see this in how players such as Marcus Banks get attacked for having interests other than sports. But this is wildly unrealistic because it assumes that players are robots for whom more is better.

The process is not the results.

If I get a 30 minute lunch break instead of 15, I might be much more able to work hard for the last 4 hours at work. That extra 15 minutes is not wasted time. And maybe that harsh, malnourished upbringing an NBA player had is the fuel that leads him to have a greater desire to win, or that DUI was the wake-up call he needed rather than a sign of future disaster.

White Collar Productivity

However, I believe Henry went too far in portraying the Keith Richards story positively, because the other extreme is how white-collar productivity is measured. We still do a terrible job of assessing the productivity of engineers, sales people, and executives. I have spoken to experts in the field who merely shrug their shoulders and say it's not possible to assess it. We often only judge white-collar productivity on results, not process. But there is definitely a difference between the salesperson who goofs off most of the time and yet lands one 3 million dollar sale in the month compared to the salesperson who works hard and gets lots of little deals that add up to 3 million.

Bad process usually leads to bad results.

For every Keith Richards who makes it, there are 100 Amy Winehouses who don't. I suggest you look at Russell Brand's letter to Amy as an example of how easy it is for talent to nearly be lost due to bad life choices. We celebrate Keith because he metaphorically went over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survived. But that's not to say that Keith needed the drugs and partying to become a great musician. The white-collar productivity legend that "I need my strippers on Sunday night to make the big stock market trades on Monday morning" can't stand up to any sort of real analysis. While I reject the Puritanical blue-collar productivity measures with no flexibility for individual style or breaks, I also think we must reject the hedonistic white-collar productivity measures that say "If her results turned out well, everything she did must have been right."

No Collar Productivity

At times, it bothers me that there is little analysis of the NBA by class or labor. I credit Tommy Craggs at Deadspin as one of the few to notice the labor-management struggles inherent within pro sports. And as such, I believe we need a new paradigm (buzz word alert!) to view our pro athletes. The narrative is part of the story, and we should respect the journey, but not idolize it. Perhaps one day fans, management, and players alike will properly respect both the process and the results. It's ok to say that maybe Keith Richards could have been an even better musician without the drugs, right? But it's also ok to say that if, say, Tracy McGrady decides to go to Africa with Dikembe Mutombo instead of working on his game all summer, he still respects the game, right?

In time, I hope more fans will see NBA players as artists and creative talents more than mere physical day laborers who must be shackled to their stations 24-7 in order to produce. But I also appreciate the tradition of sports as a field where hard work and dedication matters, and practice does make the perfect more perfect, if you will. The mingling of hard work and creative genius is what makes sports such a fascinating field to follow.


  1. Great stuff. Going to link and write about this in a moment, but for the record, I don't see anything here as counter to what I wrote.

    My point is really just that athletes, I think, have a rigid view of what the audience will accept.

    People like Keith Richards, and I guess Dennis Rodman and others, are living proof that there are many paths into the hearts of fans.

    Marginal activities are normally hidden from public view in the name of popularity, but for some special characters flaunting them would be even more popular -- news that can be a bit freeing, I think, to those inclined to go that way.

  2. Thanks Henry. It's interesting...I think a good follow-up to all this is to consider Gilbert Arenas. For about a year and a half, Gil had the exact pulse of his fans. Nearly everything he did was just right, and he was beloved. Then his game fell apart, and so did his sense of what fans wanted. Now the only thing poor Gil gets attention for is fines from the NBA office for his Twitter account. Is his fall in popularity a cautionary tale of what happens when a player lets fans into too much of his life? Are great players accepted for whatever they do, while mediocre players must toe the line? Lots of questions for me, and few answers yet.

  3. A tad off the subject, but we should remember that Frederick Taylor was a huge defender of the working class. The reason he fell out of favor and all but disappeared from the history books for a while is because he testified before Congress that workers have every bit as much right to collaborate as a union, as owners do to collaborate in the proverbial cigar smoke-filled board room. The very titans of industry who worshiped his production processes blacklisted him for this act.

  4. I’m a little with Henry with this one. Not sure how this article demonstrates that “another perspective other than race might fit better.” Maybe it’s because Henry only hinted, and even hinting at a racial reason for human behavior disturbs people.

    But what he was actually saying (I think) was that people interpret white people and black people doing the similar or identical acts in very different ways.

    One of the core reasons (which he did not say :) is the culture of society: when the Dred Scott decision was handed down, it effectively forced every white person to look at every single African person with suspicion, because if that African person turned out to be a slave, then the white person could be held liable for damages for not helping to return that slave to the plantation.

    So decent, law-abiding white people in America were being trained by the culture to look at decent, law-abiding African people in America with suspicion, a habit America has had a hard time losing.

    Likewise, the doctrine of “Separate but Equal” effectively trained every single white person to look at every single African American person with suspicion, because white people all believed that the best schools / accommodations / etc. were white-only, so to see an African American in certain places, or doing certain jobs, would arouse suspicion. This habit was still in place as late as the 1990’s, when I noticed in consulting assignments I occupied.

    As a result of these and a thousand other social influences, Americans are in the habit of viewing African Americans with more suspicion, even though the act being observed is similar to acts observed by white Americans.

    I think it was this reality, absent the socio-economic rationale, that Henry was noticing.

  5. Andrew, do you have a citation/link for that? I would like to read that. I am familiar more with criticisms of Taylor for dehumanizing work, although this article I read did hint that he hoped labor and management would partner. It may be one of these situations where it depends on who is interpreting Taylor's work rather than what he actually did.

  6. KnicksFan, I think you're certainly right about white fans viewing black players with suspicion. I am laughing (but not happily) as I recall the investigations into signs that black players made while on the court for fear the signs were gang-related. Certainly the average fan seems way too judgmental of what they do not understand.

    However, I also feel that we can sometimes simplify the debate too far. Race is almost too easy of a go-to explanation for most oddities of the NBA. I've written about it a lot myself (used to write for a now-defunct blog that specialized in looking at race in sports stories), and yes, it is everywhere. But other perspectives like city vs. country, class, and gender also should be used on occasion.

    Not a very firm answer, I admit.

  7. MCBias, this is kind of the state of things today, isn't it? One side of the debate feeling that race is used and spoken about too often - and unskillfully - and the other side feeling that race is not talked about often enough to give confidence that a change is coming. I've ften thought that the biggest impediment to racial harmony in America is trust. Both sides of the debate have trust issues with how the other side deals with racial realities.

    All that said, I also want to point out that I agree with you re: class, and its importance in discussing perceptions, inter- and intra-racially. Economic class is a phenomena, like gender, that crosses racial lines. Everyone - all races, all genders - is affected by class distinctions, and that might be even more difficult to discuss than race.

    So I applaud the introduction of socio-economic analysis into a discussion of how the public perceives and reacts to the behavior of the rich and famous, like athletes and musicians.

    I would just suggest / request, FWIW, that the article lead off with "I felt strongly that perhaps another perspective in addition to race might be worth examining." Versus: "I felt strongly that perhaps another perspective other than race might fit better."

    That way your (really excellent) ideas get introduced into the conversation without signaling to the reader "here we go with another person who just can't handle a conversation about race." This approach implies that you want to add something of value to the conversation that might help us all - which of course, you did. Hope this makes sense:)

    Sorry for the long post.

  8. This is a good discussion. Thanks to Henry for introducing me to it.

    You're right to point out that we routinely ignore labor and class, not just in our discussion of the NBA but in our discussion of American life. We don't have a "labor page" for example, we have a "business page." I'm willing to bet that most colleges, much less high schools, don't teach labor history or class politics.

    You are also right to note that basketball players are treated in some ways as blue-collar workers, expected to hold fast to a Protestant (blue collar) work ethic.

    But as soon as most people make the "it's not race it's X" move, they miss the way race works. Race almost NEVER works singularly. It always works with, or against, or through other processes. The question then isn't whether it's race or "something else" but rather it's "what work is race doing in this particular process?"

    Whites routinely "race" class. When they think of poor single mothers on welfare for example, they don't tend to think about white poor single mothers, they tend to think of black poor single mothers. And if we think of class as performance ("she has no class") instead of class as economic resources, the same dynamic applies.

    How does race work here?

    Take a basketball player. Give him the exact same set of problematic (and productive) traits Richards has. Then split him in two. Make one black, the other white.

    Now if this is solely a white collar thing....then the attitudes about the white and black player should be NO different. Because the two players only differ racially, the attitudes of the NBA fan population about that player should not differ.

    But (and maybe it's me) I don't really see that playing out, even in this comparatively enlightened period. I see the black player being derided more by fans than the white player. OR--if we use someone like Rodman as the proxy for Richards--the white player may receive more love than the black player.

    The way we perceive labor is shaped by the race of the labor force, as well as the type of labor the force engages in.

  9. The whole "if so and so didn't do drugs, they would've been just as creative" argument doesn't work for me.

    Especially with music (although it often can be extended to other artistic endeavors) I think there is an appreciable drop-off in talent with age that has much to do with established habits and losing touch with the markets that drive taste.

    Like it or not, being part of the drug culture, and willing to push its boundaries exposes you to elements that yield results in taste-making. It is given that it more often than not yields a burnout who never caught a break or didn't have the skill set to push it forward, but to say Richards would have put together the same catalog of music together if he was stone sober is naive.

  10. On the larger point of the article, it comes down to lifestyle and what you are comfortable cheering for.

    Personally, I would be fine cheering for a guy who made it out of the projects, who at age 14 was slinging rock but made his way out of it. As Henry alludes to, I would really like to hear that story, even if it meant half of my team sold crack at some point in their lives.

    I'm not sure many PR agents would agree with that unless it was gift-wrapped just right. Basketball teams are trying to bring in largely white advertisers and suite holders and season ticket buyers for whom that particular story on the surface doesn't particularly resonate.

    Henry didn't go far enough into it to say it directly, but there is a particular black narrative that is common, but uncomfortable for many whites (especially those with money) to embrace. His point was that if you expose yourself warts and all, people will get over it moreso than if you keep trying to shield it off. It was an argument for more honesty in player biographies.

    I really don't get where you are coming from with the labor distinction. If someone scores 50 in a game and never comes close again, people notice - as well they should. If someone has a great "process" and is a total gym rat but yields nothing on a game to game basis, they are left behind - as well they should.

    I agree with you that labor vs ownership should be a more prevalent topic in sports, but this seems like an ill-suited column to attach your flag to.

  11. Sorry, but I don't buy the racial approach. I believe no one criticized Bob Marley, Hendrix or, in our days, Jay Z for talking about smoking pot or selling drugs. Yeah, Kobe would be murdered if found smoking pot, but that's a stance I can live with - sports are supposed to be about health, right?