The NBA slams undergraduate research

This morning’s sports section of the Times prints a letter by one Michael Bass, the NBA’s senior vice-president for marketing communications.  Bass wrote to protest an article that suggests that point-shaving might occur in some NBA games.  Here are the first few sentences of Bass’s letter:

“Web Site Puts Focus on the Fix in Sports Bets” (May 25) relied on a single flawed study written by a Stanford University undergraduate student to suggest that point shaving had occurred in N.B.A. games.

The student errs in concluding that the failure of heavily favored teams to cover large point spreads as often as other favorites covered narrower point spreads was a function of point shaving.

It’s classy that Bass starts off by sneering at the author of the study–“undergraduate student,” “the student errs”–before engaging with more substantial criticisms.  I can’t imagine why he didn’t mention the fact that it was an honors thesis.  (It’s freely available online: You can read it for yourself.)

Bass also accuses the student of committing fairly elementary errors in statistical analysis–that is, of behaving like a student.  However, the paper’s been pretty well received.  ESPN has several academic experts weigh in on the thesis here (you’ll need to scroll).

More generally, Bass falsely maligns the legitimacy of undergraduate research, which can be highly sophisticated, persuasive, and academically useful. Here’s a snippet from the National Conference for Undergraduate Research’s joint statement on undergraduate research:

Undergraduate research is a comprehensive curricular innovation and major reform in contemporary American undergraduate education and scholarship. Its central premise is the formation of a collaborative enterprise between student and faculty member-most often one mentor and one burgeoning scholar but sometimes (particularly in the social and natural sciences) a team of either or both. This collaboration triggers a four-step learning process critical to the inquiry-based model and, congruently, several of its prime benefits-

  1. the identification of and acquisition of a disciplinary or interdisciplinary methodology
  2. the setting out of a concrete investigative problem
  3. the carrying out of the actual project
  4. finally, the dispersing/sharing a new scholar’s discoveries with his or her peers-a specific step traditionally missing in most undergraduate educational programs.

The statement also cites numerous studies that document important benefits to undergraduate research at our nation’s colleges and universities, as well as ones that demonstrate the validity and scholarly interest of such research.

Perhaps Michael Bass should visit the National Conference on Undergraduate Research, or one of the conferences organized by the Council on Undergraduate Research, in order to see what “studies written by undergraduate students” actually look like.   Hell, he’s welcome to visit CCSU next April for Undergraduate Research & Creative Achievement Day.  This year, he would have seen, among many other fine presentations, one by a mere undergrad who discovered a settlement that had been forgotten for over 200 years.

I’m a basketball fan, and certainly hope that serious point-shaving isn’t widespread–but the NBA’s marketing people oughtn’t denigrate a paper just because it was written by a student.

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