Monday, October 19, 2009

Premature accusations of anti-French NHL racism

Another accusation of racism in sports hit the newspapers today, on the front page of Canada's "National Post." This time, it's English-speakers who are accused of discrimination, in the form of racism against French-Canadian players.
The story is about Bob Sirois, a former NHL forward from Montreal, who did some analysis on NHL demographics and concluded that there is an "anti-francophone virus" in pro hockey. The reporter also quotes Réjean Tremblay, a sportswriter for Montreal's "La Presse," who got a look at the findings, and argues that "discrimination against the frogs is absolute." (Here's an article by Tremblay on the issue.)

What is the evidence for these accusations? We don't know for sure, because the full argument is in Sirois' upcoming book. But the article gives a few statistics:

-- Forty-two percent of francophone Québeckers who played three or more years in the NHL won a trophy or were named to the All-Star team. "Only francophones at the highest level were able to have lasting careers," Sirois said.

-- Of all 16-year-old players at the midget level in Quebec, 1 in 334 anglophones was eventually drafted, but only 1 in 618 francophones.

-- Francophone players in Quebec are less likely to get drafted than anglophone players in Quebec, and they go lower in the draft.

-- Of the 763 francophones drafted since 1970, one-third of them went to four teams: the Quebec Nordiques, Montréal Canadiens, Buffalo Sabres, and Philadelphia Flyers. (The teams drafting the fewest francophones were the Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, and Phoenix Coyotes.)

-- Sometimes, undrafted players manage to eventually make it into the NHL. That group represents 10% of players overall, but 19% of players from Québec, suggesting that more francophone players are going overlooked.

Since the Post reporter wrote that he had obtained a pre-publication copy of the book, we can probably assume these are the most damning facts behind the accusations.

But are they actually evidence of discrimination? In every case, there are other, more plausible, explanations for the results. Let's take them one by one.

1. 42% of francophone Quebeckers who played three or more years in the NHL won a trophy or were named to the All-Star team.

The idea, presumably, is that to last in the NHL as a francophone, you have to be really, really good. But where's the evidence? Maybe the figure for anglophones is even higher than that? Forty-two percent sounds like a lot, but it's meaningless without a comparison number.

But maybe the lack of a contrasting figure for English Canada is the reporter's fault. Let's suppose the book has the anglophone number, and it's less. Does that prove anything?

No, actually, it doesn't. This is an old argument, actually. A couple of decades ago, baseball was accused of discriminating against blacks on similar evidence: there were lots of blacks in the league leaders, but fewer blacks as marginal players. Bill James effectively rebutted the argument then, based on the characteristics of the distribution of players.

Converted to hockey, the argument goes like this. Suppose that francophones happen to be better players, on average, than anglophones. More specifically, suppose skills are normally distributed with a standard deviation of 15 "points". English players have an average skill of (say) 100 points, but French players have an average skill of 105 points. You need to be over 130 to make the NHL, and over 135 to be considered a star.

So anglophone players need to be 3 SDs above the mean to hit 130 and make the league. That's about 135 players per 100,000 candidates. Francophone players need only be 2.5 SDs above their own mean. That's 233 players per 100,000 candidates.

To hit the superstar 135 mark, the anglophones need to be 3.5 SDs above 100; that's about 23 stars per 100,000 population, which means 23 stars per 135 players. But the Francophones only need to be 3 SDs above 105. That's 135 stars out of 100,000, or 135 stars out of 620 players.

Which means:

17% of anglophone players are stars (23/135)
21% of francophone players are stars (135/620).

So there's a larger proportion of francophone stars than anglophone stars. The difference in our contrived example is only 21% to 17%. But it would be relatively easy to come up with numbers to make the difference bigger, or smaller.

The point is that a small difference in means adds up to a big difference at the far tails of the normal distribution. That's not discrimination, it's just the way the bell curve works.

Here's a more intuitive way to look at it. Suppose the anglophones and francophones were exactly equal in terms of players and stars. Now, let's make the francophones better by taking a couple of Mario Lemieux clones and throwing them into the francophone pot. Doesn't it now make sense that a larger proportion of francophones will be superstars? It's not racism -- it's just that the francophones are now BETTER.

One objection to this line of reasoning might be: if francophones are so much better than anglophones, shouldn't we see them disproportionately represented in the NHL? Yes, we probably should. And who says we don't? The Post article does NOT say that fewer francophones make the NHL, per capita, than anglophones. It says only that francophone Quebeckers were less likely to be drafted than *Anglophone Quebeckers*. I'd be willing to bet, right now, that francophones are more likely to be drafted than non-Quebec anglophones. That's based partly on this logic, and partly on my feeling that if it weren't true, Mr. Sirois would be trumpeting that fact in the article.

[ --> UPDATE: that's apparently not right. "Hawerchuk" says that Québeckers comprise 18% of Canadian NHL players (by games played). But they're 23% of the population. ]

(Oh, and why might it be that francophone players are better than anglophone players? It could be that anglophone Quebeckers live mostly in Montréal, where ice time is harder to get. Francophone Quebeckers are more likely to be in small, northern towns, where there are more rinks per capita and more frozen ponds to play on after school. That would give francophone boys more ice time and practice time, which would make them better players. It would be roughly the same reason that the Canadian Olympic team is competitive with the US team, despite having only one-tenth the population.)


2. Of all 16-year-old players at the midget level in Québec, 1 in 334 anglophones was eventually drafted, but only 1 in 618 francophones.

That could easily happen without discrimination. All it would take is for hockey to be a bigger part of francophone culture than anglophone culture.

Suppose that hockey popular enough among French-speaking families that the top 20% of boys are still playing organized hockey when they're 16. And suppose that hockey is less popular among English-speaking families, so that only the top 11% of boys are still playing organized hockey when they're 16.

That would explain the numbers exactly. The mediocre francophone players don't get drafted. The mediocre anglophone players don't get drafted either, but they dropped out of organized hockey early enough that they don't make Sirois's survey.

Again, I'd be willing to bet that this is what's going on. I live in Ottawa, which is on the border with Québec, and I can tell you that the francophone families I know are much, much more hockey-mad than the anglophone families, on both sides of the border.

Sirois says,

"If you're francophone and your son is talented in minor hockey, anglicize his name and you will double his chances of being drafted."


If Sirois is basing that comment only on this particular statistic, his conclusion is premature, to say the least.


3. Francophone players in Québec are less likely to get drafted than anglophone players in Québec, and they go lower in the draft.

Same argument. The less-skilled anglophones drop out of hockey more frequently, while the less-skilled francophones drop out of hockey less frequently. So the remaining anglophones are better, on average, than the remaining francophones.

Again, I'd bet that if you looked at raw population numbers, more Québec francophones get drafted than Québec anglophones, at every level of the draft. They are less likely to be drafted, as Sirois says, if you look only at the pool of 18-year-old players. But I'd bet they are MORE likely to be drafted if you look at the pool of all 18-year-olds in Québec, whether they play hockey or not.

It's selective sampling if the mediocre francophones are more likely to be in the sample than the mediocre anglophones.


4. Of the 763 francophones drafted since 1970, one-third of them went to four teams: the Québec Nordiques, Montréal Canadiens, Buffalo Sabres, and Philadelphia Flyers. (The teams drafting the fewest francophones were the Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, and Phoenix Coyotes.)

First, and easiest: are there fewer francophone players in the league now than in the past? Given the number of players these days being drafted from outside North America, that would seem likely. That would explain why the Stars, Predators, and Coyotes -- teams that weren't in the league in the 70s and 80s -- would have drafted fewer francophones than the more established teams.

It's the same reason you'd also find that Québec, Montréal, Buffalo and Philadelphia have had more non-helmeted players than Dallas, Nashville, and Phoenix. It's not because Nashville discriminates against bare heads, but because the Predators weren't around when it was legal to go without a helmet.

Secondly: it might just be a difference in scouting. Back in 1985, Bill James did a study of the MLB draft, and found that, in baseball, players in the southern United States were much, much more likely to be drafted than players in the cold states, even if the players were of equal talent. That wasn't racism against Minnesotans, it was just where the scouts decided to go. James wrote,

" ... the explanation seems obvious. ... The scouts spend a lot of time in the South because it gets warm down there while the North is still freezing, and they go where the baseball is. They see more of the players, see the ones they like more often, and wind up falling in love with them."


Doesn't it make sense that the same thing might apply in hockey? There isn't a weather issue, but there *is* a language issue. Doesn't it make sense that the Phoenix Coyotes are less likely to have a french-speaking scout, and are therefore less likely to send someone up to Chicoutimi in February to check out some prospect? If francophone scouts are rarer than anglophone scouts (which they obviously are), it makes sense that not every team would have one, and, as a result, francophone players would be disproportionately drafted by the teams that do. That's not discrimination, it's just rational allocation of resources.

Dallas might just be saying, "you know, we don't have a francophone scout, so we'll let the Canadiens concentrate on prospects in Trois-Rivières, and we'll send our guy to Regina."


5. Sometimes, undrafted players manage to eventually make it into the NHL. That group represents 10% of players overall, but 19% of players from Québec, suggesting that more francophone players are going overlooked.

This can easily follow from the hypothesis that there are more second-tier francophones in the draft pool than anglophones.

Again, suppose that 20% of francophone boys are still playing at age 16 (and therefore scouted for the draft), but only 11% of anglophone boys are. Scouts know that only 1% of Québec boys, of either language, will make the NHL. So they duly draft only 1% of the anglophone population, and 1% of the francophone population.

Scouts aren't omniscient, and they'll miss a few good prospects. There will be undrafted players who bloom later, and finally attract some interest from NHL teams.

Under our assumptions, 19% of francophone boys will be initially passed over, but only 10% of anglophone boys. That leaves almost twice as many francophones who might get noticed (and signed) later. Of course, those nine percentage points of extra francophones are less skilled than the top ten percent, but some players are late bloomers, and the bigger the pool, the more missed players you're going to sign later.

I think that's the obvious true explanation: more players means more late bloomers.

-----

So the points raised in the article are certainly not enough evidence to conclude discrimination -- there is a perfectly plausible, non-racist explanation of each of them.

If you want to show discrimination, you need better arguments than these, to remove the selective-sampling problem intrinsic to each of the arguments here. What you can do is this: find all anglophones drafted in position X, and all francophones drafted in position X. See how they do in the NHL. If there's discrimination, you'll find that francophone 14th picks do better than anglophone 14th picks.

And even if you find there's discrimination, it doesn't mean it's racist, or even language-specific. It might just be a scouting issue, where there are fewer scouts in Québec than elsewhere, just as there were fewer MLB scouts in Minnesota than in Georgia.

My gut says you won't find much discrimination. I guess I wouldn't be surprised if you found a little bit, that team X might be less interested in a francophone eighth-round pick because of perceived language issues with the other players, when they can't really tell him much apart from a similar anglophone player who's also available. But discrimination is expensive, and every team wants to win. If you want to convince me that teams are deliberately leaving money on the table because of racism, you'll have to come up with some pretty good evidence.

These arguments, though, just don't cut it. There are many better, more plausible explanations for the apparent statistical anomalies in the article -- enough so, in fact, that, in my view, the accusations of racism are premature and irresponsible.


(Other views: Here's Tango, and here's mc79.)


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18 Comments:

At Tuesday, October 20, 2009 10:00:00 AM, Anonymous Millsy said...

I've seen a few papers on this topic coming out of the sports economics literature that seem to confirm the idea that French speaking players really may be discriminated against (at least in terms of salary paid when performance is supposedly even).

The Kahane paper below tries to find if there is inefficiency in that discrimination practice. It's pretty interesting. This would, of course, be expected if there is in fact discrimination taking place.

An older paper I read from 1992attempts to explain differences through body size and defensive style of play, but I'm not sure about that (as I know nearly nothing about hockey). While generally a mixed bag of findings, the 'discriminatory' area seems to be defensemen.

The 2003 Longley paper attributes the discrimination to customers in certain areas (not that this typd of discrimination makes it more right for the hockey teams if it exists).

Here are the ones I know of:

Longley (1995, 1997, 2003)
Kahane (2005)
Krashinksy (1997 for anther view)
Walsh (1988, 1992)
McLean (1992)

 
At Tuesday, October 20, 2009 12:03:00 PM, Anonymous Rodney Fort said...

Good on you, Millsy.

You're a credit to good scholarship and a shining light for all in the sports analysis community.

Let's all READ MORE (the lesson I am learning as I mostly lurk here at Phil's page).

 
At Tuesday, October 20, 2009 12:52:00 PM, Blogger Hawerchuk said...

Phil

I'm in the middle of analyzing the data, but I'm finding that a player who scores a point-per-game in the QMJHL (normalized for 3 G/Gm and 1.7 A/G) is less likely to be drafted and less likely to play in the NHL than if he did it in the OHL or WHL. Also anglo QMJHL players in this group are more likely to be drafted than francophone players.

I don't think this is due to the Saskatchewan/Manitoba "hockey-mad" difference.

 
At Tuesday, October 20, 2009 2:25:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Hawerchuk:

Cool, looking forward to it!

 
At Tuesday, October 20, 2009 3:41:00 PM, Blogger Hawerchuk said...

I'll write this up in more detail, but basically, I divided CHL players into two groups. Players who scored an adjusted 82 pts per 82 games in their draft year, and guys who had 57-81 points.

Call the first group the "stars" and the second group the "pluggers". The stars were no less likely to get drafted than their counterparts in the WHL or the OHL. As a group, they fell in the middle in terms of NHL careers - the OHL guys ended up carrying a little bit more of their performance to the NHL and more ended up playing regularly. The Q was in the middle, and the W was at the bottom.

But for the "pluggers", it's a different story. 86% of the OHL and WHL guys in this bucket were drafted; just 69% for the QMJHL. Their performance in the NHL was the same (I split them into terciles and checked that too) but fewer of them got to play. Controlling for age and scoring, there's no discernible difference in the quality of the three leagues, so I don't think that the soft competition or run n' gun explanations hold.

It's just more difficult for a francophone to make a team as a 3rd- or 4th-liner than it is for an anglo.

 
At Tuesday, October 20, 2009 3:53:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

>"86% of the OHL and WHL guys in this bucket were drafted; just 69% for the QMJHL. Their performance in the NHL was the same (I split them into terciles and checked that too) but fewer of them got to play."

But wait! If there was discrimination that wasn't based on quality, wouldn't you expect the Quebec players to perform BETTER in the NHL than the others? If you were really cherry-picking fewer of them, you'd expect them, on average, to be better. Wouldn't you?

 
At Tuesday, October 20, 2009 7:19:00 PM, Blogger Hawerchuk said...

Phil, I'm not sure I understand. At the "star" level, coaches and GMs can't help but take french-canadians. At the "plugger" level, guys are interchangeable, so they take way more anglos.

There are lots of freely-available french-canadians who could be "pluggers" but we're talking about the 4th line here. The difference between taking an anglo from the 75th percentile of "pluggers" and a francophone from the 85th percentile is almost imperceptible to the team's performance. So's the difference between the 85th %ile francophone and the 75th %ile francophone.

So there's limited benefit to the team at the bottom of the roster and guys get picked for other reasons.

 
At Tuesday, October 20, 2009 7:26:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Hi, Hawerchuk,

I understand the theory, and it sounds reasonable to me ... I just don't see how the evidence relates to it.

What I'm saying is: suppose the QMJHL is equal to the other leagues. And suppose you take the top 86% of the other leagues, but only the top 69% of the QMJHL. Then, the QMJHL players should, on average, be BETTER, because you're choosing only 69% of them instead of 86% of them.

If the quality is about equal, that suggests that the teams are being perfectly rational, and choosing fewer QMJHL players because the talent pool isn't as deep.

Of course, if, at that level, the players are so close that you can't tell which are better, and it's possible the 69% are actually better than the 86%, that means discrimination is still possible. But in that case, your test isn't sensitive enough to conclude anything either way.

Does that make more sense?

Put another way: suppose teams are biased against players whose names start with G, so they only draft two of them (Gretzky and Geoffrion). The Gs, with 2% drafted, should be MUCH better than the rest of the league, with 80% drafted, because they've cherry-picked the best two guys.

Same for QMJHL. If you draft only 69%, you should do better than drafting 86% of the other leagues. Unless the QMJHL doesn't have as much talent in it.

 
At Tuesday, October 20, 2009 7:32:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

I should clarify that what I'm saying is, the theory of bias in 4th line picks seems plausible enough. I'm not saying the bias doesn't exist. All I'm saying is that the arguments in the newspaper article are insufficient evidence, if they're evidence at all.

Some commenters are assuming that I don't think there's bias at all. That's not the case: I am agnostic on the question. I just dispute the Sirois arguments for it, and I haven't seen any other evidence for it.

There might well be good evidence in the papers Millsy cites.

 
At Tuesday, October 20, 2009 7:50:00 PM, Blogger Millsy said...

Phil,

I wasn't disagreeing with some of the rebuttal you provided. It could be the case that there is some other explanation. I just thought it would be good reading on the subject, as that this isn't a new concern. Discrimination is a very tough thing to prove, so the more evidence the better if you ask me.

It also very well could be that the discrimination has lessened this decade. I'm not sure any of the mentioned papers go beyond the turn of the century in terms of the data they pull from. I also do not follow hockey very closely, so I wouldn't be one to ask about that.

I imagine that most of the value in the Sirois book is a first-hand look at possible direct actions that take place from the player POV.

 
At Tuesday, October 20, 2009 7:56:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Hi, Millsy,

I agree ... I was wondering if there were any first-hand accounts or anecdotes of how the discrimination actually happens. That would lead you to possible ways you could look for evidence, such as the "fourth line" description of where the bias comes from.

 
At Tuesday, October 20, 2009 8:18:00 PM, Blogger Hawerchuk said...

Phil,

You're ignoring half of what I wrote.

1. "Stars" - defined as players who scored an adjusted 82 pts/82 games in their draft year - 95% of these guys get drafted, whether they're from the QMJHL, OHL or WHL. And they go on to the NHL in approximately the same numbers. And they perform the same in the NHL as a group, retaining 65% of their scoring at age 24.

2. "Pluggers" - defined as players with 57-81 pts/82 games in their draft year. Here's where 86% of the OHL and WHL guys get drafted, but just 69% of the QMJHL guys.

This is limited talent variation across this group (ie - being closer to 81 does not indicate higher scoring at age 24 than being at 57.) And yet, the percentage of QMJHL guys in this group who go to the NHL is 2-3x lower than the percentages for the OHL and WHL players.

The QMJHL players in this group don't do worse than the OHL and WHL guys, but it's not because they're better players. It's because they're exactly as good - no better, no worse. At the very least, a coach would have trouble figuring out who was better.

So, presented with two players who appear to have the same skill - both to an observer and as represented statistically - coaches choose the Anglo.

 
At Tuesday, October 20, 2009 10:44:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Hi, Hawerchuk,

I understand. My point is that there are theories other than bias that work too.

For instance, if there are more pluggers still in the system in Quebec, that would explain why fewer of them are drafted. That's my argument in #2 of my post. And it's exactly what you'd expect if that were true: the "right" number of stars drafted, but fewer lower-ranked players drafted.

I'm not saying that's necessarily true, just that it's possible.

Also, presumably the teams have some way of evaluating players, other than just by points (since you've shown that points are not a good predictor of future performance). Just because the stats can't tell them apart doesn't mean the coaches can't.

One flaw with my argument here is that, if it's true, it should mean that the QMJHL is lower-skilled than other leagues. From what you've told me, that doesn't seem to be the case. The difference wouldn't have to be large, but there would be *some* difference. So that's a point against this non-bias explanation.

>"And yet, the percentage of QMJHL guys in this group who go to the NHL is 2-3x lower than the percentages for the OHL and WHL players."

That's the first I've heard of this ... that definitely looks significant. The 86% vs. 69% might have other explanations, but I can't think of any plausible statistical ones right now for the "2-3x" figure. Of course, you've got possible style-of-play and known-to-scouts issues, but those aren't statistical.

 
At Tuesday, October 20, 2009 11:22:00 PM, Blogger Hawerchuk said...

From 1981-2007, the "plugger" group (53-81 pts/82) is approximately 11% of each league (10.8% Q, 11.1% O, 11.4% W.) NHL players who are taken from this group perform equivalently regardless of which league they came from.

However, Q players in this group are 20% less likely to be drafted. And they play 50-70% fewer NHL games than guys from the other leagues at Age 24.

We have hundreds of second-tier 17-year-old juniors who have similar statistics; the ones who play in the NHL retain the same percentage of their scoring regardless of which league they started in (true of stars, too.)

And yet players in this scoring group from the QMJHL are way less likely to play in the NHL.

None of the data supports the notion that the QMJHL is a weaker league, that production translates differently to the NHL or that there are more pluggers in the Q.

 
At Tuesday, October 20, 2009 11:30:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Wow. OK, that does suggest something's going on. That's a huge difference.

Has there been any research to try to figure out what it is? Bias by GMs? Language issues? Scouting? Style of play?

 
At Wednesday, October 21, 2009 8:27:00 AM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Hawerchuk: If you have links or references to more of your (or anyone's) research, let me know! This is interesting stuff.

 
At Wednesday, October 21, 2009 2:40:00 PM, Blogger Hawerchuk said...

Phil,

Story is here:

http://www.behindthenethockey.com/2009/10/21/1092394/le-quebec-mis-en-echec-pour-la

 
At Wednesday, October 21, 2009 3:53:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Hawerchuk: Awesome stuff. Thanks! Gonna think about that a bit.

 

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