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.
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.
"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.)