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MVP Voting and the Veil of Ignorance

A proposal for new criteria.

by James Leroy Wilson
November 15, 2000

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MVP Voting and the Veil of Ignorance_James Leroy Wilson-A proposal for new criteria. Only my second column, and I'm already writing about fluff. But only because I'm preparing for vacation and writing this week's and next week's columns ahead of the day's news. Now is as good a time to write about sports. Baseball is in the process of handing out its regular season awards, and the race for the Heisman Trophy is into its final stretch with no clear frontrunner. It gets me thinking about the thinking behind handing out individual awards in team sports.

One thing I don't like is the composition of the voters. In the four major professional sports, sportswriters decide the Most Valuable Player. Why not a poll of all coaches, personnel directors, and scouts? Or retired players, coaches, and managers? Those who are involved in the game know it better than those who merely write about it. Besides, you would think the writers involved would consider it a matter of journalistic ethics and pride to refuse a ballot. Like voters in the AP college football poll, MVP voters are creating news rather than reporting it.

Another thing I don't like is the concept of "Most Valuable Player." Aside from "well-regulated militia," it's the most confusing term in the English language. Valuable to whom? And in what sense valuable? Valuable meaning indispensible to a team's success? Valuable for marketing and audience draw? Valuable as in most coveted by other teams, or most deserving of the highest salary?

In at least two of the sports, the intended meaning is the most subjective: most valuable to his own team's success. If you dwell on that, I might persuade you that Horace Grant was more valuable to the early to mid -90's Chicago Bulls than Michael Jordan. Plug in Pete Myers at Jordan's position and the Bulls fall from 57 wins to 55, but plug in Toni Kucoc at Grant's position, and you have nothing better than a .500 ball club. The 1980's Edmonton Oilers were so dominant, with all-stars two-deep at nearly every position, that Wayne Gretzky's presence on the team was not exactly essential to its success. That team won the Cup without him in '90 and again in '94 (after most of them were traded to the New York Rangers), yet Gretzky won eight Hart Trophies as an Oiler.

The main problem with "value to club" thinking is that there is no way to prove one way or another a single player's effect on team performance. One NBA MVP vote last year went to Alan Iverson over Shaquille O'Neal on the grounds that Iverson lifted a bad 76er team to mediocrity, whereas the O'Neal already had a good team that he led to first place. That voter was alone, but considering the confused meaning of MVP, he wasn't necessarily wrong.

But the rules are the rules. Voters are honor-bound to choose a Most Valuable Player under the set criterion. Instead of hypothetically arguing which team would be worse off without their MVP candidate, I suggest voters look at it differently and decide the issue in a more direct manner. Instead of dwelling on the most valuable player, just choose the best player.

How, you may ask, do you define "best player?" To answer that, I suggest a different method of evaluation, one that borrows from the philosopher John Rawls and his theory of justice. According to Rawls, the way to discover what justice is is to put on a "veil of ignorance." The idea is to make laws according to your own self-interest, but only on the condition that you wouldn't know what your own status and condition in society would be.

When you choose the best player, you put on a similar kind of veil of ignorance. You don't care about a player's age, his past success (or lack of it), his personality, his personal behavior, his salary, or the talent of his teammates. In the heat of battle, statistics don't count; performance does. And there is one way to decide who you believe is the best player in the league. Putting on that veil of ignorance so that you base your judgement only on what you have seen this season, imagine that you were charged with assembling a first-place team. Who would be the first player you'd pick?

There you have the best player. It might be the best player on the best team; it might be the best player on the worst team. Of course, you would factor in relevant context, e.g., is that offensive line making that back look better than he really is? And while it is certainly a judgment call with some amount of gut feeling influencing the decision, it is at least an honest, unbiased one.

And the beauty of this reasoning is that you arrive back to the original task of finding a Most Valuable Player. What you are really saying with your choice of best player is that he played more like a player worthy of a first place team (even if his own team didn't come close) than any other player in the league. And performance worthy of first place is, or should be, the very definition of adding to the team's success, of being the "most valuable" to a team. The MVP is the best player, and the best player is the MVP.

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