Karl Broman writes:
I [Karl] personally would avoid sports entirely, as I view the subject to be insufficiently serious. . . . Certainly lots of statisticians are interested in sports. . . . And I’m not completely uninterested in sports: I like to watch football, particularly Nebraska, Green Bay, and Baltimore, and to see Notre Dame or any team from Florida or Texas lose.
But statistics about sports? Yawn.
As a person who loves sports, statistics, and sports statistics, I have a few thoughts:
1. Not everyone likes sports, and even fewer are interested in any particular sport. It’s ok to use sports examples, but don’t delude yourself into thinking that everyone in the class cares about it.
2. Don’t forget foreign students. A lot of them don’t even know the rules of kickball, fer chrissake!
3. Of the students who care about a sport, there will be a minority who really care. We had some serious basketball fans in our class last year.
4. I think the best solution is to cover examples in all sorts of topics, including but not limited to sports. I’ve been trying to work in more examples from areas such as cooking, sewing, and shopping.
5. In my experience, students looove education examples, stories about grades, studying, and so forth. But maybe that’s just at the sorts of colleges where I’ve taught: Columbia, Harvard, Berkeley, Chicago. Perhaps students at less elite institutions are less interested in grades.
6. Getting back to Karl’s point about sports being unimportant: Yeah, I pretty much agree with him on that one. Psychologists and economists who study sports will make the claim that the research has larger value, for example in studying decision making or in isolating some cognitive process (as in the justly-celebrated “hot-hand” study), but ultimately I think sports are valuable for their own sake. Sports are a form of art, it’s not a topic such as medicine or education that has much interest beyond itself. That’s ok, though, as long as we’re honest about it, and as long as we also include examples that interest other students in the class.
7. Whenever you teach an applied example well, you induce some subject-matter learning. When I teach sex ratios of births, I give the probability as 0.485, not 0.5, and students learn a little bit of biology. When I teach a sports example, students learn a bit about sports and psychology (for example, the hot hand). The one thing I never never like to do is use complicated gambling examples. I have no interest in teaching students the rules of craps or the probability of getting three of a kind in a poker hand. There are lots of probability examples out there that have the same level of complexity but apply to real-world situations.