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Robert D. Tollison

2016 October 27
by Skip Sauer

Robert Tollison was a great economist, and as nice a man one could ever meet. Bob passed away suddenly on Monday morning at the age of 73.  I’d like to share a personal remembrance of him, and to highlight his work in sports economics, to which he made many significant contributions.

I met Bob for the first time at the 1989 meetings of the Southern Economic Association. I had read several of his papers during my grad school days, and by then he was the Duncan Black Professor of Economics and Director of the Center for Public Choice at George Mason. I remember well being introduced to Tollison and him saying in his soft but steady voice, “It’s nice to meet you. I read your recent paper in the JPE. It’s a very good paper.” Cigars were lit and liquor flowed that night but I was already on cloud nine.

On to sports.  Bob was a sportsman as well as an economist, and it was quintessentially natural for him to combine the two passions.  He played basketball for Wofford College, and later with friends and colleagues.  He was a big fan, particularly of the Clemson Tigers, and followed the games closely.  But he was a sharp critic of the NCAA, and was involved as an economic expert for three decades in litigation which challenged a number of the monopolistic practices of the college sports cartel.  Much work remains to be done on this front, but the victories of college athletes in the courtroom are due in part to Bob’s work on their behalf.

bob-t-at-work

Bob at work

Of course, it was Bob’s scholarship on the economics of sports that put him in position to attack the NCAA. He had a nack for being early on the scene of emerging fields in economics and he thus helped define them.  His 1992 book with Arthur Fleisher and Brian Goff, The National Collegiate Athletic Association: A Study in Cartel Behavior catalogued a variety of NCAA policies which had more to do with suppressing economic competition than enhancing competition on the field itself.  

Earlier, he and Brian edited and contributed to Sportometrics (1990), a book which more accurately captures Bob’s approach to sports economics, indeed economics in general.  Bob defined sportometrics as “the application of economic theories to the behavior of athletes in the real world to see if we can explain what they do, and to see if what they do can help us explain the behavior of people in other professions.”  Since then there have been scores of sportometrics papers, some published in the most prestigious economics journals.  But Bob was there first.  His 1984 paper with Bobby McCormick in the JPE, “Crime on the Court,” exemplifies this.  When the ACC added a third referee to conference basketball games in 1978, the experiment offered an opportunity to explore Gary Becker’s model of the economics of crime and punishment, using fouls called on basketball players.  The added referee increased the probability that a foul would be detected.  Hence if actual fouls were unchanged, the number of fouls *called* in a game would increase.  But player behavior is likely adapt to the increased probability of being called for a foul, and the number of actual fouls would decrease as a result.  McCormick and Tollison found that the number of foul calls decreased by over 30% with the addition of the third referee, suggesting that this policy innovation resulted in a cleaner game.  The NBA followed suit in 1988 by adding a third referee to its games.

This just scratches the surface of his work in a field of study he helped to create. I’ve created a list of his contributions to sports economics which you can see here.

I’m lucky and privileged to have had Bob as my colleague at Clemson for the past 13 years. His door was always open. His desk had a crossword puzzle on it more often than not, but if you walked in to his office you had his full attention. You were never more comfortable talking with a scholar than when you were with Bob.  He did more in his life than most would accomplish in a dozen lifetimes, but he has gone too soon, and we will miss him like no other.  Bob loved The Sports Economist blog, and I know he’d be happy to be remembered here.

championgolfers

Bob Tollison, Mike Maloney, John Warner and Skip Sauer, “Champion Golfers” with their prizes.

P.S.  There are a number of appreciations of Bob Tollison that have appeared.  David Henderson’s recollection of his time at the Council of Economic Advisers — “Bob Tollison was the best boss I ever had”  — is unique and particularly good.  Also good and informative is the appreciation by The Public Choice Society. Mike Maloney is collecting these and posting them on his webpage.

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