A Relative Age Effect (RAE) in sport occurs when there is a selection bias towards those born earlier in a registration period. Due to physical, psychological and social advantages older children in a cohort are more likely to be identified as 'talented', with the upshot being a skewed birth distribution of elite performers in youth sports. In the case of soccer, as is with many other sports, a higher proportion of children born in the first quarter of the calendar year represent their country at an elite level as for the duration of their time as a youth player they compete against relatively younger children, benefitting from early maturation. While it may not be nice to celebrate a birthday in the cold, being born in January, February or March has its benefits when it comes to organised sports!
RAE is of importance and deserves attention due the prevalence of the effect internationally both within and outside sport (it was originally studied in education systems) and also given that it has sustained in sport since its original application to hockey now over some twenty years ago. This bias toward those born earlier in the registration year has been documented in a variety of sports, not just hockey or soccer, and has led to suggestions that a RAE may even border on discrimination against those born later in the year.
As an economist it reminds me that organising a competition procedure can be tricky and that there can be nasty unseen biases in what appear efficient systems of organisation (even in this case when we try to by as fair as possible be grouping children in the same age category).
The story begins with Ned selecting the teams quarterback purely on the power of his arm and his general physique, something which the bully Nelson provides in abundance. Ned asks his try-outs to throw to the ball at him:
Flanders: A little higher, Wendell. (another throw) A lot higher, Martin. (another throw) Ralph, that's a basketball..(next throw hits Flanders hard) OK! Nelson's our quarterback. Nelson: Thanks, four-eyes.
Nelson proceeds to bulldoze the opposition, giving the team an unbeaten streak and at times being solely responsible for the teams success. Following a series of loutish heckling from the side-line however Homer manages to oust Flanders as coach.
Homer then proceeds to take the competitiveness of pee-wee football to a new level. He provides favourable treatment to one player (his son Bart!) but doesn’t rely on the previous successful tactic of leaving everything to Nelson, the most physical player on the field. The team however are not happy as their previously successful tactic of using Nelson's physicality has been unsuccessfully replaced. Despite the loss of their unbeaten streak Homer (hilariously) still takes great pleasure in “the easiest part of any coaches job – the cut”, dismissing what he deems the weaker performers and leaving the immature Ralph Wiggum on the side-line. Everyting returns to normal however by the end of the show as Nelson is restored to the quaterback position and the team win the championship.
As ever with my favourite TV show, the writers unpredictable and hyper ironic style allows them portray what often 'actually happens' through satire, albeit exaggerated to get a chuckle.
For those interested in the sociology associated with RAE and how it is linked to the theme's of this episode a good place to start is this Research Note Learning Life's Lessons in Tee Ball: The Reinforcement of Gender and Status in Kindergarten Sport.