The Heart Versus the Head

Sept. 15, 2021

Who here remembers the well-respected football coach and sports announcer John Madden?  It was always a joy seeing him coach his team and he was able to parlay his insight and extensive knowledge of the game into a follow-on career as a beloved media figure.  He was a legend my wife and I enjoyed watching call a Sunday football game.

Madden was famous not only for his unfiltered, witty patter but for his personal quirks as well.  He was well-known as someone with a fear of flying.  He never discussed his personal feelings on the subject, but colleagues have speculated his aversion to air travel began in 1960 when a C-46 carrying the Cal Poly (his alma mater) football team crashed near Toledo, Ohio, killing several of his friends and former teammates.  Madden walked away from professional football coaching after his 1978 Super Bowl win: he never flew again.

This personal risk decision could have been detrimental to any ordinary person, but Madden was anything but ordinary.  He wouldn’t be available to announce the Pro Bowl in Hawaii nor any of the pre-season games outside North America.  Instead of seeing this as a handicap, Madden embraced it as an outgrowth of his larger-than-life personality.

In 1987, Announcer Madden cut a deal with Greyhound Bus Lines.  In exchange for promoting the national bus service, Greyhound outfitted a custom bus just for Madden. The special coach, christened the Madden Cruiser, had a queen-sized bed, bathroom, kitchen, and state-of-the-art entertainment and communication system.  Although this type of luxury travel may now be commonplace among modern, well-heeled retirees, it was an amazing bit of mobile technology for the era and garnered unparalleled marketing for both Greyhound Bus Lines and John Madden.  That first year, he put 55,000 miles on the odometer.

By the time Madden departed the public stage, he was logging over 88,000 miles a year in luxury coaches.  He became famous for his annual mobile Thanksgiving feast his staff prepared for Madden and his traveling guests. Building on the public interest in that meal, he even created the Turkey Leg Award in 1989 to honor the most valuable player of the Thanksgiving primetime football game.

When I was teaching graduate school classes on risk management, I would often assign students the Madden Quiz, as I called it, early in the semester after I had introduced the mathematics of risk.  I asked them to perform a risk analysis using data ascribed to Madden’s concern for flying as juxtaposed against his solution: travel by coach.  I assigned them to research data on the risks of commercial and private air travel as compared to travel by motorcoach. They had to locate the NFL host cities where Madden was scheduled to announce games. They then had to find all the relevant national safety data for injuries and deaths due to the various transportation modes given the number of miles and stadium locations.

It wasn’t really an onerous assignment for my graduate students.  Most did a very credible job researching the data, doing the calculations, and arriving at their validated conclusions. What did they conclude?  Depending on the data they used, they found Madden was over 200 times more likely to die as a passenger in his bus than losing his life in a plane crash.  That’s 200 TIMES.

The lesson for the students wasn’t to calculate the odds to the nearest decimal point: it was to gain an insight into the human mind when it comes to managing personal risk. The human condition means we often don’t measure risk with our heads, we do so with our hearts and emotions.  If Coach Madden was only influenced by facts, he would have quickly and happily opted for air travel.  But that’s not how our minds are wired.

In an intriguing parallel, our current media environment is awash in data points for us to evaluate our family’s choices for managing the health risks from the pandemic of recent memory.  Unfortunately for all of us, that data is buried under a tsunami of emotional blackmail, personal anecdotes, and appeals to ‘feelings’.  Our challenge is to endeavor to separate the two. If we do so, we would find too many purveyors of information are manipulating us by appealing to our hearts and not our heads.  John Madden would understand.