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Why more athletes are choosing to sport eyewear

Basketball star LeBron James at the Barclays Premier League match in Liverpool, England. Turns out, James only wears glasses for fashion. But what else could the image of glasses project for others?

Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio. It's that moment every couple of weeks where we talk to Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and the blog of the same name -- it is the hidden side of everything. Dubner, good to have you back.

Stephen Dubner: Great to be here, Kai. I don't know with the L.A. teams out of the NBA playoffs now -- I don't know if you're still paying attention or not.

Ryssdal: I am so done with the Lakers. And this is where the hate mail from L.A. comes in. But I mean, come on, really? Get over yourselves.

Dubner: Well there is a trend -- besides the demise of the Lakers -- that is unmistakable, but it's a trend off the court. It's something you see during the post-game press conferences, and that is is that just about every star player -- LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, Kevin Garnett and Kevin Durant -- they're all wearing these big, chunky, black eyeglasses. You know, the kind that Urkel used to wear; depending on your timeframe, Buddy Holly.

Ryssdal: That's right. I saw -- who was it? -- I guess it was LeBron I saw at a press conference, from Miami, yeah.

Dubner: There you go. Now, in the old days, it was pretty uncommon to see many athletes wear any kind of glasses. So my first thought was simply, 'Hey, maybe poor eyesight is on the rise.'

So we reached out to Susan Vitale, she's a researcher at the National Eye Institute, and she has looked at the rate of myopia -- or near-sightedness -- among Americans in the early 1970s and then again in the 2000s.

Susan Vitale: So in '71-'72, the prevalence of myopia in people who are aged 12 to 54 was 25 percent, or one in four people. And when we applied those same methods to the later population, we found that the prevalence was 41.6 percent, which is roughly a 66 percent increase.

Ryssdal: So that's a lot, right? Sixty-six percent in 30-something years. Are we just getting older or what's going on?

Dubner: Well, you know, the causes are the subject of a lot of debate. Some researchers think it's all the close-up work we do, like reading the myriad screens we're tethered to. Others think it's because we don't get enough sunshine.

Whatever the case, we asked Miami Heat superstar LeBron James if he actually needs those glasses to see.

LeBron James: No, I don't need glasses to see. No. That's just fashion. It's about fashion. If you wear them right, sometimes it looks good, sometimes it can not look so good.

Ryssdal: He's faking, man! He's wearing non-prescription lenses.

Dubner: As millions of Americans do each day, we learned. Probably about four million. You know, they're plain-os, or glasses with plain lenses.

Ryssdal: Really?

Dubner: Yep. Yes sir.

Ryssdal: That's -- I don't understand that. Well, he is so cool that he can look cool wearing glasses? I don't even know.

Dubner: I think that's about right. The fact is, this trend has blown up all over the NBA, the NFL also. I asked the Harvard economist Roland Fryer about this, and he suspects -- as only an economist could suspect -- that this is what you'd call a 'two-audience signaling mechanism.'

Roland Fryer: These guys are saying to one audience, 'Hey I'm here, I'm an athlete.' To the other one, 'Look at my glasses, look at the way I'm dressed, look at the way I carry myself -- I can promote your product.'

Ryssdal: Oh my god, that is so cynical. That's horrible. Right?

Dubner: Well it may be much more than that as well. Even Roland Fryer says that. Fryer has also studied the 'acting white' phenomenon, right? Which is when black kids who study too much get called out by their peers, as if there's a stigma in trying to accomplish too much. So now, with all these black NBA and NFL stars wearing their big nerd eyeglasses, it may be that they're sending a message that the 'acting white' stigma is over -- or at least that it should be over.

LeBron's teammate Dwyane Wade told us that he doesn't need his nerd glasses either, but he does like the message that they send.

Dwyane Wade: Yeah, it is cool. You try to go out and talk to kids, you try to let them know that it's cool to be smart, it's cool to be educated, you know? So it's a message behind the madness, you know?

Ryssdal: That's actually great, 'message behind the madness.' It's acting smart is not acting white.

Dubner: That's exactly right. Although I will tell you something very interesting: Roland Fryer, who's also African-American, told me that even he -- a Harvard econ professor -- that he wears glasses that he doesn't need, also in order to 'relax everyone,' as he puts it. And I should tell you this also: The signaling at Harvard doesn't end with eyeglasses, according to Fryer.

Fryer: A couple years ago, I was talking with one of my colleagues here at Harvard, and they said to me -- they confessed, let's say, to me -- that they dyed their hair gray. And I said, 'Why would anyone do that?' He says, 'Well I want people to take me more seriously.'

Ryssdal: Wow. I will never understand people, can I just tell you that?

Dubner: I understand you, though, Kai. I understand you.

Ryssdal: Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics.com is the website. We'll see you in a couple of weeks.

Dubner: Thanks for having me, Kai.

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Wearing non-prescription eye wear to influence perceptions is not new, and certainly not unique to black men, nor black men who are celebrities and/ or accomplished professional athletes. (It isn't deceptive either. Most people wear their good clothes and get a haircut before going on a job interview. That is also about influencing perception, known as "making a good impression".)

I wouldn't assume that is the rationale here, though. Male professional athletes, of any race, are usually VERY sharp dressers! That includes accessories. At the moment, those big plastic-framed glasses are in style. There are other connotations in wearing glasses e.g. seriousness, age, but that is irrelevant to fashion. It always is, regardless of the style. I think the non-Rx eye wear is a fun, harmless, rather cute look.

Playing the Nerd Game deserves a second look.
The Freakonomics Radio broadcast “Playing the Nerd Game”, which aired on 5/30/12, severely missed the mark on finding the hidden side of NBA Superstars wearing “Chunky Nerd Eyeglasses”. In his discovering that perception is not always reality, Stephen Dubner adopted a traditional nearsighted view by focusing solely on myopia.
NBA and other sports superstars are not “actually myopic” simply because nearsighted children love to read and when the teacher say’s; “it is time to go outside”, they raise their hand and ask if they can stay inside and continue reading (as opposed to going outside and getting hit in the head with a ball and thus not becoming NBA Superstars but rather doctors and lawyers).
A true “hidden” public health emergency lies in the most recent National Eye Institute (NEI) data that was not presented in the radio broadcast. For every 1 child with significant myopia there are 11 children with significant hyperopia (farsightedness), astigmatism (irregular curvature of the eye), and strabismus (eye turn). Most significantly, it is these undetected vision conditions, not myopia, that are directly related to poor school performance, poor self-esteem, social isolation, and miss-diagnosis of ADHD, miss-diagnosis of learning disability, early school drop-out and entry into the juvenile justice system. Sadly, current vision screening misses these conditions altogether by predominantly targeting myopia.

Truly discovering “the hidden side” of vision problems will take a second look. A challange which I am sure Stephen Dubner is up to.

Playing the Nerd Game deserves a second look.

The Freakonomics Radio broadcast “Playing the Nerd Game”, which aired on 5/30/12, severely missed the mark on finding the hidden side of NBA Superstars wearing “Chunky Nerd Eyeglasses”. In his discovering that perception is not always reality, Stephen Dubner adopted a traditional nearsighted view by focusing solely on myopia.

NBA and other sports superstars are not “actually myopic” simply because nearsighted children love to read and when the teacher say’s; “it is time to go outside”, they raise their hand and ask if they can stay inside and continue reading (as opposed to going outside and getting hit in the head with a ball and thus not becoming NBA Superstars but rather doctors and lawyers).

A true “hidden” public health emergency lies in the most recent National Eye Institute (NEI) data that was not presented in the radio broadcast. For every 1 child with significant myopia there are 11 children with significant hyperopia (farsightedness), astigmatism (irregular curvature of the eye), and strabismus (eye turn). Most significantly, it is these undetected vision conditions, not myopia, that are directly related to poor school performance, poor self-esteem, social isolation, and miss-diagnosis of ADHD, miss-diagnosis of learning disability, early school drop-out and entry into the juvenile justice system. Sadly, current vision screening misses these conditions altogether by predominantly targeting myopia. (www.3deyehealth.org)

Truly discovering “the hidden side” of vision problems will take a second look. A challange which I am sure Stephen Dubner is up to.

Michael R. Duenas, O.D.; American Optometric Association, Chief Public Health Officer
mrduenas@aoa.org

Can we PLEASE stop perpetuating the "acting White" myth? IT DOESN'T EXIST! Abundant research exists from scores of scholars in multiple fields (maybe start with Harvard's John Diamond at http://www.uknow.gse.harvard.edu/teaching/TC4-2.html just to get going) to demonstrate that the original theory is not only wrong but wholly problematic. Students don't resist schooling because they're afraid of "acting White"; they resist schooling because the effective price of admission and success there requires them to NOT BE BLACK! By framing the issue in terms of Black students' supposed "choice" to withdraw or fail as their way of protecting themselves from being perceived as White, we effectively blame them for a problem created by schooling experiences that force them to check their Blackness at the door in order to be heard, respected, and engaged. They're not afraid of being White; they're afraid of never being allowed to be Black! Schools in the USA tend to default to whiteness and Black students know this intimately. Rare are the classroom spaces in which students of color can be both who they are and be recognized as "smart." When we blame those students for that problem it shifts our attention from structural racism and culturally subtractive schooling practices to already marginalized youth of color and their supposedly deficient attitudes or upbringing. It's a classic reversal, like blaming the rape victim for wearing the wrong clothes. Don't buy it! And if a billionaire athlete wears glasses for fashion to try to convince students that being smart is cool, it only demonstrates how out of touch they are with the realities of how difficult it is to be SEEN as smart if you are Black and young and in school in the first place. And who has money to buy non-Rx glasses just for looks, anyway?! NOT the urban students of color I know, that's for sure. The kids I know have to make due with old broken frames held together by tape and rubber bands because no one has the money to get them a new pair. Those kids want to be smart and feel smart and be known as smart, believe me. Everyone does. But then some clueless, well-intentioned journalist or educator or professional athlete blames them for not wanting to don that look! Please.

As we make meaning of things like this, it's crucial that we look beyond the easy quote, to fact-check the viability and/or validity of phenomena we claim exist before we make the mistake of perpetuating long debunked theories. Bad, old, untrue, and injurious beliefs are the real myopia here.

Okay, so many pro ballers wear plain black frames to appear more intelligent, and Prof. Fryer has some colleagues that have resorted to dyeing their hair gray (should Just For Men be worried?) to enhance their credibility. But I won't be convinced that this represents a social sea change in sophistication until guys start asking their barbers to "take it all off the top" to simulate male pattern baldness.

You might want to run a correlation between the marketing budgets of Oakley and its competitors vs the appearnce of sunglasses on athletes :) just sayin...

Kai Unless you are looking through rose colored glasses Marketplace is well behind the times in running this story. Larry David had the foresight to focus on the perceived intellectual positives that can come the way of the black man who will don a pair of unneeded glasses. LeBron and D Wade have nothing on Leon and the Plain ohs he sported in an episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" last year. Were these NBA Superstars schooled by the likes of Mr. David?? If so the duo would be forced to admit that LD's observation .......was pretty pretty pretty good. See you around!!

I completely understand dying one's hair gray. I now have some grays, but nothing extensive, so people on my campus always think I'm a student instead of an instructor. I also always get carded when buying a bottle of wine!

I have always wanted laugh lines (something, I know, not many women want) because that way, people would think (know?) I'm wise. But I think I have to wait a few more decades; my mother recently turned sixty, and she's just now getting wrinkles. I'm starting to believe that black really does not crack!

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