Meet the New Steelers Stats Guru: Karim Kassim

via YouTube

As I mentioned in last week’s article, Does Character Actually Count in the NFL?the Steelers have added a front office guy, signaling their entry into 21st century methods of player acquisition analysis.  

According to Jim Wexell of

The Steelers have never subscribed to any type of prototypical number set when it comes to bringing in players. So when it came time for them to jump — some say FINALLY! — into the world of football analytics, they wanted to make sure they went beyond mere numbers-crunching and computer printouts.

No, they wanted someone who could master numbers but with a unique, more humanistic approach.

So what is this “unique, more humanistic approach?” To find out, we first need to look at the man they hired.

Karim Kassam joined the Carnegie Mellon University faculty in 2010 as an Assistant Professor. He works both in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences and the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, which is a joint venture between CMU and the University of Pittsburgh.

Originally from Canada, Kassam took his first degree at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, in Electrical and Computer Engineering. He then studied at the Imperial College in London, England, finishing a Masters in Advanced Computing with an emphasis on Logic and Artificial Intelligence.

In 2004 he began a doctoral program in Social Psychology, and his dissertation was on assessing emotional experience through facial expression. He graduated in 2010, and was hired by CMU.

As Kassam told Jim Wexell:

“I was in England studying artificial intelligence, trying to figure out how people think and then program it into computers,” he said. “Eventually the people-think side became more interesting, so I wanted to get into psychology.”

While he was at Harvard, he started doing some consulting for a friend who had been hired by the Jacksonville Jaguars for their analytics department. As a Steelers fan since the 1990s, I suppose it is a logical progression for him to move into a similar role in Pittsburgh.

He is taking a year’s leave of absence to work for the Steelers, after doing some work on the side last season for Thomas Tull, one of the owners. Kassam will be working in the scouting department.

One of the sort of meta-questions in football, or any endeavor where you have to commit substantial amounts of money to employees before you know how they are going to work out, is how to use indicators to measure their probable performance. Part of that assessment is character, or at least the aspects of character which impact their work.

But it goes deeper than just job performance. A player may have character flaws which are annoying but don’t actually affect how well they perform for you. But even then, said flaws might impact the atmosphere in the locker room.

Richie Incognito is an awfully good football player, and apparently was generally well-liked in the locker room, but his tendency to bully a particular teammate lost the Miami Dolphins the services of two expensive assets, as well as creating a public relations nightmare. It would be awfully nice to have a heads up on those sorts of problems.

And of course a player can have problems which don’t appear to affect their performance but nonetheless affect their ability to play at all, as we’ve seen from all of the arrests and suspensions.

So teams have been trying for years to figure out how to calculate such things, although it is probably rather recently that at least some teams are approaching it in a more methodical fashion.

I’ve been reading “Collision Low Crossers” by Nicholas Dawidoff lately. In case the title doesn’t ring a bell, Dawidoff was given the opportunity to spend a year with the New York Jets. The year happened to be the year Head Coach Rex Ryan famously “guaranteed” a Super Bowl win for the Jets. The book is about his experiences there. As Dawidoff said in the prologue:

They gave me a security code, a desk in the scouting department, a locker, and the freedom to roam. I was hardly any kind of football expert—I wasn’t aware, even, that football teams never tackle in practice during the season because it’s too dangerous—but I knew enough to be sure that Ryan’s gleeful, unbuttoned optimism was something rare in football coaches, a notoriously frowning and tight-lipped cohort.

I came upon a chapter which seemed very relevant to this article. It detailed the run-up to the 2011 draft, and Dawidoff entitled the chapter “An Inexact Science.” Below the chapter title he included the following excerpt from the screen test of Fred Astaire: “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also dances.” After talking about the various player interviews, staff assessments, and so on, Dawidoff said this:

All the NFL teams were engrossed in these careful assessments. And yet, at the end of April, many teams would still make mistakes because, said Joey Clinkscales, who directed the draft for the Jets, one quality remained elusive: “If there were a meter on heart, a way to measure how much a guy cares, we’d draft only Revises.”

…All this work and preparation, but so often the draft confounded it. You could study a person until you were sure you knew him, and then he turned out to be a different person on a football field. Everybody, said [Defensive Coordinator Mike] Pettine, “got fooled” evaluating players, first and foremost because “they’re still kids. So much depends upon putting a kid in the right system for him to succeed.”

Interestingly, Dawidoff noted that the team psychologist, Sara Hickmann, subscribed to the idea of positional personality prototypes, and after five minutes of conversation with a new player could reliably guess his position.

Here’s what Kassam had to say to Wexell:

“It’s going to be way more complicated [than a numbers-only approach.] That’s part of what makes it so hard. There are all different types of players of shapes and sizes and speeds that are successful at any different position. You’re pointing out some of the guys that we got great deals on that no one saw because they don’t fit that prototypical mold.

Finding those guys will be incredibly challenging, and the organization’s already done an impressive job of that. But if I can help find one of those guys every like five years, I’ll be very successful.”

I can’t tell from this whether Kassam would exclude personality from the other factors he mentions, or would subscribe to the idea that there is one sort of personality more likely to be successful at a given position. It’s a tempting thesis.

Back when I was in undergraduate music school I used to claim I could tell what instrument a student played, just by observing them walk down the hallway. (There was no point in adding singers to this mix—they already stuck out a mile from the instrumentalists.) And yes, I was frequently right, but as we all know it is often the exception which defines the rule.

I don’t know if any psychologist who didn’t know who Troy Polamalu was, no matter how gifted a psychologist they might be, could work out that Polamalu was a football player by talking to him, let alone figure out he was a safety. But maybe there’s something there for the ultra-trained eye to see.

What sorts of things is Kassam going to be looking at? For starters, here’s what he works on at CMU, from his CMU website

Research: What is emotion?

Emotion is frequently defined as a coordinated response involving multiple channels. Research suggests that facial expressions, physiology, endocrinology, and cognition are all involved in emotion, but relatively little is known about how these systems are related. Our lab investigates all of these systems, in isolation and in combination, in order to determine when and how they’re coordinated, and why they sometimes are not.

How does emotion impact our decisions?

Anger, sadness, shame and stress not only seem to affect our judgments and decisions, they drive them. Research suggests that angry people are willing to engage in more risks, that negative emotions lead to more systematic thought, and that stress can make people both better and worse at decision making, depending on the type of stress. Our lab is working to uncover the effects of various emotions, and using physiological measures and facial coding to predict when and how those effects will occur.

We can get some further clues from his publications. I’ve removed the other authors’ names and the journals they were published in for brevity, but you can see the full list at the link above.

(in press) A reassessment of the “Defense of parenthood”.

(2013) Identifying emotions on the basis of neural activation.

(2013) The effects of measuring emotion: Physiological reactions to emotional situations depend on whether someone is asking.

(2011) Winners love winning and losers love money.

(2011) Early Onset of Neural Synchronization in the Contextual Association Network.

(2010) Consuming experiences: Why affective forecasters overestimate comparative value.(2009) Decisions under distress: Stress profiles influence anchoring and adjustment.

(2009) Dirty work, clean hands: The moral psychology of indirect agency.

(2009) Misconceptions of memory: The Scooter Libby effect.

(2009) Duration sensitivity depends on stimulus familiarity.

(2008) Future anhedonia and time discounting.

(2006). Top-down facilitation of visual recognition.

If you click on the link you can actually access most of the papers. I read a couple of them and looked at bits of other. I’m not a psychologist by any means, but it seems Kassam has been involved with a rather wide-ranging spectrum of decision making and perception.

I think this might lead to some rather interesting possibilites for analytics. Economists have found that people’s buying decisions are seldom based strictly in rational choices, and Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon says that “the assumption of a perfectly rational economic actor is unrealistic.”.

If this is so in something as seemingly straightforward as why people make the buying choices they do, it is surely far more complex when you get into the murkier waters of behavior and individual motivation. But still I find the thought that you could at least narrow the possibilities to be immensely interesting.

I suppose one could also ask, what is Kassam’s motivation? He’s taking a year off and jumping off the publications wagon (although I suppose he can publish some of what he finds, if he doesn’t have some sort of secrecy clause in his contract) to mess about in a football front office.

Ah, but this isn’t just any football team. As Kassam told Jim Wexell:

“I’m committed,” Kassam said, “committed to seven.”

In the words of the old Jewish proverb, “From your lips to God’s ear.” Welcome to the consciousness of Steeler Nation, Dr. Kassam!


  • Really fascinating stuff and a million miles over my head. So if Character is the essence ofwho a person is, what a person believes, how a person acts how do you develop a questionairre to measure someones values and identity especially when they are so young/fickle. I wish I was smart enough to be able to take a year off to mess around like Mr. Kassim.


    • Teams do actually run pre-set questions past players in interviews—things like “if your house was burning down and you could only take one thing, what would it be?” (This was an actual question the Jets used. They also gave Dawidoff the opportunity to think up and ask a question.) But I expect the players are as carefully coached for Combine questions as they are for Combine drills.

      Glad you enjoyed it. I would love to sit down and talk to this guy – he sounds really interesting!


  • The thing about character is that it is always evolving. Life experiences have a way of doing that. I can imagine that he’d be very helpful to the FO when initially selecting a player, but there have to be tools along the way for the player to continue to grow positively, especially early in his career. Of course, there’s also the reality that an individual player has to take advantage of his opportunity.

    I may need to pick up Davidoff’s book


    • Yes so many metrics to consider. I suppose 1 year of study would just be scratching the surface and also your point of how the player may react to their experiences, do they react in a positive way? What does a player do with what happens to them? Look at Shawn Spence. Now that is resilience.


    • Interesting point about character “evolving.” I wonder if the rapid evolution of “character” in some guys is more a question of too much money and success too soon revealing their true character. Not that I believe that people don’t change, but I think fundamental changes are rare, and a lot of work.

      It seems to me that if a team had an idea ahead of time as to what direction a player might be headed, he might also help them develop a plan to nurture differing types of personalities. The question, I suppose, is whether you can find patterns.


  • I wonder what exactly he is doing beyond the standard personality tests like Meyers Briggs that I am sure all teams use.


  • I’d love to see him evaluate Cortez Allen. Talk about freezing under fire, he spirals into doubt and indecision easily, makes me doubt he can keep it going.
    The economics of athlete motivation is really cool, especially training.
    Take Troy, it is a spiritual process for Troy, digging into and pushing yourself beyond limits, he’s like a marathon runner.
    Antonio Brown lives in lowest moments, Micheal Jordan was that guy too, everything was a slight, a challenge to prove himself again. Brown won’t lose to anyone, whether it is Richard Sherman or lesser receivers in a basic camp drill. Brown has to prove himself.
    Richard Mann talked about work ethic and new receivers, sating once they got in the room they would work. Because everyone in the room works. No one wants to be the low guy on the totem pole, so they all work at least a certain amount. With AB setting a crazy standard, everyone works hard.

    Figuring out how someone will fit into the room is something the Pirates are doing well with in Free Agency, it will be very interesting to see if the Steelers can head in that direction with the draft.


    • Interesting points. I personally think Cortez just got thrown off the horse one too many times and was afraid to get back on. I think it was Ike Taylor who said a cornerback has to have a really short memory. But if they have been working with Allen to just do what he knows and not think, he may be just fine. He certainly has looked better so far.


  • Pingback: Mrs. Strangelove, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying about Statistics and Love the Steelers | Going Deep:

  • Pingback: The Bye Week Pro Bowl: Insights ‘n At | Going Deep:

  • Pingback: About that Combine…Here’s What I Really Want to Know | Going Deep:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s