Do Those Who Deny Advanced Statistics Even Watch the Game?

Stochastic Football

We understand your hostility. Maybe we're dangerous. Would it comfort you if I guaranteed that we are dangerous? And maybe we're dangerous to you. Do you prize your memory, your experience? Do you have knockdown, drag-out fights about what just happened, what you saw, what you know? Are you infected with certainty? Does this, this quote to follow, does it resonate within you, move you to potency, make you want to pressure wash something?

Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy. —Dale Carnegie


Why yes, the clarion call of the Doer: get busy. The Doer, are you the Doer? Does this monologue resound within the corduroy manifolds of your mind?
Go out and get busy...yes! Inaction...reminds you of those nattering nebbishes and their spreadsheets, telling me that I don't know football, don't know basketball—me! Don't know sports! and they with their OOPS and AHOY or whatever. Their statistics ... why it reminds of that one nerdy fella on that Breaking Bad show, and his poem about the scientist and the stars. Why they don't see MEN with HEART and WILL; they see numbers and ratios and, and—what's that barreling toward my paragraph? Another quote!
The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt. —Bertrand Russell

Yes, we understand your hostility, your fear, because we are dangerous. We know embarrassing facts about you. We know you watch First Take, SportsCenter; we know you watch highlights on your phone, gloss opinions from PTI, unwittingly gloss opinions from people that glossed opinions from PTI; and we know you watch sports entertainment much more than you watch sports. We know you do because the set of all people do. For every moment of absolute sport sprays a prismatic array of derivations. Every highlight worthy play is now accessible online, on your phone and tablet, collected into top ten lists and filmed in hyperrealism by high-speed cameras, to be played and replayed ad infinitum. Just as it was replayed again and again, paired to a sponsorship, built into the bumper on the way to commercial, sewn into the postgame, linked to another promotion—made through multiplicity and vividness more important, more meaningful and, most importantly, more memorable. We know, in some way you could never hope to explain, that, deep down, in the pumping-fist portion of a sports fans' soul, we know you're certain that insane DeAndre Jordan dunk was worth four points. Had to be. We know you're irrational, incapable of accurately storing information, prone to bias, favor a biased, ahem, curated sample of sports information, wedded to ideas of will and clutch and desire, programmed to see familiar narratives, patterns where there are no patterns, meaning in noise. We know you are because we all are. But, Brave Soul, an obelisk has appeared in our desert, and with it comes sacred knowledge.

***

Modern sports punditry is a mutation of a once venerable tradition of hearsay. Before television and radio, etc. sport was experienced from the testimony of journalists and fans and athletes through the hearsay of journalists and fans and athletes. Degradation of memory, complication by biases and errors in transmission were part and parcel of being a sports fan. This distance from the truth necessitated what Tim O'Brien calls “story truth.” When Grantland Rice wrote
“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden.”
he intended to capture the ferocity of Notre Dame's starting backfield, and moreover the mortal terror they could produce in their opponents. To write "ferocity" is not to convey ferocity; to read "mortal terror" is not to feel mortal terror, and so Rice invoked the apocalyptic to achieve in his reader a sense of awe and wonder. This mythmaking was essential to the popularization of professional sport. It imbued in mortal man a terrible grace, made athletics seem something more than a game, granted long-gone moments of striving and strife, agony and ecstasy, strikeouts and end arounds, with the patina of fiction. Each recounting imparted a little shine.

But truth in the form of information has hunted fiction down, and in a desperate attempt to survive, mythmaking has turned to scandal mongering. Some scandals seem trivial, others seem life or death; some probe into the ever-shrinking possibility of a private life, others attempt to judge the quality of a person by their performance as an athlete. This last one, for all its presumption and prejudices and plain meanness, statistical analysis targets. And this last one, the realm of “clutch” and “overrated” and “the will to win,” is vehemently guarded by otherwise smart and rational people, who deny new kinds of perspectives the way Rollingstone Magazine denies anything relevant happened in rock 'n' roll since 1975. But to those smart and rational people: Your time is passing. The recent kerfuffle over which hat Colin Kaepernick wears are death throes. Look around, the business of cooked up controversy and baleful character assassination is, day-by-day, more desperate, decrepit and irrelevant.

***

I've known a statistician or two. Some write humorless, bullying things that less enrich an experience than reduce it to a few rules of thumb. These people are divorced of wonder, write sport to be right, and incorporate statistics into their boasts more for (Aristotelian) logos than ethos. Some statisticians probably Joe Buck sports—Joe Buck being a relatively well known eponym for making money off but hating sports, and feeling no qualms about sharing this bitterness and resentment. But those I've met are avid, avid watchers, avid fans known to Gus Johnson—Gus Johnson being a lesser known eponym for a type of maximalism that treats every sorta big hit, every short-lived breakaway into the open field, every kinda long completion like it's the Moon Landing, rendering the person nothing to do but SHOUT LOUDER when something actually exciting happens. Statisticians do not hate sports. They do watch sports. They do, I would gather, watch a lot more sports and a lot less sports entertainment than the average sports fan.

All good things must be, from time to time, defamiliarized to stay meaningful. Otherwise a once stirring conceit like the mutability of identity, from Twelfth Night comes “Motorcrossed.” I don't need Skip Bayless's moralizing, his self-congratulatory judgment, I don't need Skip Bayless to see complex, counterintuitive, powerful and thrilling stories in sport. Statistics are a tool. As once RBI's described performance in the clutch, so too does Win Probability Added—but better. And clutch hasn't been disproved. Now it is no longer the possession of any one but like a genius that grants its ability but strays; Clutch is a phenomenon no less magical for being inconstant and mercurial. There are new stories to be told about new kinds of greatness and new ways to perceive all the classic forms of greatness, too. That these new stories may crowd out the afterbirth of a once great tradition of storytelling and mythmaking, that statistics and empirical analysis may make ridiculous caterwauling about Heart and Desire, that those that watch sports may finally win out against those that talk most loudly about sports, why, these are but added benefits.

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17 Responses to “Do Those Who Deny Advanced Statistics Even Watch the Game?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    The Four Horsemen were known for their offense, not their defense.

  2. John Morgan says:

    To Anonymous: Thank you and fixed. Big whoops there.

  3. Borat says:

    The Four Horsemen comprised Notre Dame's offensive backfield not the defensive line. Rip Miller stood 5'7" and weighed 147 lbs.

    With stating that Struhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden were defensive linemen you truly are "dangerous".

  4. Anonymous says:

    Did someone get a new Thesaurus?

  5. Anonymous says:

    What's this article talking about?

    Also what's up with all the contempt?

  6. Uscar says:

    Always good to see some quality John Morgan writing. We need more!

  7. Anonymous says:

    Well writen article, and I agree with what you are saying. I have had the same argument with people who tend to regurgitate what is on ESPN without thinking for themselves.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I believe in math and what statistics can tell us more than BSPN (on purpose), but there is no reason to hate on uninformed fans. Talking down to others is no way to get your message understood. People will stop listening or reading to what you have to say. Statistically less.

  9. Anonymous says:

    The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt

    Pot... Kettle... Black

    The answer to the cocksurity of Big Data? Two words; Baltimore Ravens.

  10. Thomas McDermott says:

    "The answer to the cocksurity of Big Data? Two words; Baltimore Ravens."

    Unless I'm missing the intent of your statement, it seems that you're assuming that the whole point of these advanced stats (or Big Data, whatever we want to call it) is to predict the outcome of games. That's a part of it, but certainly not the whole thing.
    The fact that the Ravens won the Super Bowl doesn't prove or disprove anything, and it certainly doesn't make studying these stats irrelevant or useless.

  11. Anonymous says:

    The author of this piece seems very angry with his readers. Very peculiar way to display true ignorance indeed.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I think advanced stats are an excellent tool if taken into the correct context. As a math geek I enjoy looking at said sites. They are more effective for evaulating an entire unit than one player. Especially a db since opposing rb/wr/te EPA is not officially measured. Closest metric is opp dvoa on footballoutsiders.com.

  13. Robert Burns says:

    I don’t understand your rant, and I don’t know whom you are ranting against. But there are a few major problems with a statistical analysis of NFL football.

    1. The players are not machines, they are human beings. Injuries, health and other human factors affect performance.

    2. Football is a team sport, so it is very difficult to tease out the value or the contribution of any one player. Each team has its own offense and defense, which play against different offenses and defenses. And each team has a different game plan for each game. So there are changes and different conditions from week to week.

    3. Many things appear to be random. Note the bad calls by officials that are shown on replays. There are also many non-calls, and judgement calls. These bad calls and non-calls influence both the outcome and the flow of the game.

    4. The sample size is small for a season.

    All said, the proof of any analytical approach is the ability to predict outcomes. I don’t know of anyone who can predict with any degree of skill.

  14. Luca says:

    Having to analyze data professionally in the healthcare world, and dealing with all the same attitudes to data analytics that you (John Morgan) deal with, I can tell you the big issue in the attitudes is not the data - its the feeling that someone who hasn't been in the business 10,20,30 years has the gall to explain to them how to do their job - and point out their failings (no matter how diplomatically its done, it's still looked upon that way) while they're at it.

    The solution to that, as a pencil pushing, rear echelon, number cruncher(or other derogatory, 4 letter + term) (like me), is not to fire the invective back. What's worked for me, and if I could find the opportunity, hope to try in the sports world, is to just go out and see the front line coach / player / manager's world - talk to them, observe, see their problems from their eyes, see the success opportunities they have through their eyes, feel the heat they feel politically in their organization, and then use that to turn around analysis that means something to them, that resolves their everyday issues, that gives them something to win at, all the while professing that numbers aren't perfect, but are here to help them.

    In short, the bitterness against data analytics isn't against data or reason - its against commenting on their world without feeling its pressures, and without showing your commitment to helping them in a manner meaningful to them. Solve that, and you become a part of their team.

  15. Trent says:

    Please do not post articles like this on this site anymore, it reminds me too much of the condescension and arrogance that is exhibited often by David Berri and others at Wages of Wins.

    I am a believer in advanced metrics, I love working with advanced metrics, and I have written academic papers about advanced metrics. None of these things, however, make me any better of a fan than the fans who pick games based on "gut feeling" or love a quarterback because he has the "clutch gene."

    Please remember that no matter how sophisticated our statistical analyses and methodologies become, football is still a game. Granted its a multi-billion dollar game that consumes a decent chunk of my time, but my point is that it's important to do a reality check every once and a while and remember this.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I agree with Trent. Why so nasty? This is supposed to be fun.

  17. Anonymous says:

    One of the worst articles I have seen on this site.
    - Joe Pendleton

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