Stochastic FootballWe 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.