Can Statheads ‘Shut Up and Look’?
Now that analytics absolutists are the ruling class in sports, can they get over themselves long enough to make the game more fun?
On February 11, during TNT’s postgame show, NBA all-time great Charles Barkley chose to stand athwart history, loudly and proudly.
“I’ve always believed analytics were crap. They’re just some crap that some people who are really smart made up to try to get in the game ’cause they had no talent,” Barkley groused. All of these fancy new formulas were the product of a bunch of bespectacled weenies that, he said, “never got the girls in high school.”
The target of Sir Charles’s ire, Daryl Morey, similarly doesn't think highly of anti-analytics truthers. “It’s like arguing with a baby, or someone who believes the Earth is flat,” the Rockets’ GM said in an interview with Howard Beck of Bleacher Report. “It’s like debating politics on Facebook.”
The basketball writing community piled on, as can be seen in this lengthy yet incomplete list Bryan Curtis compiled at Grantland: “Barkley’s rant was ‘unintelligible’ and ‘wholly useless’; his target—ostensibly Rockets GM Daryl Morey and his apostles in the media—was a ‘straw man’; and Barkley himself was a ‘doofus.’ Keith Olbermann concurred: ‘Most of the dinosaurs like Chuck don’t even realize the war is over.’”
Yes, Barkley is dead wrong, mainly because the undeniable reality is that every team in the NBA is using advanced statistic to some degree.
But Sir Charles’s choice of language is important here. He didn’t say that analytics are crap; he said he believed it was so.
Which brings us to to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Morey’s Coachella-like gathering of the best and brightest data-sleuthing minds in the sporting world, executives from pretty much every franchise you could imagine, and the unveiling of glossy presentation papers touting heretofore-unseen methodologies.
I attended, and over the course of the weekend, I kept noticing a downright religious or even fundamentalist vibe hovering in the air. A day before the conference started, ESPN published this article, ranking teams in terms of “Believers,” “Skeptics,” and “Non-Believers.” There’s no one singular moment that would out this as a minor league cult—no one showed up wearing a cleric’s frock— but Jeff Van Gundy saying “We have this church of analytics and I’m a devoted follower” came pretty close.
The overall tone wasn’t that of a wild, gleeful, celebration by a scrappy band of insurgents. This was the ruling party luxuriating in its power, confident in the knowledge that its own statistical revolution had become dogma.
As such, when someone like Barkley might have the unmitigated gall to disagree, he’s not going to be told that he’s wrong, or have his argument logically countered in a relatively measured fashion. He’s going to be labeled a blasphemer.
Again, by the numbers, Barkley’s wrong, to be sure. Really, he’s just being the cuddly, loudmouthed TV character that he’s paid to be, but in this light, you might be able to understand his anger. No one likes being called a heretic, and the instinctive reaction to being presented with the one true faith—whether it’s by a wonk armed with reams of spreadsheets or a crusty, hardscrabble, firebrand coach who thinks John Wooden’s pyramid of success was originally inscribed on stone tablets—is to recoil, and even at times to resist.
What’s fascinating is that the new kids seem to be, in a way, replicating the orthodoxy of the grumpy old men on the other side of the table from Brad Pitt in Moneyball.
This, too, should be expected. As Paolo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in any system where there’s an upheaval or reversal of power, “the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors” because “the oppressed find in the oppressors their model of ‘manhood.’”
In other words, in the process of getting their revenge, it’s not uncommon to see the nerds replicate the most vicious, cruel bullying of their jock tormentors.
But what if there was a third way here, one that might be a way to bridge the gap between these two seemingly irreconcilable polar opposites?
It’s a presentation that was given at Sloan by Edward Tufte, a statistician, artist, and professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale University, called “The Thinking Eye.”
At the core, all of the work being done wasn’t about completion or searching for a magic formula that will “solve” the problem.
“High science, high art and smart analysis all demand intense seeing. That seeing then leads to representations, constructs, words, numbers, diagrams, images still or moving, tables, statistical graphics, drawings, paintings, maps, scale models, and sock puppets. Whatever,” he said, grinning. “Replacing empirical measurements which represent reality, our new representations require thoughtful, thorough, skeptical attention as to what they reveal and explain, and what they forget and mask, for what they show us is what we see.”
In English, it’s about the beauty of sports: It’s not a fruitless quest for “the answer” or the desire for conclusiveness and finality, as attractive as that may seem. This is extraordinarily difficult to do, given that the temptation to find the One Big Truth is everywhere, to be sure. This quote from Gustave Flaubert from Professor Tufte’s presentation points to exactly that:
The rage for wanting to conclude is one of the most deadly and most fruitless manias to befall humanity. Each religion and each philosophy has pretended to have God to itself, to measure the infinite, and to know the recipe for happiness. What arrogance and what nonsense! I see, to the contrary, that the greatest geniuses and the greatest works have never concluded.
This, too, is sports at its best. The buzzer that sounds at the end of one game or any given season—leaving one man/team standing and the rest dismissed as useless failures—isn’t real. At its absolute core, sports is an investigation into the human condition—in this case, a delightfully pointless and yet wholly diverting one, framed by an arbitrary set of rules.
Within this framework we can experience the great unknown, moments of wondrous improbability and pure magic.
To truly appreciate all of that, however, requires intense observation and rigor. This is where the line here between artist, athlete, and scientist begins to blur, as it should.
“How then to see one’s own work intensely with fresh, knowing vacation eyes innocent of one’s own baggage, and innocent of the baggage of others?” Professor Tufte asked. “How then to reason about it again, how to produce it again, to make it smarter, different, elegant?” It’s a question that could be posed to either the analysts devising a new metric for measuring defensive value in basketball or to Kobe Bryant, alone in the gym, reworking his jump shot to compensate for a loss of athleticism.
I spoke with Tufte, and he disagreed with my perception of a fundamentalist streak at Sloan in particular and among the larger analytics community in general.
“Of course there are enthusiasts, and of course there are different sides, but I think you can take any controversy, and of course there are some irrational true believers. The great thing about the empirical side is, it has to work,” he said. “I have a different take on all this, by the way. I don’t think analytics should be used to improve winning in particular. I think it should be used to improve the entertainment value of sports.”
That struck me as truly revolutionary and something that even Barkley might dig: that appearances to the contrary, analytics shouldn’t be about the dehumanizing reduction of all on field activity to data points, such that some shrewd general manager can to carve out a minuscule amount of added economic value.
“That is the true goal—to help illuminate the relatively few, absolutely vivid, wonderful moments in sports, like Malcolm Butler’s interception in the Super Bowl, the Butt Fumble, or seeing Steph Curry shoot 30 three-pointers in a row,” he continued. “Imagine if you did all the motion studies, and angles and strategy, if there was a deep after-the-fact analysis of that. And then we’d be watching this miraculous, decisive play, and having an enormously enriched understanding of it.”
I’d like to think that there’s a world in which Tufte could get Barkley and Morey together to talk about all of this and realize there’s far, far more commonality than there are differences, and that Tweeted jibes and televised rants are all just so much distracting, non-entertaining white noise. Perhaps they wouldn’t talk at all, but rather follow the instructions given on this sign at the professor’s sculpture farm that reads, “Shut up and Look.”