The Arrogance of Anecdotal Sportswriting

Posted by Dave Nichols | Friday, September 23, 2011 | | 4 comments »

I have now read so many reviews and critiques of the "Moneyball" movie, I feel like I've seen it already.  Of course, I read the book so I know how it turns out.

The latest "review" I've read isn't a review at all, since it's author, like me, hasn't seen the movie yet.  Of course, he claims he won't see it out of principal.  Jason Whitlock is a veteran sportswriter, currently employed by FoxSports.com.  His bio on his column pretty much sums up what his goal in writing is these days.
Jason Whitlock writes about the sports world from every angle, including those other writers can't imagine or muster courage to address. His columns are humorous, thought-provoking, agenda-free, honest and unpredictable.
Whitlock starts his column by stating that it's not intended to be a shot at Bill James, Billy Beane or Michael Lewis, but then goes on to take shots at all three.  He further mocks those that evaluate and analyze the sports we watch using sabremetrics, statistics, computers and science.  He theorizes that analytical evaluation is "ruining sports."

I suppose Whitlock has never seen the "statistics" that say more people are watching -- and betting on -- football, and attending Major League Baseball games, than ever before.

Whitlock goes on to bring up a discussion about the greatest football player/quarterback in history, who he believes to be John Elway, and invites the readers to engage him in a debate about the subject.  Just don't bring stats to the discussion, because he won't have any of it.  Nope; in his world, everyone is entitled to an opinion, as long as it's based on anecdotal evidence, where "leadership" and "guts" mean more than yards per passing attempt or completion percentage.

I understand his reasoning behind this type of evaluation.  Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, no matter how they formulate it.  Opinions based on anecdotal evidence are hard to argue against since the subject of the debate is so amorphous.  It's easier to win an argument when there's no correct answer. 

But Whitlock can't say John Elway is his favorite NFL player in history because that shows bias, though that's really what he means when he says that Elway was the greatest ever.   Because everyone knows the Greatest Quarterback in NFL History was Johnny Unitas.

It's one thing to keep your head in the sand and continue to write from a purely anecdotal standpoint.  It's completely another to lash out and criticize those that write analytically.  Or, for that matter, read anything written analytically.  I suppose if Jason Whitlock wants to retard his growth as a sports writer and avoid advancements in how we analyze the athletes that play our games, that's his business.  But don't insult me because you choose to remain ignorant.

Whitlock acts like it's an either/or proposition, and that's his failing mistake.  To him, you either argue anecdotally or analytically, and if you argue analytically you're ruining the games.  Nothing is further from the truth.  The best writers (and, for that matter, player personnel evaluators) take everything into consideration.  Part of the knock on "Moneyball" (and I suppose the basis of thought behind the principles therein) was the degradation of old-school scouting types.  These opinions need to be taken in consideration with the analytical evaluation.  It's all part of the complete package.  Anything less is short-changing the evaluation.

Statistical analysis helps us better understand how our games work, why certain players are more successful than others.  Anyone can write about the who, what, when and where.  But it's the why and how that are the most important aspects of journalism.

There used to be a time, in the not-so-distant past, the time that Jason Whitlock cut his teeth as a journalist, that most people got the entirety of their sports knowledge from the morning newspaper. The games weren't on television, few people could afford to go the games in person, and there was no such thing as "Sports Center." Sportswriters were minor gods back then, delivering their sermons from on high (from the press box), as they were included in the small circle of insiders that were deigned worthy to actually *gasp* speak with the heroes from our athletic battlefields.

Now, with 24-hour sports networks, fantasy sports, on-line stats services, websites that provide both raw numbers and thought-provoking analysis, and instantaneous news delivery devices on social media, literally anyone can become a sportswriter. They even give a few of the amateurs credentials these days.

Here, then, is the real crux of the matter in Whitlock's own words:  
"We’re about 10 years away from a computer program that will write stats-based opinion pieces on sports."
Whitlock is afraid for his job.  He instinctively understands that his failure to adapt to an ever-widening knowledge base about the sports he's paid to write intellectually will do nothing but hasten his obsolescence.

In my opinion, that day can't come soon enough.

4 comments

  1. Anonymous // September 23, 2011 at 6:20 PM  

    You sound surprised that someone who works for Fox would have his head -- let's be gentle here -- in the sand. That's just the way Fox works...

  2. Dave Nichols // September 23, 2011 at 11:10 PM  

    Not shocked. Saddened.

  3. Matt // September 29, 2011 at 12:46 AM  

    Dave,

    Excellent piece. Realizing I came across this a couple days after posting, I still want to say nice job. Please try to get this on a couple other blogs out there. Seriously, this was well-written and does a great job of explaining why a lot of the analytical writers today write what they do.

    This piece needs widest dissemination!

    Cheers,
    Matt

  4. Dave Nichols // October 1, 2011 at 10:48 AM  

    Thanks Matt, appreciate your kind words.