Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Sports Media

Just got back to Chicago for the last bit of winter break and am thrilled to see lots of snow out my apartment window. Someone needs to occasionally remind me that I really like school and being here when I'm shaking pounds of snow off of dripping wet socks over the next few months.

Anyway, over the last few months I've been actively obsessing over the Eagles' progress (like every year). And every time the Eagles did something horrendously inept, I proclaimed the season was over, O-V-E-R over. I did this a whole lot, after every Andy Reid blunder, every terrible offensive showing, every time I found myself agreeing with the Philadelphia sports talk radio crowd (which I always assumed would portend the apocalypse)

So when the Eagles entered play this weekend, needing a Tampa Bay loss to Oakland, either a Minnesota loss to New York or a Chicago loss to Houston, and finally, a win over the hated Dallas Cowboys, I wasn't anticipating a post-season off the golf course for Donovan McNabb and the guys. One betting site listed the Eagles at 25-1 to make the playoffs entering the day, other estimates gave them a less than 20% chance.

And of course, to completely make me look and feel like an idiot (albeit a happy one), the Eagles smashed the Cowboys after the Raiders upset Tampa Bay and the Bears lost to Houston.

But it was a writer's response to the game got me thinking about how the media covers sports and why I get so fed up with it all the time (which for a large sports fan, is kind of a big problem)

Excerpted from Football Outsiders, which is a good site if you're a big football fan:

Bill Barnwell: Let's review an alternate scenario here. The Eagles play the Cowboys at 1 p.m. instead of 4 p.m. Every outcome is the exact same, except the Buccaneers beat the Raiders 31-24. The Eagles still destroy the Cowboys 44-6, doing so at the same time as the Bucs game, but because Tampa Bay wins, the Eagles don't make the playoffs.

The Eagles still have the best DVOA (Note: a stat these guys have invented to measure the true level of play) in the league on Monday morning; they're just not making the playoffs because something that was absolutely out of their control didn't get there. We look stupid, since the best team in the league didn't make the playoffs. The Philly media becries the fact that the Eagles' great game was too little, too late. Andy Reid likely gets fired, Donovan McNabb's out, and the Eagles probably start rebuilding.

If the Eagles make a huge playoff run, every columnist will be falling over themselves to make some sort of argument about how Week 17/the McNabb benching got their momentum going, but it's blindly groping for a narrative in a situation where there isn't one. The Eagles got astoundingly lucky on Sunday when the Buccaneers lost. It was one of the great upsets of the decade. What happens from here on out cannot be removed from that fact -- without that loss, the Eagles' regular season (as good as it was according to DVOA) would have been absolutely irrelevant and disappointing.

If this sounds reminiscent of my tone in the Giants chapter of PFP 2008, it's because it's the same sort of conflation of cause and effect that frustrates me as an analyst so much. The line between success and failure in the NFL is so impossibly thin as to be barely existent at points. The idea that a team is destined to win or a supreme conqueror of the other 31 teams as "the best" is flimsy at best. It's the same stupid logic I read all week about Lovie Smith going on a rant at halftime about the Bears refusing to go down like they were appearing to against Green Bay in Week 16. That was such a good motivator that the Bears needed a blocked field goal at the end of regulation to save themselves. (And for those of you [readers] who would say that it was Smith's words that caused the kick to be blocked, I wonder whether those same words inspired the other Adrian Peterson to commit that personal foul penalty on the kickoff.) Had the Bears not blocked that kick, would we have heard about Smith's words, or would they have rung hollow hours later? How many famous last words, to steal a phrase, do we get to hear? Were the Chargers really the BEST team in the AFC West? Probably shouldn't have had to rely upon an onside kick to give them a chance to prove it.

I think that the Eagles are a great team, one of the league's best this year, and that they'll show it in the playoffs. The fact that they'll get a chance to do so is in spite of their regular season performance, not because of it, but on the other hand, they would have been a great team regardless of whether the Buccaneers lost to the Raiders or not. The backwards definitions of their performance you're going to see because of what happened around them is exactly the reason Football Outsiders exists.

For me, that helped explain a) why I hate most mainstream sports media and b) why I can read any mainstream sports article in 2.5 seconds.

It's the process of taking the outcome from a sporting event, and shoehorning it into a narrative based on whatever stereotypical things have been going on. Reading most articles, teams don't often win because they executed more effectively, or because they were healthy, or god forbid, because of luck (it's never luck!). Teams win because coaches give fiery speeches, because team captains inspire, and because one team just has the will to win. It's not like the athletes have trained their entire lives for the opportunity to play sports and have millions of dollars at stake to ensure maximum effort, right?

I keep wondering exactly why the "analysis," using the term loosely, always falls back on cliches...I have a couple theories...

A - That's what the public likes to read and hear about, which makes a little sense, but seems way to easy. Plus, I'm tired of always assuming the viewing/reading audience is dumb and/or has no attention span.

B - Writers are under more and more time/cost pressure to get articles posted faster and cheaper as the pace of the media cycle speeds up and the investment in media goes down. I could see writers, on deadlines, hurrying to slap together recaps of games rather than provide deep and probing analyses.

Either way, I really don't like reading that stuff, or hearing it on a television broadcast. That probably explains why I prefer to read columnists/journalists who either talk much more about the intersection between sports and their personal lives or those who operate outside the traditional media sphere of influence.

Of course, until those guys figure out a way to make some money, I guess they'll remain a minority.

1 comment:

MattS said...

C- none of the above-- it's because sportswriters need to justify why-- in the era of the blog-- they should still be read as the primary source of information about sports. they are not experts. they just have press passes. anything that you can only get with a press pass (i.e. access to hear about a firey speech) is something that they attribute as a cause for things, because we can't deny it. we weren't there. if these journalism and english majors suddenly needed to rely on articulating probability theory to hold their jobs and to keep people reading the paper instead of our blogs, they would go out of business. you can't stay in business making money without barriers to entry if you don't do your job better than others do. they aren't the only ones with factchecking ability or statchecking ability, so they have to rely on the press pass to justify their jobs.