It would be soul-crushing to read let alone write about every dogshit-stupid thing ESPN does, but this one has gone through the ESPN car wash, providing for ample discussion across the company’s platforms, so here we are.
Noted gasbag Mike Wilbon wrote a piece for The Undefeated yesterday in which, purporting to speak on behalf of all 40-plus million African-Americans in this country, he argued that analytics in sports are something “we want little to do with,” and that “advanced analytics and black folks hardly ever mix.”
There are definitely the makings of a good column here, one which would explore perceptions of analytics among different groups, whether groups absorb and use analytics differently (and why, if they do), and what the practitioners of analytics in the media and within sports actually look like. Unfortunately, Wilbon approached the subject with all the intellectual rigor you’d expect of a guy who’s spent the last 15 years staring blankly into space on TV, generalizing based upon what a couple of friends told him in the most David Brooks-ish way possible and smuggling in one of the dumber misunderstandings of numbers you’ll ever read:
One stat, according to ESPN Stats & Information, assigned Curry some number in excess of 100 for his 3-point sniping from the corners. This tells you just how bogus the exercise is if the “percentage” reports to be greater than 100.
It’s like calculating points per 100 possessions, a very popular go-to stat in NBA circles. Why is that more important than points per 48 minutes, which is the actual time in which an NBA game is played?
The piece ends with Wilbon’s friend lamenting the fact that Dwight Howard is going to get a max contract this summer because of analytics, whatever that has to do with the ostensible topic.
In retrospect, this bad column seems like mere prelude for what came today, when handsomely-compensated shouter Stephen A. Smith riffed on the same set of ideas in his own inimitable way:
I’m honestly reluctant to parse his ranting, because trying to deconstruct this sort of thing will just turn your brain into soup, but here’s some of what Smith has to say:
You don’t hear brothers talkin’ about analytics. The eye test, knowledge of the game of basketball, dissecting who can do what, etc., all comes into play. We also monitor who has the leadership capabilities, we definitely monitor what’s inside your chest, your heart, how competitive are you, how feisty are you, are you ready to be a roughrider, or are you gonna wilt beneath the pressure. That’s how WE as African-Americans, talk about the sport.
This is essentially the same easily-debunked argument Wilbon makes, the same one out-of-it sportswriters have been making forever. It puts people with slide rules over here and people who really know the game over there, ignoring the reality of how the NBA functions at the working level to set up a false contrast between people who think qualities of character matter and those who want to know if a certain shot or play or player has actually been effective.
What’s lousy about this version of the argument isn’t just the way it positions the person making it as the tribune of tens of millions of people, but how it insults all the black sportswriters, coaches, scouts, video coordinators, front office executives, and players who are perfectly capable of understanding basic math—and that’s all 98 percent of analytics amounts to, a knowledge of the game plus some math you learned in 8th grade—and utilize it as their jobs require.
Maybe the most galling thing here is that while ESPN does have plenty of intelligent reporters and commentators who can speak on this issue—the folks at ESPN Stats & Info, ESPN Insider, and FiveThirtyEight, to begin with—they’re forced to share the stage with the loudest, dumbest brutes, positioning them as half of an “opinions differ on Earth’s shape”-type debate.
For instance, here is Bomani Jones—who possesses a master’s degree in economics—talking about the piece on his radio show yesterday. He’s careful not to blast Wilbon, but it’s clear both that he disagrees wholeheartedly and that he has a much better grasp on the topic under discussion:
The entire segment is worth listening to in full, but especially these parts:
I’m just saying, let’s not give white folks too much credit here. Because there’s a whole bunch of white folks out here who ain’t really trying to hear nothin about analytics either. A whooole lot of them that aren’t trying anything about any analytics. That’s not it.
The analytics thing that is largely generational. There’s another issue that I think comes up that black people are generally steered away from mathematics. Math and science related fields, people of color and women, and people of color not including Asians in this discussion, but people of color and women are typically pushed away from those directions. I’ve taken a lot of high-level math, where you look around and are like, “Damn, it’s just me.” Like that’s the game. That’s what the game’s been for a very, very, very long time, so I could imagine that there are black people that aren’t necessarily so inclined to lean on these advanced numbers because nobody has ever been so inclined to lean these advanced numbers back upon us. I can see it like that.
But that’s an exposure issue, more than it is something like innate about black people or anything like that. White people are hitting me up today like, “Yo man, what’d you think about what Wilbon say?” Yo, Wilbon might want to answer for all the black people, I don’t. I ain’t never really been here for that. I’m answering for this one right here, and I’m happy to be one with a bunch of degrees in economics, so like I’m not the guy, that sees it, in that way. I’ll never be the guy that sees it in this way.
This weekend ... I was hanging with some cats that were in town in Miami for a bachelor party, and he was like, “Man, Google ruined the sports argument.” He was like, “Yeah man, because now we can just go and we can check the right answer, and that takes away from a whole lot of the fun.” Because sports fans by and large want to argue about this stuff and being right isn’t consequential. Thinking you’re right is more important than that. You can make all your barbershop examples, I’m just telling you white folks be doing the same exact thing, they do the same stuff, they just do it when we ain’t around. That’s it.
Jones is making a nuanced set of points here, and there’s no question they demand serious discussion. (If there are disproportionately few black quants in NBA front offices, for instance, that’s probably largely a function of the much larger and more important issue of various forms of bias in STEM education, which Jones raises. Does the NBA, or should the NBA, have a role to play in reversing this?)
When it comes to the question that started all of this and which Wilbon and Smith are supposedly addressing, though, there’s not much discussion to be had; Jones has it right. Most people, no matter their race, aren’t really into anything that even looks like math, and most of them just want to blather at each other about sports, whether or not they have any idea what they’re talking about at all.