The Next Data War

Grantland’s Bryan Curtis has an interesting piece on the recent brouhaha over Charles Barkley’s recent disparagement of “analytics.” Curtis says we’re in a new phase over debates about the use of statistical analysis to evaluate performance, one in which evermore detailed data sources are available and inform the decision-making of sports organizations. He calls this Moneyball II:

This clash doesn’t pit a blogger versus a newspaperman in a debate over the value of PER. It pits media versus athletes in a battle over who gets to tell the story of basketball. “I viewed Charles Barkley’s comments as being completely about media criticism, not about how a team is run,” said Craig Calcaterra, who blogs at HardballTalk. “If Barkley were still playing and a coach came to him and said, ‘Here’s something we discovered in our analytics department,’ I’m sure he’d be receptive to it. But he doesn’t want to hear someone in the media second-guessing his authority about basketball.”

Moneyball II is an older war. It’s about who really owns the game. It’s about a group of people whose jobs by their very nature threaten another group of people. You may know this war by another name. It’s called sportswriting.

In other words – who in the heck are these (mostly) guys to presume they know better than we (the athletes) what makes us good and what makes us bad? One answer to that question, pithily expressed by the long-time Detroit sportswriter Joe Falls, as quoted by Curtis: ““My office lets me write obits and I’ve never died.”

That humans have opinions about an extraordinary range of endeavors of which we have no firsthand experience is an essential feature of the species. That humans develop expertise about practices even if they aren’t themselves practitioners in that area of endeavor is also a commonplace. That high profile practitioners might have their own limitations in understanding what they do and the effects of what they do – whether lawyers, teachers, doctors, politicians or, yes, athletes – ought also to be uncontroversial.

A long time ago, Bill James said that, when it came to sports, it wasn’t a question of whether statistics *should* be used to evaluate ballplayers. They were, whether anyone liked it or not. So the only relevant questions are what data we use and why?

Who is best placed to answer those questions? Whether the people who are better placed to answer those questions are, as Barkley claimed, those who didn’t have sex in high school isn’t really relevant. Amateur sociology aside, athletes are likely (though not exclusively) going to be especially good at telling certain kinds of stories about who is good and who is bad and why. And those who immerse themselves in data are going to be good (and in some cases very bad) at telling other kinds of stories about who is good and who is bad and why. That will include some current and former athletes, by the way.

None of these need be mutually exclusive categories. Curtis concludes his piece by noting that “Barkley was accidentally useful in clarifying just what the analytics revolution has done for sportswriting. It has created a better, smarter press corps — in the eyes of the press corps. But in the eyes of all but a few adventurous players, the media hacks haven’t changed much at all. No player is granting us the right to judge him. But judge him we must.”

To make this formulation more precise, we can say that the analytics revolution has provided the tools for folks to better answer the questions of who is good, who is bad and why. Many who cover sports for living, however, still don’t use those tools properly. Instead they use stats to reinforce old biases, to cut corners, to be lazy. To paraphrase James, sports media aren’t going to stop telling stories about athletes. And athletes aren’t going to stop bristling at those stories (especially when they’re negative). The question is whether those stories are going to be based on sound analysis or not.




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