Sunday, December 13, 2009

Racing Like a Pro Now

"Today this private space has been invaded and whittled down by technological reality. Mass production and mass distribution claim the entire individual, and industrial psychology has long since ceased to be confined to the factory. The manifold processes of introjection seem to be ossified in almost mechanical reactions. The result is, not adjustment but mimesis: an immediate identification of the individual with his society and, through it, with the society as a whole...Thus emerges a pattern of one-dimensional thought and behavior in which ideas, aspirations, and objectives that, by their content, transcend the established universe of discourse and action are either repelled or reduced to terms of this universe. They are redefined by the rationality of the given system and of its quantitative extension.”
– Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man

The Education of an Athlete

Remember Kevin Hart?

I recently plowed through Bill Simmons’s Book of Basketball. I have a lot of opinions about it, but this is not a review, so I won’t get too into it here.1 One thing that grabbed me, though, was a point he made about a player’s finger roll.2 He talked about the homogenization of the route elite players (at least growing up in America) take to get to the NBA. AAU camps and traveling teams create a monolithic culture where everyone works toward the same platonic jumpshot form (Hello, Ray Allen!) and idiosyncrasies are ironed out of everyone’s game. I’m not saying that there isn’t a right way to shoot a jumper (God knows no one should have to shoot like Shawn Marion), but I do think that the paradigmatic nature of sports culture is accelerating, and as a result valuable avenues of athletic possibility are dismissed or not even considered.
1: My take: however you feel about Bill Simmons, this book will likely reinforce that. He’s a pretty good writer with a pretty set schtick. If you hate him, I doubt you’ll like the book. If you love him, you probably already own it. It’s a flawed but still quite worthy addition to the basketball book pantheon. For way more in-depth analysis/review, head over here.
2: No, I can’t remember whom. I thought it was Dr J or Earl the Pearl, but a cursory look didn’t turn it up, and I’m not wading through 700 pages for two sentences. Sorry.

I blame television. Bear with me a bit and I’ll explain. Bill James gets at what I mean in this conversation with Joe Posnanski when he talks about professionalism:
“Bill pulls out his spiral notebook -- he always brings a spiral notebook to games -- and on a page he draws two ladders, one on top of the other. The higher ladder is the ‘professional’ ladder. The lower ladder he calls the ‘amateur’ ladder. He then draws a picture of someone dangling from the bottom rung of the professional ladder. That, he says, is the Kansas City Royals.

‘It's so important for them to be considered professional,’ he says, ‘that they are unwilling to try anything that might make people think they're amateurish.’”
He’s certainly correct,3 but I’d like to extend the point further. I think that a fear of looking amateurish is hampering not only the low men on the totem pole of professional sports, but also high-level amateur sports, and therefore everyone coming into pro sports. It used to be the case that the line demarcating amateur and professional sporting endeavor matched exactly the line of national media coverage.4 The only reason you cared about high school sports was if it was your local team or a team they were likely to play. This of course has broken down, leading to things like LeBron James’s senior year playing out partly on ESPN and the like. As I write this, the Wendy’s High School Heisman Awards are on ESPN2. The college Heisman was first awarded in 1935; the High School Heisman was started in 1994. Instead of playing for scholarships or draft position, elite prospects are already playing to establish a brand and jockey for endorsements. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this; it’s the way things have been done in Europe with soccer for decades, for instance. The issue is this fear this arms race creates of not looking “professional”. Half-formed players can, do and should make mistakes. They’re works in progress. Being afraid to make a mistake is how you stagnate, and being afraid to do anything a non-conventional way totally stymies anyone not ideally suited for the current best way of doing it. If you’re trying to impress someone who has Nike’s ear, you don’t want to look silly toying with an unorthodox that doesn’t work yet; you want to have a textbook jumper, forty-inch vertical leap and nothing that’ll make them scratch their head.
3: Though I think his idea about Kansas City stocking its minors with pitchers who throw under 90 is sort of asinine. I do think that velocity is overrated in baseball, but not wildly so. You can be successful without lighting up the radar gun, but your margin for error is thinner the slower you throw. Look at Brian Bannister, for example. The guy has everything you need to succeed except velocity, and consequently has ups and downs. Stocking your system with guys like that might find you the next Greg Maddux, but you would have to deal with the entirety of the haystack to get the occasional needle.
4: For a number of reasons, I’m going to consider NCAA Division I sports to be on the professional side of the divide here, despite the fact that the players receive no (legal) money. At least at the highest levels, the “student-athletes” are students in no more than name.

Television also gets at this more elementally. In addition to driving the media exposure and advertising that pushes the horizon of where your career starts earlier and earlier, an inundation of coverage also pushes the current paradigm on a young player’s consciousness. If you get your sports intake from box scores in the newspapers and the game of the week on network television, you’re going to spend a lot of time imagining how players operate and going with whatever works for you. If you have a league pass, highlights on the internet and the blogosphere, you’re going to be working on whatever works for your heroes. You’re going to be trying to get AI’s crossover, Derek Jeter’s batting stance, not come up with your own whole cloth. I realize that this makes me sound like more than a little bit of a reactionary Luddite, and I’m not suggesting we collectively renounce mass media, but I do think it’s true that this oversaturation ossifies the edifices in charge and narrows development into mimesis.

Case Study: Bill Belichick5

They call this anticipating the hit.

"Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies." – Friedrich Nietzsche

I’m not just talking about player development, either. I’ve had a pet theory for a while that, while professionalism has long been an emphasis in sports, the content of the notion has undergone a shift over the past decade or two from centering on social reaction to physical action. Watch a sports game from several decades ago. When players do something spectacular, they act as if it is nothing. When they congratulate each other, it is largely handshakes. At the same time, a lot of kooky things were going on. Knuckleball pitchers. Finger rolls. Eddie Gaedel, for goodness’ sake! I’m certainly oversimplifying, but I think it’s not false to say that the expectation was that you could play how you wanted (legally), so long as you comported yourself. Contrast that to today’s players, who largely seem to be trying to approach some sort of platonic standard, but celebrate plays as if they had won a game. 6 I have no real issue with the move away from emphasizing social decorum. It’s the other part that bothers me.
5: Two other stories I thought about using as case stories:
a. Dick Fosbury’s improbable and accidental invention of the Fosbury Flop. He revolutionized the high jump in a way that was totally dismissed by the track and field powers-that-be until they couldn’t ignore its results. (He also only saw high jump as a way to get into college, and seems to have had about as much fun as you can at an Olympics when he was in Mexico City. The article is a great read for several reasons.)
b. Cliff Young was an Australian sheep farmer who torched an endurance race through the simple strategy of not stopping to sleep. He revolutionized a race by using a tactic others hadn’t even considered as possible. (He also sounds like a stone badass and gave away every cent of prize money he won, which is spectacular.)
6: Please don’t think this is a reactionary rant against celebrations in sports. They do annoy me, but I don’t see them as any sort of moral degradation, and in fact often feel such reactionary arguments are wrongheaded and racially tinged. I’ve just always preferred the guy who doesn’t feel the need to shout about himself.

In week ten of the current NFL season, the Patriots had a six point lead but were stuck at a fourth-and-two on roughly their own thirty yard line near the end of the game. Conventional wisdom screams punt in such situations, but Belichick decided to go for it. The Pats fell just short of converting, and the Colts marched in for the game-winning touchdown. Belichick was excoriated by the announcers and commentators, including some former players. The move was decried as a crazy gamble that betrayed a lack of faith in his defense. The thing is, by the percentages Belichick made the right call. You would just never know it from listening to 95% of the media coverage. There is no examination of the percentages7, because received wisdom gives you all the assurance you need that you’re right. If you cloak yourself in righteousness, you don’t need to worry about being right. Nobody checks to see if The Right Way is correct.
7: And this isn’t rocket science here. Check out that NY Times article. Combining two percentages isn’t regression analysis; you would hope anyone with a high school education (and these ex-professional football broadcasters are all college graduates!) could do it without breaking a sweat…

Decision-making in sports is almost wholly reactionary. If Belichick had punted and lost, the chattering would all have been about his team’s defensive woes and/or Peyton Manning’s late-game heroics. By having the rare courage to buck pro football’s decision-making paradigm, Belichick got absolutely creamed in the media even though he was right. The problem is that he made a percentage play and got burned. Most coaches will happily give up a 60/40 chance of winning for a 50/50 if the 40% will blow up in their face, because they’ll get backed up by their boss(es). Chuck Klosterman makes the point pretty convincingly that, for all its conservative aura, the NFL is far more radical in its willingness to accept new tactics on the field, but this only holds at a macro level. Coaches will run the wildcat, but they'll still do things like punt to save face even when it reduces their chance of winning. Baseball doesn’t even gladly do this, as the slow acceptance of statistical analysis has shown. Branch Rickey was fully aware of the importance of on-base percentage sixty years ago, but Murray Chass still goes apoplectic over some sabermetric assertions. (And he’s hardly alone.)

The Point

To take an (unfortunately fantastic) example: the mere absence of all advertising and of all indoctrinating media of information and entertainment would plunge the individual into a traumatic void where he would have the chance to wonder and to think, to know himself (or rather the negative of himself) and his society. Deprived of his false fathers, leaders, friends, and representatives, he woud have to learn his ABCs again. But the words and sentences which he would form might come out very differently, and so might his aspirations and fears. – Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man

We have built a magnificent chain of cause and effect, of resources and effort which fuel our major sports. They are channeled into a narrow set of options, which leads to ever greater achievement within that paradigm, but stifles anything foreign to its worldview. The unwritten rules of sport have a tighter and tighter grip on everything within their purview the more money and prestige the sport controls. Victors write history, but it’s more pernicious than that. Victors write the present too, and the media writes both on the victors’ terms.

Think about the treatment of the Seven Seconds or Less Suns. They never won a championship, but that, so far as anyone can prove, is as much a product of Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw leaving the bench when Robert Horry mugged Steve Nash as it is of any fundamental flaw in their game. But, barring the current Suns pulling off a huge upset or Mike D’Antoni’s Knicks coming up with an Impossible Dreamesque season, the old saws that “defense wins championships” and uptempo ball can’t win consistently will go unchallenged. Conventional wisdom will always do a poor job of separating relevancy and contingency, and we pay our storytellers and interlocutors for packaging narrative, not fact. So Steve Nash’s golden years will go down more Scythian than Hellenic.

I have no solutions to offer. Much like Marcuse in his critique of industrial society in One-Dimensional Man, I see ours as a trap that has been sprung. The finger roll is dead, unless some unheralded wonder rises to enough of a height that little kids will be emulating it. Granny shots are a good idea on free throws, but do you think we’ll see anyone trying that? The perceived rules are now as important as the written rules, and the narrowing of possibility that we’re left with saddens me. The arc of sporting history will be bent to their will. What magnificent possible players will we never see? I have no idea, and you don’t either.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. While I love this post and heartily agree with most of it, I would like to argue against Belichick's decision as the "right" one. It is true that based on fourth down percentage conversion, numbers, and the stoic science of stastistics, Belichick was intelligent in choosing to go for it. The tangible potential for success was greater than the potential for consequence, but multiply in the emotional risk, the existential crisis a team suffers if the ball IS turned over in the red zone with less than two minutes remaining and less than a touchdown lead. The defense would obviously have a much better chance of galvanizing and stopping Peyton Manning's attack following a punt than a turnover, particularly with two minutes left. In this play, Belichick took a bet (albeit with good odds) on Tom Brady that would immediately make or break the game, rather than allowing his entire team to have a greater say in the eventual outcome. I believe his risk was foolish, but more than that, I believe that he took this risk and failed because he as a coach is a scientist and a statistical thinker, not the mad, intuitive prophet-priest that a great risk-taker needs to be. I feel like he exercised knowledge but not wisdom... Don't get me wrong, the numbers don't lie, but neither do they tell the whole truth.

  3. "Don't get me wrong, the numbers don't lie, but neither do they tell the whole truth."

    I had a feeling I might get called out on this, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that this is the point on which I vacillated most before landing. Maybe this is a side-effect of being strongly on the statistics side in my baseball fandom, but I think that emotional impact, while real, is easy to overemphasize. I'm not sure how to quantify the effect existential crisis has on a red zone defense, and I'm not convinced that it impacts a tackler mid-play.

    More importantly, the only emotional impact of the decision Bill Belichick has to consider is that on his team, and he can create the culture he wants there. If he emotionally cut his team's legs out from under them, it's his fault for not instilling a Patriots culture that understands the risks he'll take and why he thinks they're worth it. I didn't delve deeply enough into postgame comments to know if this is the case or not, but nothing about the media hubbub guarantees that his guys weren't on his side.

    I think we can agree that the emotional key here is the team having faith in him when he's cutting against the grain. The three ways I can think of accomplishing this are 1) to win them over through consistently being right; 2) to be a mad, intuitive prophey-priest; and/or 3) to have them understand the decision-making process that led to the play. 1 and 2 he can't control, but 3 he can. I suspect Belichick may be too authoritarian to explain himself like this, but I may not be giving him enough credit. The reason I'm not on board with your argument, though, is that it presumes to know the mindset of his players in a way we can't. I don't know that you're wrong, but you can't prove you're right, so I'll go with the numbers and hope he's a good enough coach to bring his players along.

  4. Sure, that's fair. I guess what I'm getting at is that my feeling here (not definitive or provable knowledge) is that Belichick got wrapped up in being that tough coach making that unconventionally "wise" call and didn't have his fingers on the team's pulse or his head in the game in the psychological and philosophical way that transcends the numbers...i suppose the argument can't really be made, it's creation vs. evolution.


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