Friday, December 05, 2008

The shades of grey

"Only a Sith deals in absolutes." - Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars: Episode III

My biggest problem with the state of sports analysis today is that we seem to be moving away from the middle of the spectrum. Nothing exemplifies this more in my mind than Around the Horn, the ESPN talk show which basically features prominent journalists arguing with each other about sports. Moderator Tony Reali hands out points for different arguments, but the scoring seems to be based more on how vigorously you make your case rather than anything you actually say. The amount of people involved and the short time given to each segment also encourages participants to move away from subtlety in favour of absolutes. That doesn't mean it's necessarily bad; there's obviously a market for this kind of thing, and there are often interesting points raised. The problem is that the format encourages sensationalism and bold stands over critical analysis; why else would Jay Mariotti be a recurring participant?

This isn't all Around the Horn's fault, though. Much of the media is going along the same lines, particularly talk radio. There are some great programs out there, but they're often drowned out by those who make their living from just being controversial. It's not limited to sports, either: consider the popularity of types like Howard Stern and Don Imus. Newspapers and the blogosphere are following right along. It's become less about analysis and more about how loudly you can yell or how dramatically you can make your arguement.

The Sean Avery incident is an excellent case in point; everyone's trying to take the strongest stance out there either for or against him. That's why you get some like Bruce Garrioch calling for lifetime bans, while others like Colby Cosh are trying to make Avery into a free-speech martyr. He's not the worst villain in hockey history by far, but he's also not some innocent victim who should be allowed to skate off into the sunset with a slap on the wrist; check out Eric McErlain's FanHouse post on an alleged horrifying verbal attack Avery carried out on a Nashville fan, Richard Lawson's Gawker post on what Avery told a fashion writer and Greg Wyshynski's post about the actual act suggested by Avery's comments for just a few examples of what he's done over the years. That's not to say everyone's going to extremes; for an excellent example of a well-reasoned, considered position that examines both sides, check out James Mirtle's writing on the subject at From the Rink. He's in the minority, though, as this issue has further polarized an already-polarized sports media.

The broader point is that there are, surprisingly, a lot of similarities between sports and quantum physics. Not only does your perception of an event depend on where you're coming from (or your frame of reference, in classical physics terms), but your observing an event can also alter the event itself. Think Avery's suspended for six games if this incident doesn't spread as far? If the media in that locker room didn't broadcast this, there likely would be no suspension whatsoever. That's not to blame them; Avery basically called his own press conference and made his statement unprompted, so he needs to take responsibility, and I'd consider it worth reporting. The point is that the media's observance of and decision to report that event altered the event itself. The event was then further altered by the spread of the news. If it's shown on TSN once and maybe mentioned in one or two game-day stories, we might have a suspension on our hands, but I doubt it would be six games. This turned into one of the biggest hockey stories in recent memory, though, and was picked up by everyone from entertainment TV shows and websites to American newspapers that never cover the NHL. You have to think that that expansion of the coverage affected the league's response.

There are plenty of other examples of this failure to see the shades of grey. One of the classics is Buzz Bissinger's rant against Will Leitch and blogs in general. Bissinger had some good points, including some of the same ones that I've made above about the sensationalist tendencies of some blogs. However, he shot his own argument in the leg Plaxico Burress-style by sensationalizing it. If he keeps that as a rational discussion, differentiates between posts and comments and talks about a few particular blogs or posts he has issues with, he might be taken somewhat seriously. Ironically, he used the same sensationalism he was complaining about, and that destroyed his credibility.

Like everything else, though, Bissinger-Leitch (or traditional media vs. blogs) doesn't have to be an absolute argument. Our current media world wants it to be, though. Are you a blogger? Well, you'd better move back to your mother's basement and pound out uninformed diatribes against the prejudices of the media. Are you in the media? Get to work on those anti-blog columns. Fortunately, there are many of those on both sides who do see the shades of grey; the problem is that they don't draw the attention. Our tendency is to pay attention to the one-sided rants, like this piece from Christie Blatchford; never mind that at the very same paper they have reporters like Michael Grange and James Mirtle who can navigate both worlds with aplomb. There's the same problem with the bloggers who rant about traditional media outlets being useless and biased; yes, parts of their coverage may be, but don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. It's folly to respond to overgeneralized arguments against blogs with overgeneralized arguments against mainstream media.

It extends to everything in sport. Steroids and the Mitchell Report? It seems that either you hate what drugs have done to the game and think every user should be banned for life, or you have no problem with them at all. Spygate? Either Bill Belichick and the Patriots are the worst criminals in the game's history or cunning figures who should be rewarded for outsmarting everyone else. Statistics? Either they tell us everything and we shouldn't bother playing the games any more, or we should erase them all and go back to analyzing sports without numbers. Take any sports issue of recent memory and look for points of view on it; my guess is that most of them will cluster towards the two extremes. This polarization just leads to more yelling than constructive debate. We need people who can see both sides, and there are some; they should be praised for this, not ignored because they haven't taken the strongest stand of anyone on the issue.

It's not just sports, either. As a history student, I've seen this more and more in my research on a wide variety of topics. Many historians have realized that the way to get cited and become prominent is to take a strong, provocative stand on an issue. That gets people talking about you and gets your name out there. No one wants to hear the "on the one hand, but on the other hand", even if it may be closer to the truth. The subtlety is lost in favour of notoriety.

The problem isn't opinions. Everyone has a right to an opinion, and the more opinions, the better, in my view at least. The problem is that the opinions are moving to the extremes, and the natural conclusion to this is that the opinion-holders become less and less willing to consider alternative points of view. The problem is the people who think that their opinion is the only one worthy of note. It's very rare that these individuals take the middle ground on anything, as it's tough to be an absolutist about a moderate position. If they represent the ultimate goal, though, as many in the media and the blogosphere seem to think, why do we even bother discussing sports any more? There's no point in an argument between two unflinching individuals (or, to return to physics, an unstoppable force and an immovable object).

Enough negativity for now. There are plenty of writers, bloggers, radio hosts and the like who do see the shades of grey. Some of them are listed in my links, but there are many others. I thought I'd point out three of the best shades-of-grey pieces I've read recently to try and give you an idea of what I'm talking about.

First, there's Joe Posnanski's great essay on George Steinbrenner. Posnanski epitomizes what I'm talking about here; he's a columnist and a blogger, and he sees subtlety in situations where others would fly to the extremes. The Steinbrenner piece is a fantastic case in point. Most people in sports have very strong feelings about Steinbrenner; either they love the way he's changed the game and the success he's brought to the Yankees, or they hate his meddling, his arrogance and his purchase of dominance. Posnanski shows us all sides of the man and lets his readers draw their own conclusion, which is a laudable tactic and goal. Here's the key paragraph of his work:

"The story of King George is fascinating to me because, at the end of the day, the story goes wherever the narrator wants it to go. Do you want a hero? Do you want a scoundrel? Do you want a tyrant? Do you want a heart of gold? Steinbrenner is what you make him. He is the convicted felon who quietly gave millions to charity, the ruthless boss who made sure his childhood heroes and friends stayed on the payroll, the twice-suspended owner who drove the game into a new era, the sore loser who won a lot, the sore winner who lost plenty, the haunted son who longed for the respect of his father, the attention hound who could not tolerate losing the spotlight, the money-throwing blowhard who saved the New York Yankees and sent them into despair and saved them again (in part by staying out the way), the bully who demanded that his employees answer his every demand and the soft touch who would quietly pick up the phone and help some stranger he read about in the morning paper."

Second, we have the great Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated, who's one of my favourite writers. Smith has an unbelievable talent for portraying athletes in all their dimensions. He writes about tragedy and perseverance without ever trivializing or deifying the struggles of those involved, and his palette has an unbelievable amount of different shades of grey. Fortunately, those unfamiliar with his work can now read his many great pieces for free at the SI Vault. If you haven't yet read "Remember His Name", his tribute to former NFL player Pat Tillman, who was killed in Afghanistan, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Thirdly, we have Stephen Brunt of The Globe and Mail, who needs little introduction to Canadian readers. His most recent column on the Buffalo Bills-to-Toronto situation is a perfect example of what I'm trying to argue. Yes, he'd get much more attention if he started yelling about how this would doom the CFL irrevocably, or how Toronto desperately needs an NFL team, or how Buffalo doesn't deserve one, or any absolutist side you prefer. Instead, he considers all the sides and all of the potential effects, and even puts himself in the shoes of the fans in Buffalo, which is surely a rare perspective north of the border these days. This column provides the solid, reasoned analysis he's known for, and I'd love to see more in the Canadian media emulate him.

Anyway, the point of all this is to establish a central manifesto for my work and my blog. With apologies to Rod Serling, my goal is to offer a "middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition". Everything I write here is what I actually believe; it has not been altered or inflated into a more provocative case to draw attention. I vow to look at both sides of an argument and weigh all of the evidence before reaching a conclusion, and my goal is to be fair and open to discussion. I'm willing to look at my own views critically, and alter them if someone makes a persuasive arguement. This is a rallying call to the shades of grey excluded from the conversation from the shift to the black and white extremes; you'll always have a home here.

Update: 3:45 P.M.: Bloody hell: Jason Whitlock just made pretty much the same arguement as me on the Avery case. Here's his comment: My real problem is with my peers in the media. I think we're too quick to go for the death penalty when it comes to verbal screw-ups. We can never see the gray areas and just want hard and fast rules. Hadn't seen this one before; thanks to Neate for the link.

1 comment:

  1. Oh sure, I'm not a label? Good stuff.