For More, and Better, Sports Narratives

Is the sports media sphere being overrun by narratives? Are they getting in the way of facts and the truth?  A couple of recently published essays (one by Phil Daniels, writing in The Cauldron, and the other by Zach Lowe, writing for Grantland) lamenting the dangers of sports narratives might lead readers to just this conclusion.  And, while I share their dismay over the proliferation of bad narratives (I’ll come back to what I mean by “bad”), I can’t get on board with the idea that narrative itself is the problem, somehow by nature an obstacle to or at odds with the truth.

Of course, it’s really impossible to have a meaningful discussion about this question without first spelling out what’s meant by truth (or by facts).  So I want to begin by laying my cards on the table here.  Where questions of truth are concerned, I am what philosophers call a “pragmatist.”  Associated with philosophers such as William James, John Dewey and Richard Rorty, pragmatism holds that truth is, as James, put it “what it is better for us to believe.”  More specifically, he argued that ideas or statements get called or become “true” insofar as they enable us to get a better practical handle on the world of our experience, especially on matters that matter to us.

James and other holding this view were skeptical of a more prevalent view of truth, known generally as “the correspondence theory” of truth.  This holds, first of all, that reality exists independently of our perceptions of it and independent of any ideas we might form or statement we might make about it.  It then goes on to define truth as those statements or ideas we have about reality that “correspond” (or match or mirror or reflect) reality.  So, for correspondence theorists, reality is out there and to know whether a statement or thought is true (or “a fact”), we just have to compare that thought or statement to reality.  If they correspond, we have truth; if not, then we don’t.

James and others objected that, though reality may well exist independently of our perceptions, thoughts and statements, we have no direct access to reality independently of our perceptions, thoughts and statements of it.  For these skeptics, because all access to reality involves descriptions of reality then what the correspondence theory is really measuring, in its pursuit of truth, is the relationship between one description of reality and another description of reality.

If we accept this, then the question arises as to the criteria we use to call one description “true” (or a fact) and another false (or a fiction). How do certain descriptions of reality come to be used as the measuring stick (equated by correspondence theorists with unmediated reality itself) against which other descriptions are to be measured?  This is where James advanced the notion that “truth” happens to ideas, that it is something that through a complex, social process called “verification,” we come to call those ideas that it is practically useful to believe—so long as it is practically useful to believe them—true.  This in turn raises questions such as “practical for whom?” and “for what purposes”?  And, once we recognized that society consists of individuals with different purposes and different levels of access to material resources and discursive arenas, how conflicts over purpose, practicality (and so truth) will be resolved.

I fear this discussion might seem esoteric or arcane.  But I believe it’s the beating heart, for example, of debates (think Moneyball over the role of advanced statistical methods (as opposed to the “eye tests” favored by old-fashioned talent scouts) in evaluating talent and effectiveness.  At issue, if often at most indirectly stated, is which view offers a true or factual description of the reality of a player’s actual and potential play.  And this brings me back around to Daniels and Lowe.

Both take aim at specific (different) instances sports “narratives,” raise questions about the advantages and disadvantages of narrative for understanding (i.e. getting at the truth of) the NBA.   Daniels  laments the proliferation of “dangerous” “sports narratives” while the truly estimable Zach Lowe,  notes a similar proliferation:  “it can seem sometimes as if ‘narratives,” and the anxiety over them, are taking over sportswriting.”  More specifically, Daniels seems concerned that the Bulls’ Derrick Rose, who has suffered a string of serious injuries and nagging maladies since winning the NBA MVP award in 2011, “now seems permanently ensnared in the ‘sports narrative zone.'”  Meanwhile, the narrative target of Lowe’s critique is the common view—a propose of Clippers’ point guard Chris Paul—that the ultimate test by which an individual player’s talent, importance and legacy should be the number of NBA titles they’ve won.  These two narratives—that Rose is injury prone, that Paul can’t win the big game—become occasions for each writer to lament and caution against the misleading powers of narrative in general.  Let me be clear:  I share Daniels’ and Lowe’s objections to these particular narratives.  What Lowe calls the “NBA’s broken narrative of success,” in particular, has long irked me.

Moreover, it’s difficult, and probably unwise, to disagree with Daniels’ assertion that “much like how most stereotypes stem from at least some semblance of truth, many sports narratives are just de facto talking points—sweeping generalizations utilized to fill the demands of the 24-hour cycle” or Lowe’s that “Some narratives are also, frankly, dumb. The word ‘narrative’ can act as a synonym for ‘line of thought that exists somewhere in the world, and is demonstrably false.’ We use an awful lot of brain space addressing and rebutting “narratives” that probably don’t merit all that much attention, save for the fact that they bring clicks.”  If the point is simply that the current media sphere rewards the hasty production of something called “narratives” and that many such narratives appearing under these conditions are what might be called “dumb,” I’m okay with that.  In fact, one description of my job would be: to teach students to identify and analyze the means by which dumb narratives are constructed, gain traction and perpetuate harmful attitudes about individuals or groups so that they (my students) can loosen the grip of such narratives and empower themselves to contribute something better.

But what is that something better? What that something else might be for Daniels, seemed to me hard to identify with precision.  It’s not hard, however, to see that he is writing out of an explicit commitment to “facts” and “truth” and that his lament entails the ways in which the sports media sphere spawns narratives untroubled by either of these.  Similarly, Lowe seems motivated by a commitment to truth when he concludes his rebuttal of Chris Paul legacy narratives by asserting “the game provides truth.”  Lowe goes on to say explicitly what I feel, at least, that Daniels implies: “when you have truth, you don’t need narratives.  I can’t accept this, not for sports and not for society at large, despite the growing claims in our culture that what we need is more STEM and less art (including narratives).

I’m not convinced that there is any kind of “truth” that we can have that doesn’t entail narratives of some sort.  Sure, human civilization has invented all kinds of tools and technologies to generate truth (in the pragmatist sense of the word):  oracular divination, the scientific method, prayer, art, dance, music, literature, advanced statistical methods, old-school scouting reports, and speculative narratives.  Everyone of these tools provides, like any tool at all, advantages and disadvantages when it comes to generating truth.  Everyone of them, like any tool at all, can be abused and used, under cover of pursuing truth (or goodness or anything else we value) to mislead and, worse, to perpetuate injustice of one sort or another.  And any claim to superiority in the generation of truth that anyone might want to make on behalf of one of these tools over another, from my pragmatist point of view, must be framed carefully in terms of the practical purposes for which that tool’s description of reality is considered superior as well as of those who stand to benefit from accepting the priority of those purposes.

I’d go one step further and argue that every single of one of these tools depends, constitutively, on narrative to frame its approach to truth-generation, to advance its claims about the value of that approach and to convey the results of that approach.  There is no such thing as a narrative free zone where truth lives.  Which is why it’s not surprising to me that both Daniels and Lowe’s essays both take the form of narratives both large (that narratives are proliferating in dangerous ways) and small (that Derrick Rose is not “soft”; that Chris Paul is great even if he never wins a title).  And that, to me, is precisely the point.

For what we need in order to overpower the influence of bad narratives (which is to say, narratives that advance descriptions of reality we find impractical or, worse, contrary to our practical purposes in the world) is more and better narratives (not appeals to some illusion of “reality” or “facts” or “truth” we imagine we may access free of the irritation of noisy narrative interference.   And we need these better narratives, whether they be grounded in science, statistics, philosophy, emotion, intuition, imagination or aesthetics.   Both Daniels (with respect to Rose) and Lowe (with respect to Paul) provide us with exactly that, and for that I am grateful.  Unfortunately, with respect to narrative itself, both have offered what I consider a bad narrative.  But that’s okay, because I can offer this one instead, to affirm the strengths of their narratives and emend what I consider the weaknesses.  And, of course, so also someone now reading this can do the same with my own narrative.  But regardless, the real danger is not narrative, but a paucity of narratives or as novelist Chimmanda Ngozi Adichie puts it, much more compellingly than I could, in this TED talk, which my wife drew to my attention after I’d posted this, “a single story.”

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