A Special Kind of Sports Bullshit

Yesterday morning, ESPN.com posted a video clip entitled “Smith the wrong Cav to take final shot.”  The caption explained: “According to Second Spectrum, JR Smith was not the best Cavalier to try the game-winner, as Jordan Clarkson was more than four times more likely to make the final shot.”

“What shall we call this devotion to breaking down things and energies and practices and perceptions into uniform parts and counting them?” asked historian Alfred Crosby in his history of measurement in early modern Europe.  “This is quantification” he answered, speaking its name, before concluding:  “This is how we reach out for physical reality, push aside its darling curls, and take it by the nape of the neck.”

And this is how we reach out for basketball reality, push aside its complexity and dynamic fluidity, and take it by the nape of the neck:

The video appears to prove what the title and caption have already told us: that JR Smith was the “wrong Cav to take the final shot” because his teammate Jordan Clarkson had a 40% chance of making his shot, “more than four times” greater than the 9% chance of Smith’s shot going in.

That’s not true.

“Philosophy is written in the all-encompassing book that is constantly open before our eyes, that is the universe; but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to understand the language and knows the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language.” 

—Galileo Galilei, The Assayer

What the numbers that appear during the video replay actually mean is the following:

1) if Jordan Clarkson had attempted a shot from where he was standing at the instant that J.R. Smith crossed half court, and all other conditions on the court remained identical, then (based on Second Spectrum’s algorithmic operations on data derived from similar situations in the past) Clarkson’s shot attempt would have had a 40% probability of success

2) at the moment that J.R. Smith rises to take his shot (based on Second Spectrum’s algorithmic operations on data derived from similar situations in the past) his attempt has a 9% probability of success.

But neither we, nor any of the players on the court, nor the broadcasters, nor the algorithm, can know how the positions of the players on the court would have changed if Smith had passed to Clarkson, nor how that would affect the probability of success of Clarkson’s hypothetical shot.  We can’t even know whether Smith’s pass could get by Collison, the Indiana defender who is hedging his own bets in the passing lane between Smith and Collison.  And the percentages displayed do not take any of what we don’t know into account.

“When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.”

—Lord Kelvin, Popular Lectures and Addresses

So the video is misleading.  Perhaps the probability percentages shown are accurate in relation to what they actually measure (see numbers 1 and 2 above), but the media framing of those percentages explicitly conceals from us just how narrow those terms are. In fact, the framing of the video explicitly implies that it offers an objective basis for the judgment that J.R. Smith should have passed the ball to Jordan Clarkson.  By not doing so, his mistake single-handedly reduced the Cavs chance of victory by more than 75% from 40% to 9%.

So, yeah, that’s bullshit.

But it’s a special kind of sports bullshit we have a lot of these days. I’m not going to get into the interesting and complex ethical and political issues of how this “big data” is produced (and that it isproduced—not “found” or “acquired”—via the optical surveillance technology system owned by the corporation Second Spectrum and installed in every NBA arena by virtue of a $275 million contract the League signed with Second Spectrum to make it the “Official Analytics Provider” of the NBA—I’ve already done that here).  But I do want to make three points about this special kind of sports bullshit.

First, it misleads by arresting the dynamic fluidity and reducing the complexity of relationships that actually constitute basketball play (not to mention what I like most about basketball play).  Don’t get me wrong, decontextualized, close-up still photographs of basketball players doing amazing things are mesmerizing aesthetic objects to me.  They tell me a great deal about the bodies and minds of players, about their grace and focus and excellence.  But what they don’t tell me is what’s going to happen next.  I can imagine it of course and that’s part of my pleasure, but without movement and context, I can’t even begin to make a meaningful guess, and it would never cross my mind to make that guess the basis for some normative judgment of what really did happen.

But that, in effect, is what this particular comparative statistical projection amounts to.  It essentially offers two still images of basketball play and then it says: “substitute the shooter and shot in image one (Jordan Clarkson) for the shooter and shot in image two (JR Smith) and you more than quadruple your chances of a Cavs win.”  And that is dishonest, and dishonest in a way that displeases me aesthetically.

Second, it is a gratuitous (and as we’ve seen pseudo-objective) judgment of a player’s decision-making.  Perhaps such analytical tools are useful for JR Smith or his coaches to study for future play. In conversations with staff in their analytics departments, who would provide no doubt a full context for the numbers and appropriate specifications about what they show and don’t show, they might find that useful.  If JR is cool with that, then I’m cool with that.

But showing this to viewers in this way serves no informative purpose, nor does it enhance any viewer’s intellectual understanding of the complex tactical decisions faced by NBA players.  It doesn’t do that because, as I say, it doesn’t actually provide any information at all that is relevant to the fluidly dynamic, complex, unfolding tactical situation unfolding for JR Smith and his teammates in the final seconds of that game.

So why show it?  Well, besides the fact that 1) we can; 2) we’ve paid for the technology and 3) it looks impressive, I can only think that ESPN has its own analytics department.  And it has assessed as greater than 50% the probability that fans will get off on the schadenfreude generated by the opinion that JR Smith fucked up and the shiny number showing just how badly he fucked up.

In this sense, the video seems to stoke what we fans already get too much of: opportunities to compensate for our own impotence (and frustration) by assuming a God-like pseudo-omniscience from which we can judge the sins of the players.

“Judgment prevents the emergence of any new mode of existence.  For the latter creates itself through its own forces, that is, through the forces it is able to harness, and is valid in an of itself in as much as it brings the new combination of into existence.  Herein, perhaps, lies the secret: to bring into existence and not to judge. . . . What expert judgment, in art [or sport—yc] could ever bear on the work to come?”

—Gilles Deleuze, “To Have Done With Judgment”

Imagine that as you do your job, an image hovered above your head which claimed to show everyone around you exactly, objectively, how bad the irreversible decision you just made was. Now imagine that image broadcast to millions of viewers.  But that only happens to pro athletes who make millions of dollars anyway so cry me a river, right? Think again. This may be coming to a cubicle or ivy-covered quad near you.

Third, in this day and age, when officials at the highest level of government deny such matters of scientific consensus as global warming, I want to be very clear that science is real, and that data (quantitative and qualitative) are indispensable to rational decision making.  I am not anti-assessment, I’m not even anti-quantification.

“The science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery, and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.” 

—Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

I am resisting the profoundly anti-scientific and inhuman, irrational, belief that quantification is an objective process that produces a faithful, life-sized replica of what has happened in the past and this replica can be used, by applying laws of probability, to generate an indisputably accurate view of what will happen in the future.  That is the belief upon which that ESPN video traded. And for as many people as it persuaded, it probably also repelled through its sloppiness vast numbers of others who retreated to their man caves, confirmed that there is something suspicious that they don’t like about these eggheads and their calculators.

So trading on that belief is not only dangerous to the other ways of perceiving, understanding, and communicating about the world (like the arts and humanities), it is not only harmful to individuals (like JR Smith) who are ensnared in its mean net, it is harmful to actual science and reason. So, it is because science and rational thought are having a hard enough time of it these days that it seems all the more urgent to me to debunk pseudo-scientific claims to knowledge and objectivity.

“At the nexus of science and spirituality is wonder.” 

—Natalie Batalha