Basketball Analytics (Take 2): Winning

I’m realizing from the feedback on my post about basketball analytics that the issues the phenomenon raises are more complex than what I’d thought or allowed for in that post.  In fact, they are too complex to properly examine in any single blog post.

Truthfully, all this has been part of a longer, academic project that has me very excited, very curious, and very impatient to know more. That impatience, led me to cast my “reflections and reservations” about analytics in an aura of understanding and conviction that belied my confusion and uncertainty and concealed the fact that I’m at the beginning of an open-ended process of discovery.

In fact, I have a lot to learn. I don’t at this point have a firm grasp of the methods of basketball analytics at this point, nor of how they are implemented institutionally.  I’m not sure what they might “mean” for the culture of basketball, nor, therefore, do I have a definitive opinion about them.  In all these areas, what I have are glimpses and impressions, partial comprehension, intuitions and half-formed thoughts, strongly felt but as yet poorly understood aversions and attractions, and questions I’m not entirely sure how to formulate.

At this point, I’m not even sure that it’s accurate to say that I have “reservations about analytics.” To be honest, I’m just ravenously curious to better understand analytics (both the reasoning and its institutional implementation) and how it harmonizes with or sits in tension with other facets of the culture of the sport that might be characterized as irreducibly “subjective” or “qualitative”.

Maybe this means I should keep my mouth shut until I figure it out. But—you guessed it—I don’t think so.  For one thing, maybe unfortunately for readers, I learn not only by reading and reflecting in solitude, but also by writing, both by the process of putting thoughts into words and having words shape my thoughts and by the process of considering the feedback of readers.  But also I believe, or at least hope, that my sharing that process with readers can enliven a broader conversation about the various complicated aspects of this issue. So let me make another pass at this, with greater care, humility, transparency, and respect for the complexity of the issues.

Some Premises

First, all my research into the history of basketball and its cultural accompaniments indicates that to grasp any element of the sport requires us to consider its relationship to the broader social context, beyond hoops, in which it has occurred. I’ve seen nothing yet to persuade me that the rise of analytics is any exception. My research has also confirmed what I believe by temperament: that the culture of basketball is just that—a culture. This means that we all contribute to it to varying degrees and in varying ways and that we all bear responsibility for the shape it’s in and the future directions it takes.

Second, here is a partial and inchoate list of issues (or terms or concepts) that I have come to think are in some way or another in play: quantification, statistical reasoning, probability, chance, prediction, beauty, knowledge, fact, Protestantism, aesthetics, emotion, economics, competition, winning, efficiency, discipline, innovation, creativity, order, chaos, big data, play, surveillance, ethics, labor, profit, capitalism, rules, the market, and value.

I view all these terms, considered both in and out of basketball, and each with its own history, as threads woven together into a complicated, dynamic, still unfolding fabric.  That fabric is basketball. That means it’s difficult for me to grasp the end of any particular thread and follow it without running into other threads running alongside or intersecting with it.

Thoughts and Questions on Winning

That said, I’ve got to start somewhere and for the moment I’m interested in winning, by which I mean, winning games as a goal for owners, coaches, players, fans, and other stakeholders in NBA basketball.  It appears that if winning is your goal, basketball analytics provides you with a set of methods for understanding how to do that in general and, if you’re smart, you can learn to adapt the insights provided by analytics to your personnel to achieve more wins given the current rules governing play and the laws and contracts governing the construction of teams.  Moreover, if you’re an owner, analytics also promises to generate those wins, as Daryl Morey put it in 2005, for less money. Winning, it seems, is valuable and valued, and so, like any valuable and valued thing, if you can get it more cheaply, all the better.

I’m not sure yet whether I want to try to question whether winning is a primary goal of everyone with a stake in NBA basketball. I wouldn’t know how to determine that, and anyway it does seem that winning is a primary goal for most of those (like owners and general managers) in a position to influence the way basketball gets played in the NBA, which really is more to the point.  And I’m guessing, though I’m not sure, that winning is their primary goal, among other reasons, because they presume that winning is a primary goal of most fans, who express that by spending money on the sport and so generate revenues for those decision makers.

But I do want to challenge the assumption that winning should be the primary goal and its frequently voiced corollary that it is natural for winning to be the primary goal where professional (or any other) sporting events are concerned. At the very least, I’d to make room in the conversation to ask some questions.

  • Is the drive to win really natural?
  • If not, how and by what forces did winning became the primary goal?
  • According to what criteria of rightness or goodness do we assert that winning should be the primary goal?
  • How were those criteria determined? And by who?
  • What impact, if any, does the primacy of winning have on the way professional basketball gets played?
  • What other aims do stakeholders bring to their engagement with NBA hoops?
  • What elements of play do these aims lead these stakeholders to value?
  • How are these aims and elements of play impacted, if at all, by the primacy of winning and the elements and styles of play valued by the drive to win?
  • Let’s say that I have a friend who worries that the drive to win, harnessed to the drive to make a profit, and capacitated by the powerful tools of basketball analytics, is tending toward a homogenization of the game by a process of “capitalist selection,” what should I tell my friend to do?

I have some thoughts about these questions, but I don’t want to take up too much time.  I realize there’s nothing terribly groundbreaking or provocative here.  But I’m hoping by taking it slow to invite reasoned conversation and to lay the groundwork for actually generating insight.  In any event, in my next post on the topic, I’ll to begin to explore these questions. . . . unless, of course, the questions change in the meantime.

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“Ball Don’t Lie!” Is Coming Soon (Here’s a discount code!)

I’m very excited!

Here’s the flyer for my book, Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball, which comes out in March.

There’s a code at the bottom for a discount on orders prior to 3/1/16.

Also, if you or someone you know is interested in an advance review copy of the galleys, there’s contact information for that.

I’ll be very grateful if you could share this widely via e-mail and on your social networks.

If you have any questions, please write me at yagocolas@gmail.com.

Thanks,

Bad Prof

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Troubleshooting the Sports Machine (Global Sports Cultures, 1st Lecture)

Yesterday I gave my first lecture in Global Sports Cultures (Comparative Literature 100).  After teaching the course for the first time last year, I retooled the syllabus both to make the material more concrete by prioritizing certain figures and moments as primary focal points for each week’s studies and also to facilitate my making my lectures more accessible, and more interactive.  I also put lots of time into creating an interactive online course concept map as a resource for students looking to find more about particular facts, ideas, or personalities or to explore comparative connections from week to week.  It’s still in progress, but I’m including it here below because I think it could a very valuable tool, and I certainly have been learning a lot putting it together. The image below gives you an idea of what that looks like (each of those “Thought” boxes is clickable and contains more specific thoughts), but feel free click here if you want to explore the course concepts for yourself.

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The fact is, I vastly prefer small groups and open-ended discussion.  But, as I told the students yesterday, we are at the University of Michigan and our administration wants us to have a certain ratio of student credit hours per faculty position: so here we are, 172 of them and me.  I’m not there yet, but I’m trying to find ways to flip this beast.

My goal for the first week’s lecture was pretty simple: to get them to use their own experiences and feelings about sport together with the readings they’d already done in order to get to three ideas: 1) that sports may be understood as a machine for delivering certain positive effects; 2) that it may not be running as well as it could; 3) that this class was about developing certain diagnostic skills and tools to begin to troubleshoot and fix the sports machine.  To aid me in this process, I prepared a power point presentation (I know, I usually hate them to, especially giving them) with some video clips and images that I thought would provide more concrete and so impactful ways for them to think about the positive and the negative effects of the sports machine.

I’m always nervous on the first day, but was even more so yesterday because: 1) 172 adolescent students in a big auditoriums; 2) technology; 3) trying to persuade sports fans that thinking critically about sports won’t ruin their love of sports.  But I donned my professorial uniform of khaki chinos and a navy blazer, laced up my pink Chuck Taylors and bravely stepped into the arena.

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The sound didn’t work on the powerpoint videos, which in one case was truly disappointing to me, but I think I rebounded from that pretty well.  By 9 pm on the day of lecture, students are required to post to a course website one quote from their lecture notes and then to explain why they selected it.  These went up pretty quickly yesterday afternoon and I was very heartened to see that many, if not most, of the students had chosen the sports is a machine metaphor and explained the choice by confessing they’d never really thought about it that way (or even really thought negatively about sports—one of them reported that this was the first time taking a sports-related course at Michigan that he’d heard a professor refer to a negative side to sports) and expressing their excitement to roll up their sleeves, pick up their tools, and get under the hood.

You can see for yourself what you think here.  A couple of technical notes, I’m sorry that, as I said, the sound on some of the videos didn’t work.  I’ll figure that out before next week.  And I’m sorry also that the only images are of the power point slide (if anyone care about that).  I’m going to try to change that setting as well so we get both the slides and the classroom.  Lastly, I’m sharing this in part because I welcome feedback, whether from students or other individuals who might, if they were at Michigan, take a course like this or from other teachers.  If you have suggestions that aren’t too terrifying and don’t make me feel defensive, I will most definitely consider them.  So, please click the link below, and enjoy!

Trouble Shooting the Sports Machine (Lecture 1, Global Sports Cultures, September 14, 2015)

 

Bad Prof’s Top Basketball Books – Second Team

Yesterday, I began presenting the list of my favorite basketball books with my First Team All-Bad Prof selections.  Today I move on to the second team (presented alphabetically by title), using the same criteria:  originality and accessibility, the depth they bring to their subjects and, perhaps most of all, their reliable avoidance of the cliches, dogmas and harmful myths of basketball culture.

 

All-Bad Prof Book List – Second Team

Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism

by Walter LaFeber (Originally published 1999; new and expanded edition published in New York by Norton, 2002; 220 pp)

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“The history of basketball, especially in the era of Michael Jordan, helps us understand this era known as ‘the American Century.'”

There are of course so many books on Jordan, and so many good ones. Lay readers might wonder why I haven’t included The Jordan Rules or Playing For Keeps, while sports studies scholars might wonder about Michael Jordan, Inc. (it will appear in my Honorable Mention post). All three of these are indeed excellent books well worth a reader’s time. However, LaFeber, one of our country’s most distinguished historians, makes the list with a slim, readable volume that pays tribute to the greatness of Jordan on the floor, while laying out the contextual forces in the global economy and culture which made Jordan a cultural icon.  By comparison with the first two Jordan books I mentioned above, LeFeber doesn’t give you much behind the scenes dirt or even much insight into Jordan’s personality.  But I for one believe that these elements are of secondary importance in understanding the myth of Michael Jordan. Instead, LaFeber succinctly and lucidly weaves together descriptions of the confluence of new communications technology and new economic practices and strategies in manufacturing and marketing with a history of basketball and of Jordan’s career. The result is a readable narrative portrait of Jordan that, without minimizing his stature as a basketball player, makes clear that his legacy is inseparable from global cultural and economic developments.

 

The National Basketball League: A History, 1935-1949

by Murry R. Nelson (Originally published in Jefferson, NC by McFarland, 2009; 284 pp.)

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“teams were often integral parts of the community’s identities and the owners were, more often than not, local business and civic leaders.”

Among the books detailing the early history of professional basketball in the United States, I consider this the most important, even though—or actually because—its focus is not the NBA, but rather the National Basketball League (NBL). Nelson, who taught education and American studies at Penn State for many years, nevertheless illuminates a vital facet of early pro (and NBA) history in this meticulously research, detailed and entertaining history of the NBL.  His narrative restores the indispensable contributions of the NBL in establishing professional basketball as an attractive career and entertainment option and, especially, in cultivating and showcasing the talented players who—once they merged with the Basketball Association of America to form the NBA in 1949—would carry the NBA through its rocky early years, only to be marginalized from the NBA’s subsequent official history of itself. More importantly still, to mind, Nelson’s portrait of the league, its players, owners and fans, reminds us that the economic and administrative structure characterizing the NBA today neither was nor is the only possible model for professional basketball. In this, Nelson exemplifies the great German writer Walter Benjamin’s proposition that those who would understand the past must brush history “against the grain,” looking in unpromising places to tell the story of the forgotten.

 

Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool

by Walt Frazier with Ira Berko (Originally published in 1974; reprinted in Chicago by Triumph Books, 2010; 144 pp.)

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“I can remember how prideful I felt to wear the sneakers, and how I dug looking down and watching me walk in them.”Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool

Unique among player autobiographies for originality, Rockin’ Steady is next to impossible to summarize. The book is divided into six chapters whose titles (“Defense,” “Offense” and “Statistics” among them) offer a deceptive image of conventional coherence. Sure the book lets readers in on Frazier’s strategies and provides a portrait of the game in the late 60s and early 70s. But it also teaches you how to dry off after a shower and how to catch flies. What it lacks in narrative coherence and factual detail, it more than makes up for in beauty of design and in its ability to convey the importance of style, on and off the court, to the game of basketball. In this respect, it is ahead of its time. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the University of Michigan library shelves this book in the children’s literature section, which is fitting, for the book is a guide though, like all the great classic guides in world literature, one that guides less by the information it imparts than by what it does to you.

 

Under the Boards: The Cultural Revolution in Basketball

by Jeffrey Lane (Originally published in Lincoln, NE by University of Nebraska Press, 2007; 256 pp.)

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“the NBA . . . chastises players for looking or acting ‘too street’ while it manipulates and sells their street-bred swagger for all its worth.”Under the Boards: The Cultural Revolution in Basketball

Race is a prominent theme in a number of superb books on the history of basketball, particularly those that deal with the era from the early 1990s through the present when the so-called “hip hop generation” rose to preeminence in the sport.  Most of these usefully focus on the intersection of racial dynamics in basketball with those in American society and culture at large. Among the latter, Under the Boards distinguishes itself in my mind for its accessibility, detail and nuance and for Lane’s ability to integrate research into the history of the game and American society—he is an “urban ethnographer” at Rutgers—during the period with an honest and vulnerable account of his own experiences of the phenomena he studies.  Intertwining the stories of the rise of hip hop, racial politics in Reagan-Bush era America, and on and off-court trends in basketball during the period, Lane’s chapters provides detailed and stimulating narrative analyses of Allen Iverson, Ron Artest and Latrell Sprewell, Larry Bird, Bobby Knight, and the rise of foreign-born players in the NBA.  But each of these topics also becomes the occasion for wide-ranging, well-grounded accounts of the historical contexts—from housing discrimination in Boston to the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana—necessary to grasping more fully their cultural significance.

 

Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era

by Gary M. Pomerantz (Originally published in New York by Three Rivers Press, 2005; 267 pp)

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“He reduced to rubble the white-defined ideas of fair play and sportsmanship, which he knew as lies. Whites didn’t want fair play; they feared it.”Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era

Pomerantz is a journalist with a great deal of experience writing about race in America and brings this sensitivity to his thrilling story of the night Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game. But if changing racial dynamics in America and in basketball in the early 60s are important to this book, they are so as a subtext.  What gets foregrounded in Wilt, 1962 is storytelling, as Pomerantz draws together the reports of numerous witnesses to the “night of 100 points” and composes them into a single fluid portrait of the game itself.  Pomerantz, a superb narrator, provides exciting recaps of each quarter.  But details of game action become occasions for digressive stories (going backward and forward in time) of the principal and marginal characters (among these, the story of the game ball alone is worth the price of the book and the portrait of Chamberlain as human being and player is the best I’ve read).  It’s through the rich and complex subtlety of these nonetheless readable stories, that the book comes to serve as a lens through which the larger social dynamics at work in the game, Wilt’s performance, and its legend become visible.

 

Looking over this group, I notice that the incorporation of the first person perspective is common in basketball books I appreciate. Perhaps when an author vulnerably involves him or herself in the subject of the writing (like all the authors on my First Team, and a few of them today), it becomes harder—especially with politically charged issues like race—for them to rely upon detached intellectualism or dogma. Even LaFeber’s history of Jordan and the context for his global stardom is infused by the mix of the author’s admiration for Jordan and his outrage at the human cost—not least to Jordan himself—of marketing his ability. What emerges then feels closer to me like the messy complexity of these issues as I experience them in my daily life.

Stay tuned for the Third Team, coming soon.

The Culture of Moving Dots

Today I listened to a very well crafted, informative lecture by Rajiv Maheswaran on how basketball teams are using movement tracking devices and computing power to inform the decisions they make about roster composition, strategy and tactics.  Not only was the lecture itself admirable (something that, as a teacher, I care about a lot), but the human scientific intelligence and the technological power described in it leave me awestruck.  Moreover, the potential for the insights generated by this work to cut through certain persistent myths in basketball culture—myths that often harbor and purvey harmful social attitudes, especially about race—seems exciting to me.

Of course, as someone who has spent a lot of time analyzing the often irrational (if unconscious) attitudes embedded in the language and stories used to talk about basketball and basketball players from the game’s invention to the present day, the facts offered up by quantitative reasoning can be one useful instrument for countering these myths. And I can certainly see this presentation as a demonstration of the brilliant complexity of the physical and cognitive abilities of individual basketball players.  But still, quantitative reasoning and the technology and facts to which they lead remain just that—useful instruments—and ones whose utility depends, like that of any instrument, on the intentions of the user and the context of the use.  They are not, in my view any way, some sort of final horizon of human knowledge about basketball and its culture.  That’s why, despite these positive feelings, a reservation popped into my head almost from the outset, kept nagging at me throughout, and remained when I finished watching. 

At a linguistic and conceptual level, as I’ve expressed elsewhere on this blog, I’m concerned with the abstracting tendencies in basketball culture that lead us to see players as something other than human beings like ourselves.  So I get worried when Maheswaran boasts that in sports, through the “instrumenting of stadiums,” “we’re turning our athletes into moving dots.”

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we’re turning our athletes into moving dots.

There better be, in my view, some extremely compelling reason, some significant value delivered that outweighs for me the ethical cost of viewing (let alone “turning”) athletes—or any human being, for that matter—into a moving dots.  After all, psychologists have told us that seeing other people as moving dots, say on a radar screen, seems to make it easier to kill them.

But Maheswaran’s work seems driven by an assumption that the ability to track and quantify human movement is a desirable thing.  He asserts this more or less directly a few times in the course of his lecture, apparently to remind his audience of the practical value of the scientific research involved.  

So, he introduces his work with the relatively simple rhetorical assertion of value:

And wouldn’t it be great if we could understand all this movement? If we could find patterns and meaning and insight in it.

Then, after a detailed and informative explanation of how machines deliver NBA franchises information about shot selection and shooting ability, he explains that

it’s really important to know if the 47 [meaning the 47% shooter] that you’re considering giving 100 million dollars to is a good shooter who takes bad shots or a bad shooter who takes good shots.

Finally, in concluding he offers a touching glimpse of the personal value we might derive from non-sporting applications of this technology:

Perhaps, instead of identifying pick-and-rolls, a machine can identify the moment and let me know when my daughter takes her first steps. Which could literally be happening any second now.

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Think very carefully about this: are you prepared to live with what what you create?

Finally, he lands on a firmly optimistic and time honored Enlightenment era affirmation of the blissful marriage of science and progress in the quality of human lives:

Perhaps we can learn to better use our buildings, better plan our cities. I believe that with the development of the science of moving dots, we will move better, we will move smarter, we will move forward.

To some degree, I am with him on most of this.  However, I must say it’s no more important to me to know if the player that an NBA owner is considering giving $100 million to is a good shooter who takes bad shots or a bad shooter who takes good shots than it is to know whether my friend Johnny is moving his body in the most productive way during his shift as a stocker at the local Walmart. Beyond this, with regard to his final assertion, a great deal depends for me on what he means by better and smarter and even forward.

I am no scientist, but I am also no Luddite.  I recognize and depend upon the value of quantitative and scientific reasoning and its many technological applications countless times in the course of my daily life.  For example, at this very moment, I tap my fingers on a wireless computer keyboard that sends signals to my CPU that in turn transforms those movements into letters and words appearing on my screen in the post composition screen of a page on the internet. I may not understand the process in detail, but I know enough to know that my own work depends, directly or indirectly, on the work of people like Maheswaran.  And so I want to be clear that I am not adopting some sort of polarizing anti-technology stance whereby I’d advocate a world law banning the use of quantitative reasoning, science or technology in sport or elsewhere.

I am, however, advocating for a place at the table where decisions concerning the development and use of such instruments get made.  

I don’t mean a place for me personally (though I can think of worse candidates), but for people like me (but smarter and better informed—in other words, I can also think of better candidates) who have devoted much of their lives to studying the history of the relationship between human technologies and human values.  People, I mean, willing to attend to the annoying complexity of concepts like better, smarter, and forward.

Our technological power, as Maheswaran so ably demonstrates, is growing in leaps and bounds and the demonstrations, like his lecture, we have of it—themselves reliant upon new technologies—grow increasingly enticing and compelling to more and more people. Meanwhile, despite a shrinking budgets for higher education around the country, corporations and university administrators continue to prioritize spending for the development of facilities, faculty and resources in science, technology, engineering and math.

But this expansion has often come at the expense of investments in the humanities disciplines that have been the traditional home (in universities, at any rate) of critical conversation about the ethical costs and benefits of the developments we find so enthralling.  0When we contemplate, individually or collectively, using a new tool (which is how I see the technological application of scientific research), we must ask ourselves, informed by historical knowledge and by a deep interest in the causal web that extends around the globe, into the earth itself, and forward into the future, what we stand to gain and to lose by its use.  As you might imagine, the conversation that follows that initial query is likely to be complicated and messy and, dare I say it, inefficient.  But it is no less—and perhaps more—urgent that we have it on that account.

We need, in other words, to think very carefully and to talk about what we’ll gain and lose by moving “forward” into a “better” and “smarter” world in which we may all transform one another into moving dots.

Crowdsource Query: Case Studies for Sports Concepts

Last Fall, I inaugurated a new large lecture/small discussion group format course at Michigan called Global Sports Cultures.  I organized it around conceptual lenses—play, values, creativity, media, market, politics, etc.—that I’ve found useful for looking at a variety of sporting phenomena.  Each week’s concept was then explored through a concrete case study, which could be an individual athlete, an event, a team, a particular match or competition, or possibly even a single play.  You can see how I did this last fall here or learn more about my approach to teaching in general.

Some of them worked well, some did not. In an effort to do better this fall, I’m looking for readers to brainstorm suggestions for case studies that might illuminate the concepts I’m working with.

There are a few criteria I’d like to keep in mind.  First, I’d like a variety of sports (including especially sports outside of the big four professional US men’s sports), some geographical and gender diversity.  Second, the case study should ideally be the subject of both some scholarly work (for those without access to this, don’t let that stop you from making a suggestion) and some excellent or otherwise interesting journalistic writing.  Third, bear in mind that the course is offered at the 100 level (so open to students of all levels), so we can make no presumptions about the students’ levels of experience with college level reading, interpretation, and writing.  Lastly, it would be great if the case study were portrayed in some audio-visual artifact like a youtube clip or, perhaps, a documentary.

You can offer your suggestions in the comments section, via e-mail, or using the contact form below.

Finally, please share this widely with anyone among your friends or followers who you think might have something interesting to offer.

Teaching Values: Coaching the Right Way

In the wake of my posts last week exploring some of the history, assumptions and implications underlying various aspects of coaching, I had a great conversation with Nick Houseman at BBallBreakdown.  Nick is a coach, clearly an intelligent and caring one and so one who is looking to make coaches and coaching better. Perhaps in that spirit, he asked me the following question yesterday: “is there a debate about coaches using sports to teach overarching themes about life?”

I take it that Nick is asking not whether such a debate exists (for the record, there is quite a bit of scholarly discussion of this in the sport psychology, sport sociology and sport philosophy literature–contact me for some references), but rather, rhetorically, whether I believe that it is appropriate for coaches to use sports to teach overarching themes about life? My short answer is yes.  There’s no question that sports can provide numerous opportunities to learn, either through experience or instruction, about life; and a coach can be the individual who helps teach those lessons.  Moreover, as historians such as Dominick Cavallo and Clifford Putney (to name just two among many) have shown, sports have and probably will continue to be—for better and for worse—impactful arenas for imparting these lessons. In the case of basketball, for example, the game was in part designed to do so.  And individuals like James Naismith, John Wooden, Walt Frazier, Bill Russell, Bill Bradley, Mike Krysewski, and Phil Jackson, among many others, have authored volumes elaborating their ideas about what basketball can teach and how; even as scholars have complicated our understanding of how this might work best.

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But in specific circumstances (and leaving aside the kind of coaching behaviors that have left too many young people with a horrible impression of sports culture) , I might qualify my response depending on the answers to certain questions: what is the age of the athletes? What are the themes being taught and how are these being taught? And what is the social context outside of the sporting arena that might support (or undermine) the ability of individual athletes to incorporate these (presumably positive) lessons into their daily lives.  Each of these questions reflects underlying issues that complicate my answer.

Basketball for BoysThis may seem obvious, but generally speaking, I think it’s most appropriate and practical for coaches to impart life lessons to younger players. This isn’t because I think we can’t stop learning about life as we get older.  Life is complicated and challenging in ways that change as we age.  And none of us are ever too old to benefit from the experiences, perspectives, and wisdom of others.  However, in a professional context such as the NBA, where (depending on your definition) most or all of the players are adults, there is a danger that coaches seeking to impart life lessons may fail to respect or appreciate the life wisdom players already have and therefore take on a patronizing attitude.  That is, a situation can arise in which one grown adult is treating another grown adult as though he were less than adult. Because of the racial dynamic whereby most coaches are still white and most players still black and the history of race relations in the US, this such an attitude can become especially problematic.

Moreover, the NBA is a business in which coaches and players alike are employed to maximize, through their success on the court, the profit line of owners. It may not be practical in that context to prioritize life lessons.  And, in addition, the business aspect of the NBA means that coaches and players may not have the opportunity to develop the kinds of intimate personal relationships (knowledge of each other’s experiences and lives, trust, etc.) that should be the bedrock for any such instruction. However, in explicitly educational contexts (such as colleges and schools) and elsewhere that younger athletes are involved, I think using the sporting experience to impart life lessons can be appropriate and desirable, depending, as I said at the outset, on what the themes are, how they are being taught, and on the broader social context in which this is occurring.

It’s probably pretty common to consider, again taking basketball as an example, that certain qualities of character likely to lead to individual and team success are also valuable in life outside of basketball.  Hard work, self-discipline, physical health, enjoyment, graciousness, adaptability, individual initiative, cooperation, unselfishness, intelligence, self-respect and respect for others, and an appreciation of individual differences in personality and ability might comprise a non-exhaustive list of such qualities. I’ve certainly found in my life in and out of basketball that cultivating and exhibiting such qualities tends to contribute to more positive outcomes more often than not.  And most would agree in principle (even if some waver or fall short in actual practice) that these qualities should be prioritized over other values (such as winning) if and when they conflict.

I’m not claiming that these are universal values.  Some arguably are, some definitely are not.  Sometimes, the objection that they are not is voiced to prevent the specific experiences of certain socially marginalized group from being erased. Such erasure is a valid and serious concern.  But I wonder if it might be constructively addressed with careful attention to the conditions under which they are transmitted.  Perhaps this is naive on my part, but if it were the case, we could then avoid resigning ourselves to the position—which admittedly I find tempting, but ultimately counter to my experience, my reasoning, and my desire—that it is hopeless, or worse harmful, to attempt to use sports to impart life lessons to athletes we care about.

Some sociologists rightly observe that there can be in sport an excessive emphasis on defining well-being and development in individual terms. The concern behind this critical observation is that such an emphasis fails to take into account the role—both for better and worse—of society (and of other collectives) in the well-being and development of individuals. Because basketball is a team sport, and as the list of qualities I offered above suggests, this may be less of a problem when it comes to the actual values some coaches seek to impart to their young players. It’s hard for me at least to imagine a basketball coach sternly instructing his or her players to go after their own individual success on the floor at all costs and that this will stand them in good stead in life after basketball.  Even so, it may be the case that some coaches fail to recognize (for any number of reasons) the broader social context in which their players must operate; a context which might make some of these qualities less practicable or practically useful than would be the case on the team or in other social scenarios with which a coach might be familiar or, indeed, in some ideal society.

But I don’t think this means that coaches should refrain from attempting to instill the values they genuinely believe will be useful to their players on and off the court.  It does, however, mean that how a coach teaches and—equally importantly—embodies these values becomes very important.  And it does mean that we should all (coaches included, or especially) be invested in the broader conditions, both of youth sport and of the social and community contexts surrounding young athletes outside of the sporting context, that might make the difference between life lessons learned through sport becoming empowering tools for individuals and communities and such lessons becoming little more than cynically deployed empty promises leading to bitterness and mistrust.

Coach-Gray-Sports-Coach-Tip-No-18-Coach-John-Burns-1024x1024Take care of your body might be the most fundamental tenet of all coaches and the athletic principle with the most obvious relevance to daily life.  The habits of physical self-care that a young athlete might cultivate in the context of their sporting experience may well become a life-long habit with clear benefits.  But, in imparting that lesson, are we taking adequate account of the situations that athlete may be facing in their home or community that might undermine their efforts at attending to their physical well being? Do they have adequate nutrition, for example, or the opportunity to cultivate proper sleep hygiene?

Respect yourself and others: another fundamental lesson to be learned through sports.  But self-respect and respect for others are not cultivated in a vacuum, through sheer force of individual will (even if such a will is a necessary condition for their cultivation). So when we teach young athletes to respect themselves and others (teammates, coaches, officials, opponents) are we considering whether or not the conditions exist in their lives outside of sport in which such a lesson might take root and grow?  Are they respected by their teachers? By law enforcement? By their peers? What about the coach? Is the coach, in his or her interaction with players, showing respect? Or, indeed, exemplifying the other lessons of life and of character he or she seeks to instill in them?

2000px-Pyramid.svg

I think one could go down the list of qualities that I mentioned above and ask of each of them: is the coach exemplifying them? Is their adequate social support for the cultivation of these lessons in a wholistic manner? If not, is the coach (and others claiming to care about the well being of the young athlete) working to ensure that the conditions exist outside the sport—in the family, neighborhood, community and country—in which these qualities can be both practicable and practically useful?

Obviously, as literal questions, the answer will be sometimes yes and sometimes no, depending on the coach.  But I mean them more as rhetorical questions designed to illuminate the more challenging areas that I fear are obscured by the broad popular consensus that sports are a good arena in which to learn life lessons and, therefore, that coaches are the appropriate instructors for such lessons.  I mean to be, in other words, pointing out some of the conditions that I think we need to meet if the potential of sport (and coaches) to work in this positive way is to be fulfilled.

What Racism Means to Me

This is probably hopeless, but the teacher in me won’t seem to allow me to let it go or write it off.  In the wake of my posts over the last week on Steph Curry, LeBron James and coaching, and coaching more generally, I’ve gotten some comments and responses that, in various ways, accuse me of injecting racial dynamics into issues where none are in fact in play.  Rather than try to respond to each of those individually, I thought it might be helpful if I explained what I mean when I talk about the racism.

First, a few points qualifying what follows.  Racism, obviously, takes many, many different forms.  I do not consider myself an expert in the history of race in this country or elsewhere.  I’m not a sociologist or an anthropologist or a historian.  These are all real scholarly disciplines with real methods that require years to master.  The study of race, undertaken from whatever disciplinary foundation, requires even more work on top of that.  I’ve done some of this work, to be sure, but I want to be careful to make clear that I am here just explaining what racism means to me, with my interdisciplinary training in literary and cultural studies and philosophy.  I don’t think of this as the last word, but genuinely as an attempt to clarify my own positions and, perhaps, to move the conversation forward a bit. In other words, I’m still learning and eager to continue to do so.  Finally, I’m confining myself to what I feel qualified to talk about: how racism gets sedimented in our language and culture, even or especially when its expression is not overt, and independently of the avowed views on race espoused by a given individual who is using language or adding to our culture.

Let me take the example of Marc Stein’s piece on LeBron James, which more than the others has occasioned the sort of objection to which I want to respond.  I should begin by saying (as I did explicitly in my post) that I’m not concerned with whether or not Marc Stein is, as an individual human being, a racist.  I’m not concerned, I mean, with whether or not he harbors prejudicial attitudes or feelings towards racial minorities.  For one thing, I don’t know him personally.  If pressed, I’d guess he probably doesn’t.  But I was never talking about Marc Stein.  I was talking about the language he was using, the assumptions he was relying upon in making his argument, and the history of that language and assumptions.  So that’s the first thing: when I talk about racism as I have this past week (and most of the time), I’m separating out the language and culture an individual is using from the individual him or herself.

I believe that when we speak or write the language we use inevitably means more than what we intend it to mean.  Of course, we may be more or less skilled at conveying our intended meaning clearly in language.  But even the most crystal clear bit of language always carries an excess of meaning.  This is first of all because language (and culture more broadly) has a history and second of all because it is social.  We like to think of language as a neutral instrument that we can employ to achieve only our intended effects, without concern for its past or where it came from and so without regard for the unintended effects it might have.  But I think, to put this directly, that this is naive at best and misguided and potentially dangerous at worst.

In Philip Pullman’s marvelous trilogy His Dark Materials, there is an instrument called the subtle knife.  subtle_knife_by_j_westOne edge of the knife is so sharp it can cut through any material. The other edge is sharper still, capable of slashing the molecules separating one universe from another.  At a crucial moment in the plot, this powerful tool, in the hands of our heroes, Will and Lyra, shatters, threatening to leave them forever stranded in a world that is not there own.  Fortunately, they have a friend who is a master blacksmith, capable of repairing the knife.  Only, he is not sure he wants to.  When they ask him why, he explains that the point of the knife is so fine that he cannot see it.  Though he trusts their good intentions in using the knife, the invisibility of its point tells him that the knife may have intentions and so effects unknown to any of them.  The heroes protest that regardless of the knife’s intentions, their intentions, the blacksmith knows, are pure and that, anyway, they have to do something important and they can’t do it without the knife.  The blacksmith agrees, reluctantly, but only after receiving assurances that Will and Lyra will be exceptionally mindful in their use of the tool, careful to monitor their own intentions as well as to be aware of the unintended effects of the knife.

Language and culture are like that knife. And the historical and social nature of language is like that very, very fine, potentially dangerous point, harboring meanings and effects possibly unknown to us, and possibly counter to what we might intend. Of course, as the blacksmith would acknowledge, we have no choice but to use the powerful tool of language.

Definition of language in dictionary

Language and culture are like that knife.

But we have, as he also insists, a serious responsibility to understand the history and social character deposited in the language we use and then to use that language responsibly.  I sound preachy.  I’m not always so informed or so careful, but I’m almost always regretful when I’m not.  And I certainly try to learn from my mistakes in language and culture by studying more about where the language I use comes from and where it is going.

In the case of how the media portrays Steph Curry, or how Marc Stein cast his criticism of LeBron James, I think there has been a lack of care about the history, within the culture of basketball and in our society more broadly, of certain seemingly innocent terms and apparently natural assumptions.8371413_orig  Basketball, as probably anyone reading this knows, was once segregated, separate and unequal.  Even after integration, quotas remained in place limiting the access of black players to teams, leagues, and playing time.   Even after the quotas faded, black players were subject to criticism for their style of play, their clothing and their behavior.

In that history, if admittedly probably not in the heart of Marc Stein or other writers today, these certain seemingly innocent terms and an apparently natural assumptions about how things ought to be in the game have been used directly to discriminate against, to demean, to control and to punish African-American players or else indirectly to justify such practices.black_fives_caro_page-bg_22944 This is real history, which I am not making up or “reading into” my objects of study. Anybody can read the newspapers of the past, the histories and biographies and autobiographies that I have read and discover the very same thing, plain as day.

annual rate of men killed by police

The system is called white supremacy and it is supported by racism.

What’s more, these very real practices are themselves linked (much as we sports fans would like to think that the entertaining games we love exist in isolation from the societies in which we enjoy them) to other very real practices in the world whereby, as my friend put it in a recent short essay, “people who are not white die sooner than those who are.”  This happens systematically, even though many white people naturally protest that they don’t want any part of it.  The system is called white supremacy and it is supported by racism.  The system is embedded in social behaviors, public policy, and the acts of individuals.  Language and culture may not be the most direct tools in the arsenal by which this system achieves its effects, but both language and culture are nonetheless indispensable to its existence and durability.

We may not have been responsible for using language and culture in this way in the first place, but we are certainly responsible for tossing the same ideas and words out into the world as though, just because we are ourselves have only innocent intentions, they can cause no further harm.  I can understand from experience how painful it can feel to realize that one has inadvertently stepped into it, contrary to one’s intentions, but I think we should try to keep that pain from driving us to close our minds to the possibility of growing, let alone our hearts to the pain of others.

And that is why, in my own little corner of the world, filled with basketball players, coaches, owners, fans, and journalists, I care about the language, the images, and the metaphors we use to talk about the game we love.  It is why I care about the assumptions that we too often carelessly wield in building arguments.  It is why I insist, and will continue to insist, that we can do better by our sports and better by ourselves.  We can’t stop using language and we don’t need to become control freaks or language cops.  We just need to reflect a bit more deeply on our feelings and intentions before we speak and write and create more culture.  We just need to inform ourselves a little better about the history of that language, that culture, and those assumptions.  It’s hard for me to understand why, understood in this way, anybody would object to the project of trying (whether by critique or by the creation of new versions of old stories) to use the powerful tool that is language more carefully, so that, as best as we can manage, it doesn’t aid in the perpetuation of a system whereby other human beings die sooner than others.

What is "coach"? Do we need it?

In a post yesterday, I appeared to strike a chord (and for some a nerve) when I supplied the history of the attitudes manifest in Marc Stein’s scolding LeBron James for his “unbecoming” behavior in “emasculating” Coach David Blatt. I concluded with a fantasy of my own: that LeBron would indeed become the coach of the Cavs.

This morning, Mike Foss of USA Today weighed in granting that LeBron may be good enough to LeBron “to call his shots, to draw up plays, maybe even draft a team. But he does lack one necessary ability required of a coach, and that’s managing personalities. Do you think LeBron wants to be the guy who tells Mike Miller he isn’t setting foot on the floor in Game 6 of the NBA Finals because he’s an old and tired shell of himself?” Foss concluded that Blatt plays a “thankless and necessary role.” It may be thankless, but I’m not so sure it’s necessary and I think it’s important not to assume that it is. And I don’t mean Blatt specifically, I mean the conventional way of thinking about what a coach does and, on that basis, what a “coach” should look like. Read more

How to Write the Sporting Body: A Report from the Classroom

How do you write what is taking place in the picture above?  Or, what sorts of challenges does athletic performance present to those who would try to capture or convey it in writing?   Read more

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