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 and 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 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 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 is produced, 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 excellence.  But what they don’t tell me is what’s going to happen next.  I can imagine 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.  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 the probability that fans will get off on the schadenfreude of feeling that JR Smith fucked up and just how badly he fucked up as greater than 50%.


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 if 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.  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) is 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, irrational belief that quantification is an objective process that produces a faithful, life-sized replica of the reality of what has happened in the past such that it 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.

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 is 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


Being Measured

I stood in my socks in our unfinished basement.   My body tingled with anticipation.   But from my heels to my head, I tried to make my body as straight and flat as the poured concrete it was pressed against.  I looked straight ahead, as levelly as possible. My father held a metal ruler flat against the top of my head, its sharp edged pressed perpendicular to the wall.  “Ahora, ¡quédate quieto!” he commanded.

I froze myself, not just my bones and muscles and face, but all the way to my cells and the blood in my beating heart, I froze. It was important to keep perfectly still or everything would be inaccurate and ruined.

My father ran the freshly sharpened point of a pencil along the edge of the ruler against the wall, making a clean, straight line. I could hear the even steady scratch of the lead.

I didn’t need to be told to step out from under the ruler and get out of the way.  With one hand my Dad held the flat metal tab at the end of his heavy duty tape measure against the floor where my heels had been a moment before.  Pushing its right angle securely into the corner, he then jammed it still more firmly, just for good measure.   “Pón tu dedo aquí, y mantenlo fijo.”  Nervously, I obeyed, getting down on the cool floor and putting my finger against the tab, careful not to let it move.  I felt him push his own finger against mine, as if to nail it to the right spot.  Then, one end anchored, he slowly raised himself up, unspooling the tape measure up the wall toward the freshly drawn black line.

Watching silently, I saw the numbers appear from inside the metal housing, first inches, then the larger, bold “1” in red: the first foot.  “2.”  The second foot.  The inches rolled by and I counted them rapidly in my mind—“32,” “33,” “34,” “35,” “36”—then the big red “3”: the third foot.  But I already knew I was more than three feet tall.  I couldn’t even remember ever being less than three feet tall.  “37,” “38,” “39.”

Anyway, I was good at math.  I knew there were twelve inches in a foot, and so I knew that the key number was 47; that after 47 the next inch would be 48 and 48 was 4 feet: my goal.  As my father’s hand crept steadily up the wall toward the pencil mark on the wall, I watched more closely as the inches crept upward into the mid-forties.  It slowed down, I could see the tall, half-inch and even the shorter, quarter-inch hash marks march by.  “45,” “46,” “46 1/2.”  It slowed to a crawl.  “47,” “47 1/4,” “47 1/2.”  Almost there. “47 3/4.”  Focused intently on the parade of numbers, I’d lost sight of where the housing was in relation to the mark on the wall. I was surprised when my gaze came to an abrupt halt.  The tape measure had stopped.  The numbers held still, the red number “4” remained inside the housing, waiting implacably.

I had failed to become four feet tall.

Suéltalo hijo”: my father’s voice broke through the stupor of disappointed disbelief into which I’d had fallen.  My end of the tape measure obediently snapped back up to my father’s hand.

I was disappointed, but all was not lost.  I’d been through this before.  I knew that the absolute measure was only the first part, and not even the most important one.  What mattered more than my height was how tall I was compared to other boys my age.

I followed my father, past the engraved plaque—“Dr. Antonio E. Colás, M.D., Ph.D.”—by the doorway to his den, into the dense, comforting aroma of pipe tobacco mixed with old papers and books.  There, in its place on the metal shelving, was the thick, red, hard bound volume with the words “CIBA-GEIGY Scientific Tables” embossed on the spine.  I did not know what those words meant.  But I knew that inside the book, and (because I’d sneaked in here many times to look at it) precisely where inside the book, there was a page on which two groups of lines gracefully snaked their way from the lower left to the upper right of a graph.  The lower group was for weight, which I did not care about it. The upper group was for height.  At the top of the page was the chart title: “2-20 years: Boys” and below that “Stature-for-age and Weight-for-age percentiles.”

I’d learned what this meant two years before, just before my 5thth birthday.  Having measured me, my father showed me the graph, and carefully put a small plus sign at the point where my age intersected with my height.  The plus sign was just above the lowest line of the upper group.

Then, standing next to my father, who was seated at his desk, I watched as he drew a row of ten, faceless stick-figure boys on a blank sheet of paper.  Each boy was a little taller than the boy to his right, my left as I looked at them.  Next he drew another boy, all the way to the left of the page, who was a little shorter than the shortest boy.  Above that boy’s head he wrote my name: “Yago.”  Then he explained to me that “percentile” allowed me to see how I measure up against all the other boys my age: how many were taller than me, and how many were shorter. He was careful to note that even though his drawing made me look like the shortest boy of all, there were actually four boys shorter than me (out of 100), whom he had not drawn. That meant I was in the 5th percentile.

There were also other plus signs on the page, all marked above or very near to the upper-most line.  They were for my oldest brother.  He was nine years older than me, played basketball and already had two gold trophies: a basketball player standing tall, reaching high above his head with a tiny golden basketball cradled in his palm.  My goal was to have my plus signs bound up the page so they’d be next to his—that, and to get trophies of my own.

Already last year, at 6, having shot up 6 1/2 inches from the year before, I’d tasted the thrill of passing half the boys in the row.  Now at age 7, what mattered to me even more than being four feet tall, which I was not, was how high my plus sign would climb on that ladder of lines, where I would stand in that row of stick-figure boys.

My father opened the book to the percentile tables and laid it flat on a work table.  He hovered the fine-point pen he’d removed from his plastic pocket protector just above the page, following the line up from the number “7” printed above the word “Age” on the x-axis, while his left index finger moved to meet it from the left-hand side of the page, along an imaginary line just below the number “48.”  Before he even marked the spot with the little plus-sign, I could see where they’d meet: just below the middle one of the group of lines.  Not only had I not moved up any lines, I’d actually moved down, from just above the middle line last year to just below it this year.

One of the stick-figure boys had shouldered confident past me, dropping me from 5th place to 6th.  I had not grown fast enough. I did not measure up.  What was wrong with me?