On Steph Curry: A Reply and a Clarification

Yesterday, Robert Silverman examined why retired NBA legends have emerged recently to make claims in the media that Stephen Curry (and the Warriors) wouldn’t have been able to torch the league back in their own era.  Silverman, who interviewed me for the piece, wasn’t trying to adjudicate these claims so much as try to understand what underlying feelings or forces be driving them to the surface of basketball culture right now.

This morning, pioneering basketball writer Bethlehem Shoals (a friend and a strong influence on my own thinking about the game to whom I owe a great debt), voiced first bafflement about what he took to be the central position of Silverman’s essay:

before offering a criticism by way of an analogy:

Shoals did not direct these comments at me personally, but I nonetheless, justifiably or not, felt interpellated by them; particularly having been one of Silverman’s sources for the view that Curry, to use my own words as quoted in the essay, “embodies what I see as a fetish—in and out of basketball—with efficiency.” And, thus interpellated and, frankly, hurt, I feel compelled to respond to what I feel is a mischaracterization both of my views (and of Silverman’s own position—but I’ll let him speak for himself) in the essay.

Shoals’ analogy characterizes the position as “going at Curry as the face of analytics-driven ball” and then compares that to “blaming Jesus for the Inquisition.”  Though colorful and clever, I feel this analogy mischaracterizations the positions that I (and Silverman) expressed in the essay.

First, it’s not clear what Shoals means by “going at” but I wouldn’t say that either Silverman or myself went at Curry. Silverman did accurately quote me as saying that I found Curry’s play “predictable” (which I do) and Shoals is right if he surmises that this is for me a mark against Curry.  But it hardly seems to me to constitute “going at,” particularly when in the very same sentence I said that “I marvel at his ability” (and Silverman too devoted considerable space and lexical imagination to evoking Curry’s wondrous play).

Second, Shoals analogy conflates this “going at [X] as the face of [Y]” with “blaming [X] for [Y].  Blaming involves an attribution of causality and therefore the analogy implies that those who “going at Curry as the face of analytics-driven ball” believe he has caused “analytics-driven ball” (just as “blaming Jesus for the Inquisition” would be assert that Jesus somehow was a, or the, cause of the Inquisition).  I never said that (nor did Silverman) and I don’t believe it (and I don’t think Silverman does).

Third, the analogy implies that “analytics-driven ball” is equivalent to “the Inquisition.”  That may or may not be the case in Shoals’ eyes, but it is not the case in mine, and not only because of the obvious differences in scale and magnitude, which I’m sure Shoals did not mean by his analogy to gloss over.  It’s not the case in my eyes because while the Inquisition is unequivocally bad in my eyes, basketball analytics is not. I don’t think analytics is bad for basketball in the way that I think the Inquisition was bad for, well, humanity.

So let me try, once more, to clarify what I actually believe (and believe I actually said in Silverman’s piece or elsewhere).

First, I marvel at Curry’s ability. I’m saying this because nobody who references anything I’ve ever written or said in interviews about Curry (or the Warriors) seems to notice.  One more time: I marvel at Curry’s ability.

Second, I find Curry’s play predictable.  Others may not and that is fine. I do. I can’t help that I am not surprised by what he does.  While this diminishes my desire to watch him it does not prevent me from—as I said—marveling at his abilities.

Third, “Curry embodies what I see as a fetish—in and out of basketball—with efficiency.”  This voices my concern about Steph embodying what I would characterize as a cultural phenomenon.  Apparently, I have not been clear. And I need to spell out what I mean by this more carefully so that it will not be mistaken or caricatured. To “embody” something is very different than “causing it” (I’m gonna trust y’all to look that up on your own if you’re not convinced). Moreover, the problematic cultural phenomenon I feel Curry “embodies” is not “basketball-analytics” per se, but rather “a fetish—in and out of basketball—with efficiency.”

Are those two things—”basketball analytics” and a “fetish with efficiency”—related? Sure. Are they the same thing? No. Is one responsible for the other? No. It’s not that simple. Yes, basketball analytics is responsible for devising statistical tools for measuring efficiency in basketball play and for producing arguments that may be used to support the claim that efficient basketball is the best basketball.  And yes, I believe the persuasiveness of this argument has led to an increased emphasis in the discourse around the game on “efficiency” an emphasis I would still characterize as a “fetish,” by which I mean an over-prioritization.

I don’t actually think that basketball analytics, understood specifically as a way of using quantitative reasoning to investigate questions about basketball play, is bad for basketball. On the contrary, I think it’s good.  I think what’s bad for basketball (or bad for me anyway) is when any one way of approaching and understanding the game comes to be seen as the only, or the best, way of approaching and understanding the game. And I do fear, and I acknowledge I may be wrong, that this may be happening today. It’s up to all of us to prevent that from happening.

But I do not believe, nor have I said, that Steph Curry or basketball analytics are either equivalent to or the cause of this fetish of efficiency. I think the cause is much simpler: capitalism.

When I say that Curry embodies this fetish, I mean that his success and likable persona can be taken as a demonstration of the superiority and desirability of a narrow emphasis on efficiency.

Read with care, please, so as to be sure you understand what this does not mean:

  • It does not mean that this is Curry’s fault or his responsibility to prevent.
  • It does not mean that Curry is the only player (or the Warriors the only team) that could be said to embody this fetish.  I don’t think that. I only think that because of their extraordinary success they can serve as a more persuasive example.
  • It does not mean that Curry’s play (or Curry himself as a cultural figure) can only mean that. That is obviously false, as I have written about elsewhere by now ad nauseum. “Curry” means, among many other things: talent, hard work, Christian faith, accessibility, family, fatherhood, creativity, daring, confidence, overachievement, youth.

It can be difficult, as Shoals knows better than I, to sustain thoughtful, informed, sensitive, and intelligent discourse about basketball in the sports media sphere.  Long standing attitudes among fans, economic pressures, and the forms of social media themselves often seem to demand and to reward facile oversimplifications and polarizing dichotomies so long as they are cleverly phrased.

For those of us (I take the liberty of including both Shoals and Silverman) in this, who love the sport as a complex form of athletic ability, cultural expression, embodied thought, aesthetic experience and social condensor, it seems especially vital to take care that our public contributions to discourse about the game are adequate to its depth and complexity.

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. Read more

Reasons #47-49 to support @theallrounderco

47. Because David Roth at The Classical thinks you should and he knows what’s what in the world of online sportswriting.  I know because he interviewed me yesterday for his own Kickstarted website for smart sports fans (a bit more journalistic and poetic than ours may turn out to be) and said some great things about us.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

48.

DR: What are the challenges of writing about this sort of thing within academia, and what about that experience made you want to take to the web?

YC: I’ve already mentioned that this sort of publicly accessible writing tends to be undervalued at many institutions. Moreover, among many academics, especially in the humanities (the case I know best), sports are viewed with disdain, as a kind of brutish populist phenomenon unworthy of scholarly examination. But it’s also the case that most of us teaching and conducting research in the field of sports studies can find ourselves somewhat isolated within our institutions, even when our work is supported and taken seriously. There are still very few departments of sports studies around the world.

This means that most of us have to venture outside our disciplinary home to find interlocutors. This can happen, sometimes, in our institutions as well as through the organization of panels at conferences. But the possibilities that an online, publicly accessible forum offers for collaboration and for informing ourselves and our readers about the great depth and range of work that others like us around the world are doing simply can’t be reproduced within the structure of the university and its publishing apparatus. And speaking for myself, a relative newcomer to the field of sports studies by comparison with many involved in the project, already in this early stage, the Allrounder has given me the opportunity to discover work I hadn’t realized existed.  

In this sense, the Allrounder is a resource. It’s like a big, awesome room someone can walk into to find that these great conversations among smart people on issues that I care about, not just as a fan, or as a sports studies scholar, but as someone who lives and cares about our world and the role of sports in it; who knows that sports isn’t just escapist entertainment but a critical experience through which billions of human beings around the world shape their images of themselves and their place in local, national, and global communities. At the Allrounder, we know this about sports because we count ourselves among those billions; and we address the sporting experience with respect and with a desire to understand—and to help others understand—it more deeply, ultimately with the hope that this understanding will empower us to shape our experience of sports more actively.

49.

DR: What do you envision as the thing that will make the Allrounder stand out from various other sports-y sites out there, and the thing that it will contribute to the conversation that other sites can’t? How will the money raised through the Kickstarter go to make that happen?

YC: Our contributors, mostly academics, dedicate enormous amounts of time to actual research and serious critical reflection on sports and that really makes a difference. But there’s more, because typically the time it takes to craft academic work and to publish it in traditional venues means that the work of scholars falls behind the curve of the topical.

At the Allrounder, the size of our pool of regular, rotating contributors counters this by allowing that same caliber of thought and writing to speak accessibly to issues in the world of sports that are happening right now, in real time. Then, the geographical and disciplinary diversity of that pool will make the Allrounder the only place where you can get a global perspective on sport from a variety of angles. Economists, historians, sociologists, literary and cultural critics, anthropologists, kinesiologists and others all see a different sporting universe. Their specific ways of seeing help bring different territories in the world of sport into sharper relief. No other site does this.

Typically, the kind of writing our contributors will be doing will not be recognized as legitimate by their institutions for the purposes of promotion and merit pay increases. In many institutions, there is still a prejudice that views with suspicion academic writing that is publicly accessible and unvetted by other academics. For our first year, while we get off the ground and transition to ad revenues, the money we are looking to raise through Kickstarter—besides supporting the infrastructure of the site—helps to make all this cool think-y stuff happen in much the same way that the money in medicine, law, and business helps attract academics in those fields to venture outside the university: by giving academics a tangible reward for the time and energy they will be dedicating to generating high quality content for the site.

So if you weren’t sold already, surely you now are aware that if you care about sports, or really just about our world at all, then The Allrounder is something you want to back.  Go to our Kickstarter page and do so now.

Reason #46 to Support @theallrounderco

46. Because if you do, you’ll be giving yours truly, Bad Prof, a sweet assist, just like Jimmy King of the University of Michigan’s legendary Fab Five!

So drop a dime today and then (because we’ve still got a long way to go) make sure that you spread the word so that your friends do too.

And while you’re thinking about us:

  1. check out our preview site
  2. follow us on Twitter
  3. Like our Facebook page

45 Reasons to Support The Allrounder

By now, most of you must know that I’m co-founding and co-editing a new online forum for thoughtful observers of sport: The Allrounder. If so, you also know that to raise funds for our launch and first year of operation, we’re in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign that will run until May 20. We are asking for $55,000 in donations. As usual for Kickstarter, if we don’t get it all, we get nothing. And if we get nothing, the world doesn’t get The Allrounder. So the stakes are high. Over the next month I’ll be using Between the Lines to hector, harass, badger, cajole, coax, persuade, boss, plead, beg, wheedle, entice, sweet-talk and otherwise try to force my readers and friends to kick in a few bucks to help us go live. If everybody does just a little bit, we can make it.

In case you’re already convinced: go to our Kickstarter page now.

Today, I offer a visual indicator of the caliber of content we’ll be running: a virtual library of selected works written by those who’ve already signed on to contribute their thoughtful, accessible perspectives, from a broad range of disciplinary angles, on the whole world of sport and its attendant culture. They are not just intelligent and informed thinkers, but superb storytellers eager to share their work with other scholars and, especially with a broader audience. How great would it be to have a single, free place online where you could go to read brief, accessible essays on topical issues in sports culture around the globe by the world’s leading sports culture intellectuals?  So peep this dazzling array and, if you care about sport and its role in shaping our world, you will surely feel as I do, that this is an exciting venture worthy of your support as well as that of your friends.

To make things easier, as you peruse the titles below, clicking on any of the book cover images will take you to our Kickstarter page.

Andrews Sports Stars

1
David L. Andrews
Sports Stars:
The Cultural Politics of Sporting Celebrity

Leonard After Artest

2
David J. Leonard
After Artest:
The NBA and the Assault on Blackness

David Andrews Michael Jordan, Inc. Corporate Sport, Media Culture and Late Modern America

3
David Andrews
Michael Jordan, Inc.
Corporate Sport, Media Culture and Late Modern America

bass not the triumph

4
Amy Bass
Not the Triumph but the Struggle
The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete

Coy Hoop Genius

5
John Coy
Hoop Genius:
How a Desperate Teacher and Rowdy Gym Class Invented Basketball

Aaron Baker Contesting Identities

6
Aaron Baker
Contesting Identities:
Sports in American Film

Boykoff Celebration Capitalism

7
Jules Boykoff
Celebration Capitalism
and the Olympic Games

Duru Advancing the Ball

8
N. Jeremi Duru
Advancing the Ball:
Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL

Collins Sport in Capitalist Society

9
Tony Collins
Sport in Capitalist Society:
A Short HIstory

Andrews Sport and Neoliberalism

10
David L. Andrews
Sport and Neoliberalism

Farred In Motion At Rest

11
Grant Farred
In Motion, At Rest:
The Event of the Athletic Body

Farred What's My Name

12
Grant Farred
What’s My Name?:
Black Vernacular Intellectuals

Alegi South Africa

13
Peter Alegi
South Africa and the Global Game

Pablo Alabarces Fútbol y patria

14
Pablo Alabarces
Fútbol y patria

Farred Long Distance Love

15
Grant Farred
Long Distance Love:
A Passion for Football

Goff Gold Medal Physics

16
John Eric Goff
Gold Medal Physics:
The Science of Sports

Goudsouzian King of the Court

17
Aram Goudsouzian
King of the Court:
Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution

Krasnoff Making Les Bleus

18
Lindsay Krasnoff
The Making of Les Bleus:
Sport in France, 1958-2010

Little The Sports Show

19
David Little
The Sports Show:
Athletics as Image and Spectacle

Holman Canada's Game

20
Andrew C. Holman
Canada’s Game:
Hockey and Identity

Millward Global Football League

21
Peter Millward
The Global Football League:
Transnational Networks, Social Movements and Sport in the New Media Age

Morrow Sport in Canada

22
Don Morrow
Sport in Canada:
A History

Nadel Futbol

23
Joshua Nadel
Fútbol!:
Why Soccer Matters in Latin America

Raab The Global Game

24
Alon Raab
The Global Game:
Writers on Soccer

Martin Sport Italia

25
Simon Martin
Sport Italia:
The Italian Love Affair With Sport

Rowe Sport Culture and the Media

26
David Rowe
Sport, Culture and the Media

Bloom There You Have It

27
John Bloom
There You Have It:
The Life, Legacy and Legend of Howard Cosell

Simons Secret Lives of Sports Fans

28
Eric Simons
The Secret Lives of Sports Fans:
The Science of Sports Obsession

Blake Canadian Hockey Literature

29
Jason Blake
Canadian Hockey Literature

Bebber Violence and Racism in Football

30
Brett Bebber
Violence and Racism in Football

David L. AndrewsSport-Commerce-CultureEssays on Sport in Late Capitalist America

31
David L. Andrews
Sport-Commerce-Culture:
Essays on Sport in Late Capitalist America

Elsey Citizens and Sportsmen

32
Brenda Elsey
Citizens and Sportsmen:
Fútbol and Politics in Twentieth Century Chile

Gaffney Temples of the Earthbound Gods

33
Christopher Gaffney
Temples of the Earthbound Gods:
Stadiums in the Cultural Landscapes of Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires

Nichols You Only Get One Innings

34
Barry Nicholls
You Only Get One Innings:
Family, Mates and the Wisdom of Cricket

Trimbur Come Out Swinging

35
Lucía Trimbur
Come Out Swinging:
The Changing World of Boxing at Gleason’s Gym

Alegi Africas World Cup

36
Peter Alegi
Africa’s World Cup

Erdozain The Problem of Pleasure

37
Dominic Erdozain
The Problem of Pleasure:
Sport, Recreation and the Crisis of Victorian Religion

Hutchins Sport Beyond Television

38
Brett Hutchins
Sport Beyond Television:
The Internet, Digital Media and the Rise of Networked Media Sport

Ryall Philosophy of Play

39
Emily Ryall
The Philosophy of Play

Boddy Boxing

40
Kasia Boddy
Boxing:
A Cultural History

Vogan Keepers of the Flame

41
Travis Vogan
Keepers of the Flame:
NFL Films, Pro Football, and the Rise of Sports Media in America

Waterhouse Watson Athletes

42
Deb Waterhouse-Watson
Athletes, Sexual Assault and ‘Trial by Media’

Smith Sons of Westwood

43
Johnny Smith
Sons of Westwood:
John Wooden, UCLA, and the Dynasty That Changed College Basketball

Szymanski Soccernomics

44
Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper
Soccernomics

Young 1972 Munich Olympics

45
Christopher Young
The 1972 Munich Olympics
and the Making of Modern Germany