Thursday, January 29, 2009

On Footbull, Etc.

In these heady days leading up to the Super Bowl between the Steelers and Cardinals, I've been steadily consuming Steelers-related web content in a state of mind flipping arbitrarily back and forth between giddy fandom and mirthless compulsion. Some nuggets are truly worth looking at: for instance, via the Post-Gazette's Blog 'n' Gold (which is a good frontend for this sort of behavior) here's a truly awesome cell phone video of Troy Polamalu's epic interception return against Baltimore two Sundays ago, and if you go here you can click through to a prospective NFL commercial in which former Steelers receiver Antwaan Randle El spends about half of his minute-long spot talking smack on former Colts cornerback Nick Harper (whom he mistakenly calls "Hayden" more than once) for getting tackled by Ben Roethlisberger during his critical fumble return in the 2006 playoffs.

In the most hyped-up week for a sport with an already dangerously high commentary-to-actual-game-time ratio, though, most of what's available is fluff and filler, so I'd like to comment briefly on two pieces of writing that have a lot to do with how I think about football coverage, both pre- and postgame.

The first is Harry Frankfurt's popular philosophical essay, On Bullshit. In it Frankfurt wittily but earnestly builds up a definition of bullshit as a statement made without regard for its truth value: The claim may be true or false but the bullshitter's only intent is to shape his audience's idea about what kind of person he is. (Frankfurt's concluding point, that because of our limited self knowledge sincerity itself may be a form of bullshit, is my favorite consequence of this line of thought.) I think we see this kind of bullshit in its purest form in political commentary but it's certainly recognizable (usually cut with lazy reasoning or shoddy statistical analysis) in all manner of published sports analysis and opinion pieces; most football-related barroom conversation; and pretty much every game prediction ever made by anyone. A little while ago Jack posted some words about a Cold Hard Football Facts piece that fits the bill. The high bullshit quotient in NFL commentary (professional or amateur) is easy to pick up on without reading Frankfurt's essay, of course, and I don't feel like I'm making some penetrating point about the nature of sports coverage here, but I do like that On Bullshit gives me a more specific framework for rejecting most of the content of the neverending football-related blather stream.

Keep in mind that Frankfurt's definition does not cover all recognizable forms of bullshit. For example, the fact that Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison can be held on every damn play and draw just two or three flags all year for offensive holding? That's totally bullshit.

The second piece, which bears more on my thinking about actual game outcomes, is Douglas Hofstadter's seminal work of popular computer science writing, Goedel, Escher, Bach, specifically the "Contrafactus" section. To crib a bit from an email I sent to Jack and Pete during the Steelers' last Super Bowl run, prior to the existence of this humble blog:

ESPN has this somewhat self-conscious story about how the Super Bowl matchup isn't very good, and makes the somewhat less defensible sub-point that neither the Seahawks nor the Steelers would have made it there without a variety of events related to them or to other teams ( i.e. "Would the Steelers have been able to win in Foxborough if the Broncos hadn't upset the Patriots the week before in Denver? Highly doubtful.") It mainly interests me because it reminds me of Douglas Hofstadter writing (I think in the "Contrafactus" in Goedel, Escher, Bach) about counterfactual situations and how some changes strike us as somehow more plausible than others, using American football as a domain for his examples. For instance, it seems reasonable to conceptualize an alternative outcome if the weather was different or if your team was playing a different opponent, but not if the ball were round instead of prolate or if the teams were playing ice hockey instead of football. Hofstadter's point being that there is some mechanism, maybe imperfect, by which we determine what parameters are likely to vary in situations we'll encounter. My point, in contrast, being only that it's about as meaningful to wonder about where the Seahawks would be now based on entirely different competitive landscapes in the NFC East and South divisions as it is to wonder whether Shaun Alexander would be as dominant a running back with twelve fingers and toes instead of ten.

Here's a fuller excerpt from the Skip Bayless Page 2 story linked above that rankled me:

The Steelers, the first sixth seed to make it to the Super Bowl, barely made the playoffs thanks to a fairly easy closing schedule. They beat Kyle Orton's Bears in a snowstorm in Pittsburgh, then took care of Minnesota, Cleveland and Detroit.

But would they have won their first playoff game, in Cincinnati, if Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer hadn't been hurt on his second play? Doubtful. Would they have finished off the season's most shocking upset, in Indianapolis, if Colts cornerback Nick Harper hadn't weaved back into a sprawling ankle tackle by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger? No. Would the Steelers have been able to win in Foxborough if the Broncos hadn't upset the Patriots the week before in Denver? Highly doubtful. Would the Steelers have won in Denver if an early poor pass by Roethlisberger had been picked off in the flat by Champ Bailey and returned for a stadium-rocking touchdown? Probably not.

Big streams of "if, if, if" or "would, would, would" in such a piece tend to signal a bunch of counterfactual thinking -- if such-and-such didn't happen, what would have happened then -- which tends to be pretty uninteresting if you just use that as a device for reasserting some previous conventional wisdom that didn't play out in the actual event. So I like to jump off from Hofstadter's line of thinking and consider his more interesting question of why we believe certain aspects of an event "could have" turned out differently and how they differ from the aspects we tend not to change in our mental replays. If nothing else, when somebody says "Seattle might have held off Pittsburgh if that Ben Roethlisberger goal-line scramble on third down hadn't been ruled a touchdown," you can counter with something like, "Yeah, but if college football administrators hadn't introduced the forward pass in the early 20th century to decrease the number of student athlete fatalities per year then the Steelers probably would have beaten Seattle with their superior ground game."


Blogger Jack said...

I think there's a slight difference between football analysis and true bullshit. "The bullshitter's only intent is to shape his audience's idea about what kind of person he is," as you say; the football analyst's intent is to produce commentary regardless of its value. Same end result, but a slightly different moral character of its motivation.

But I'd say that the piece I linked earlier is something different -- I don't think there's a disregard to the truth behind it. Rather it's a weird and erroneous idea, specifically that an arbitrary competitive framework exists only to draw out a superior team's innate superiority and reward it with winning. (Superiority and success are not the same thing, and there's no failure when they get disconnected.) For a similarly off-base argument, see here. (Why is the writer so upset, anyway? Hint: is he from Boston?)

That Skip Bayless article still pisses me off, three years later.

My pet counterfactual for the NFL year is a counter-counterfactual: It's a damn good thing that the Giants won the '08 Super Bowl, because otherwise we'd be hearing no end of "Tom Brady Woulda Owned the NFL Again This Year If He Didn't Got His Ligaments Broke."

1/29/2009 2:01 PM  
Blogger Pete said...

Your counterexample re: bullshit, in terms of the generation of content is interesting, Jack, but before we decide exactly how different the "moral character" is between self-aggrandizing and uncareful content-generating.This is made difficult because the rhetorical stance of the commentator is housed almost entirely in his or her ethos (if commentators can appeal to their audiences in a combination of the three fundamental-ish ways pointed out by Aristotle: by appealing to their own worth as commentators (the appeal to ethos), by appealing to the sympathies of the reader (the appeal to pathos), or by the rigor of the evidence (the appeal to logos). I think we generally agree that sports-writing is not logos-driven (with the exception of the core of post-Moneyball baseball writing), especially when we focus only on the special-occasion filler generation currently at hand.

So we're dealing with, essentially, appeals to pathos (all the feel good human interest stories, the narratives of how these teams got to the Super Bowl, Kurt Warner doing charity and drawing God, etc.)--though pathos also comes in when we address the regionality of coverage (here, I think Boston sportswriters straddle an interesting line, since they seem to both draw the love of fellow Bostonians while also drawing strongly on a sort of negative-but-equally-compelling pathos of "yeah, I'm from Boston so here am I being an a-hole, go ahead and write me nasty e-mails"--and what I see as ethos-driven appeals to false logic (as exemplified by the over-reliance on contrafactuals).

I think we'd all agree that content generation is a-moral; it's not really happening at anyone's expense, and is fulfilling a lack of enough-coverage-to-get-us-to-the-game-itself. But, appealing to a false logic is, if not immoral, then certainly unethical. And, as any prophet, dictator, or Republican will tell you, the easiest way to get people to believe falsehoods is to deliver them with charisma--the very charisma that is demonstrated by sportswriters writing crap commentaries. So, it's not really about "producing commentary" but the production of that commentary itself, which is achieved by the sportswriter "shaping his or her audience's idea about what kind of person he or she is," which, of course, is bullshit.

1/29/2009 5:43 PM  

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