Statistics and Narrative: A Response to Sam Mulberry

After the Christian Humanist Podcast’s episode on sports (available via the RSS feed, if you just click on it…), Sam Mulberry of Bethel University and CWC: The Radio Show emailed us here at CHB with some very interesting thoughts on differences between sports and literature on a metaphysical level.  I’ll say in advance that, when I started this post, I thought I knew what I was going to say, but the thoughts rather got away from me, and as is always the case, I welcome any help that our readers can offer.

Sam’s email to us presented a couple interesting questions, one of which David Grubbs has addressed, namely the question of the author’s will and the nature of action within a narrative.  The other one, the one I volunteered for (and already regret) has to do with the relationships between narratives, events, and statistics.

The nature of narrative is intertwined with the position of human beings in the order of Creation: as creatures who experience Creation as it occurs temporally, we can only “predict” the future by making dicta, or speeches: in other words, we invent a past, put that past ahead of us instead of behind us, and then pretend that we’re narrating that past from out ahead of it.  Such a relationship only sounds strange to folks who have learned to think of themselves as situated simply between a span called “past” and a span called “future” on a one-dimensional construction that we learn to call time-line in history class.  The way we live our lives, of course, betrays more complexity than that: while we do very little to plan for the past (even to write that feels silly), we order our lives under the working assumption that the moment ahead of us is contingent, that multiple possibilities constitute whatever “future” is.  To put it concretely, when I approach a busy intersection in my automobile, I scan the cars around me, knowing that among the possibilities for the next moment, one of them might be that a car might zip out and hit me.  When I plan a lesson, I allow more flexibility one day and less the next, assuming that my students’ agency might take the class here-but-not-there or there-but-not-here.  And when I change my daughter’s diaper, I move with extreme caution, knowing that among the possibilities for the next moment are a puddle’s forming under her body or a puddle’s not-forming.  In the former case, I prefer to have a diaper there as the base for the puddle.

One’s immediate thought might be that events therefore fit into narrative most sensibly in the past and not at all in the future, but again the complex character of time intervenes and makes those simple categories inadequate.  After all, certainly everyone’s heard the rumor that before every Superbowl they print hats and T-shirts with both teams as champions so that people can get their memorabilia as quickly as possible, and one pour soul in my own high school showed up at school, the week after the Cincinnati Reds beat the Oakland A’s in the World Series, wearing an “Oakland A’s: World Series” shirt.  (Apparently back in the early nineties they printed plain old “World Series” shirts then printed “Champions” on the winners’ apparel.)  The point is that on every down of every football game, as every pitcher delivers every pitch in every baseball game, those watching are constructing ideas of what the past will look like a few moments or even a week in the future.  And when this happens rather than that, it’s not as if anyone watching the game carefully is caught off guard very often; we already have narratives ready to deploy, certainly with some changes to account for contingencies that are outside the range of our active imaginations but nonetheless ready to go before the event comes.

Sports writing, of course, lives and dies on the force of these narratives, and the sorts of narratives that each kind of spectator sport develops over time sometimes travel well from sport to sport and sometimes don’t travel well at all.  To give a couple examples, in NASCAR, before the “race to the finish” quasi-playoff system began, sports writers would with regularity tell the reading public that “it’s better to be lucky than to be good,” and they would point out that a hundred different circumstances could determine a win or a loss, and moreover that a consistently good driver, in any given race, might not even finish.  In another context, the NCAA basketball tournament, writers regularly talk about “upsets” as if they were simply brute events, things that happen to this team rather than that in a given week.  Try to imagine “it’s better to be lucky than to be good” or “upsets happen” ever coming out of the pages of Sports Illustrated after Michael Jordan or Tom Brady comes away from a playoff game on the winning side, and you’ll see that explanations for late-season wins just don’t travel.  On the other hand, just about every sports writer that I’ve read participates in the mythology of “heart,” the idea that I always associate with the Rocky movies that, in contests between professional athletes, people who are better at a given game than anyone else in the world in contests with a dizzying array of variables that affect the outcome, there’s some intangible manliness of will that some athletes have and others lack, and that presence or absence of “heart,” not the array of variables or any discernible strategy or smoothness of technique, will determine every close match in every sport.

I’m obviously having fun here at the expense of sports writers and broadcasters, and my fun largely comes from some familiarity with statistical theories.  Statistics come in to correct certain bad ideas about these events and narratives, but as with any replacement idea, they bring their own assumptions to bear on a sporting event.  I learned in a psychology class that statisticians that hitting streaks, field goal streaks, winning streaks, and all other streaks mean nothing when placed on a long enough continuum within an athlete’s or a team’s career.  I learned in statistics class that the gambler’s fallacy means that, on a long enough time line, the Cubs eventually win the World Series, but a long enough time line has nothing to do with this season.  And I learned from watching the Colts for the last ten years that the same two teams with the same two rosters playing in the same indoor stadium by the same NFL rules in October, then in January, will result in the Colts’ winning the October game and anybody else’s winning the January game.  And inevitably, as I find myself thinking that there’s absolutely no good reason to think that one month is a better test of football prowess than another, that “It’s better to be lucky than good,” some yahoo on ESPN tells me once again (as he’s said for a decade) that the team with which I’ve identified since 1984 can’t win “the big game” as if something substantive had indeed changed in the rules, the environments, the rosters, or something else.  In other words, although sports magazines and sports television hosts use (sometimes with gleeful abandon) lots of Arabic numerals and decimal points and parentheses, they remain profoundly disconnected from the real intellectual atmosphere of the statistician, and that disconnect makes them piles of money.

And that disconnect is what I still fail to surmount with regards to spectator sports.  I know that every self-identified sports fan I’ve talked with is certain that her or his metaphysics of sports, narrative, and statistics is the right one, and I know that people who live in cities with recent championships, along with the yahoos at ESPN, tend to ignore the statisticians’ theories about sports performance in favor of the more appealing Rocky-narratives about heart and the big game and all those sorts of things.  I know that whatever happens on the sports field, folks who write about it for a living have to keep the narrative familiar enough to appeal to the fans but new enough that Sports Illustrated doesn’t replace them with a Mad Libs book.  I know that even as the choice between narratives and some details of those narratives remain hanging in the air, everyone who’s watched football or baseball for more than a couple months knows exactly which “slots” to plug the main players, the “role players,” the coaches, the fans, and everyone else into when the event actually passes that mysterious point that we call “right now” and becomes settled-past rather than imagined-past.  I know that, given all of this complexity, I should approach sports, and life, with some degree of humility.

What I can’t figure out is why I like statistics when the Colts lose yet another playoff game but live happily within the Gambler’s Fallacy a couple months later, when Cubs season starts.  I suppose watching sports, even when one doesn’t do as much of it as one used to, makes fools of us all.

[update: Arts and Letter Daily just linked to “The Tea Leaves of Sports Talk,” an essay better written than my own, on a similar topic.]

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