“Bullshit has tremendous advantages over knowledge. Bullshit can be created as needed, on demand, without limit. Anything that happens, you can make up an explanation for why it happened.
“There was a Kansas football game a year ago; some Texas-based football team, much better than Kansas, came to Lawrence and struggled through the first quarter — KU with, like, a 7-3 lead at the end of the first quarter. The rest of the game, KU lost, like, 37-0, or something. The announcer had an immediate explanation for it: The Texas team flew in the day before, they spent the night sleeping in a strange hotel; it takes them a while to get their feet on the ground.
“It’s pure bullshit, of course, but he was paid to say that … if it had happened the other way, and KU had lost the first quarter, 24-0, and then ‘won’ the rest of the game 17-14 (thus losing 38-17) … if that had happened, we both know that the announcer would have had an immediate explanation for why THAT had happened. … Bullshit is without limit.”
“As I saw it, baseball had two distinct mountains of material. One the one hand, there was a mountain of traditional wisdom, things that people said over and over again. On the other hand, there was a mountain of statistics. My work was to build a bridge between those two mountains. A statistician is concerned what baseball statistics ARE. I had no concern with what they are. I didn’t care, and I don’t care, whether Mike Schmidt hit .306 or .296 against left-handed pitching. I was concerned with what the statistics MEAN.
“Sportswriters, in my opinion, almost never use baseball statistics to try to understand baseball. They use statistics to decorate their articles. They use statistics as a club in the battle for what they believe intuitively to be correct. That is why sportswriters often believe that you can prove anything with statistics, an obscene and ludicrous position, but one which is the natural outgrowth of the way that they themselves use statistics. What I wanted to do was teach people instead to use statistics as a sword to cut toward the truth.”
Until very recently I was of the same mind. (not the teaching bit, but the general point of using available data to get to the bottom of things). I felt that there was an awful lot of bullshit talked about football, a lot of it from people who seemed far more certain in their views than it felt like they ought to be. Now I don’t know why, but I was keen to offer alternative perspectives. To get closer to a truth. It wasn’t good enough that people could say “I don’t need stats to tell me that. I’ve been watching football for 50 years and I trust my eyes”…. opinions really are like arseholes, we do all have one. Having read Bill James for years I felt that bringing evidence, no matter how foggy, into discussions, would help. So people would slate Bobby Zamora for not scoring goals, or Dickson Etuhu for not looking like the most technically accomplished footballer, or Clint Dempsey for whatever beef they had with him, or Chris Baird for various sins, or Bryan Ruiz for not trying, and these thoughts just felt lazy to me so I challenged them however I could. I don’t quite know why I bothered but I was watching Fulham every week then and writing about them every day and, dammit, it felt important. Sometimes this challenging (as with Ruiz) has been wishful thinking, sometimes I think that trying to look at things from other angles has been instructive.
However this little crusade might have seen, I wasn’t remotely arrogant enough to suppose that I had all the answers, but I did feel that there were ways of getting at truths that might advance discussions (certainly the comments in CCN over the years have taught me enormous amounts, more than anything else I suspect).
Why though? Well who knows why? Ultimately none of this matters, and lord knows nobody likes being lectured/hectored about their hobby, but you know how it is: people can and will discuss football in great depth, over and over and over. Like Bill James, I wasn’t obsessed with stats, but I was, and am, interested in another perspective.
The Secret Footballer has a new book out and in its introduction he rails against the new wave of armchair experts, noting that the only way you can really understand is to be involved, or have been involved, in the game. Now, he has books to sell, and of course he has a point, but they thought this in baseball until very recently, too, until it became obvious that ignoring different approaches to learning about the game was literally self-defeating.
But he is right. We’re all on the outside of the game and so there’s a limit to what we can really understand. So we do our best to get at a truth by whatever means we can.
Sorry if this seems a bit self-serving – it isn’t meant to – but many of you have been kind enough to read this website for 8 years or so, and this article seemed very relevant to whatever underlying ethos you might find in the words I’ve written down the years. (Bill James self-published his books for five years too, which directly inspired me to do the Fulham Review). Anyway, thanks. As you were.