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On Being Wrong: A Sportswriting Manifesto in Brief

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My wife believes that I'm wrong almost all the time. I, being a man, have a very different view of the matter. Which one of us holds the more reasonable opinion? you might wonder. I can't say for sure. I will add this, however: if it's reason we're talking about, consider: of the two of us, only my wife uses a product called "enzyme scrub."

QED? I'd say so.

However it is between milady and I, I was most assuredly wrong last week when I wondered aloud over at FanGraphs whether the Observer Effect might influence the Fan Projections we're currently hosting. Or rather, I wasn't wrong to wonder it aloud -- that seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. The wrong thing, it seems, is the analogy I constructed. For the Observer Effect truly to be in play, it would be the numbers themselves that would change (and not the opinions of the people predicting them) by being readily available to the public.

My B, is what I have to say about that.

Still, my mis-step had its own rewards, as the commentariat suggested a number of legitimately interesting alternatives to the Observer Effect. Alternatives including: subject-expectancy effect, volunteer/participation bias, and something called anchoring.

The result for me -- and, I hope, for the reader -- was a pleasant and shockingly educational one. One that also made me consider the role of sportswriting -- to consider, in particular, what it means to be wrong.

British author John Carlin suggests that the purview of the sporting journalist, first and foremost, is to frame the sporting conversation for the public. He writes in White Angels, a chronicle of Real Madrid's Galactico era:

You need people to lead the conversations, to stoke up the debates. If only to have someone to disagree with. Because for the fan football is more about talking than anything else... Football fans only spend a small part of their lives actually watching games: they spend far, far more time talking about football, a game whose greatest value to humanity, perhaps, is that it does us the immense service of giving us a limitlessly fertile subject of conversation, giving us an activity which is entertaining, inspiring, and -- even --fraternally binding. Football allows people to reach out to one another like maybe nothing else can.

Carlin's point is relevant to our honored pastime, as well. For even though baseball reaches many fewer people than does soccer, it's not an unsubstantial number. And it's a number that includes mostly Americans. And Americans are rich!

At its heart, Carlin's point has merit: the sportswriter's job is to define the topics which are to be discussed around the proverbial water cooler and, simultaneously, to define the terms in which they ought to be discussed. Having been a reader of sporting journalism for approximately as long as I've been able to read -- so, at least since age 16 -- I'm most thankful for those voices who are able to begin interesting conversations. If not for that, I would have almost zero to talk about with any man I met...ever. I mean, what would we discuss otherwise? Our feelings?! Ick.

But I would also caution against using it (i.e. the capacity to start the conversation) as the only criteria by which we adjudge the quality of our sportswriting. Skip Bayless, Bill Plaschke, Mike Frigging Lupica: they all start conversations. Trite, muckraking, even sometimes intellectually dangerous conversations. They're the literary equivalent of Adam Sandler's final answer in the quiz bowl scene of Billy Madison -- to which answer the principal/host responds: "At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it."

Frequently, the reaction from the reasonable person to this manner of screed is some combination of rage and/or snark and/or, in extreme cases, a heaving bosom. None of these is healthy (or pleasant for the innocent bystander). And yet, as Carlin would suggest -- as, in fact, some American sportswriters have actually suggested -- so long as the journalist has gotten a reaction from the readership, then he's done his job. Some might even go so far as to say that, to the degree that the reader is affected, positively or negatively, then that's how well the sportswriter has performed it.

I submit that we, the readership, do not want to be enraged by inane sportswriters -- that it's merely the only reasonable reaction we can have. Nor should our anger be regarded as a sign of effective journalism. Why do we return again and again? Because we like sport, is why. And because we're hopeful that once in a while, our writers will tell us something.

I submit a second thing, too: that it's okay to be wrong. Or, it's okay so long as it's done in a spirit of inquiry and not in the service of blustery self-importance. The question should be asked: Does the author regard his work as hypothesis or conclusion? Is the author writing to promote curiosity or kill it? Does the author have Prince Albert in a can? (Note: this last question isn't entirely relevant but still very important.)

Of course, life isn't always flowers and piece of cake. As Charles Simic writes (and Deborah Tannen echos in "For Argument's Sake"): "There are moments in life when true invective is called for, when it becomes an absolute necessity, out of a deep sense of justice, to denounce, mock, vituperate, lash out, in the strongest possible language." Certainly, Our Father Who Art in Boston (read: Bill James), for whatever his other shortcomings, was not a stranger to this mode of expression during the early days of our science. (I remember an Abstract article, I think it was, that begins with the bold pronouncement: "It's time for the amateurs to clear the floor." That's, like, T.I.-level invective.) Certainly, censure is sometimes necessary.

To summarize: The sporting journalist should attempt to make his work interesting. He should view his work as an attempt to start a conversation. He should respect the intelligence of his readers. He should realize that, in many cases, certain of his readers will have knowledge that he does not. He should prepare himself to be corrected once in a while.

Mind you, I could be wrong about that.

Cross-posted at fangraphs.com

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