Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Numbers Always Lie

A few of days ago I was working with my dad stripping wallpaper. It's one of those manual jobs that allows your brain to traverse all kinds of mental terrain.

Like any two men at a loss for conversation we flipped on ESPN to accompany the mindlessness of this particular task. The show we heard was "Numbers Never Lie". It's a new show dedicated to the sports world's favorite athletes: the numbers 0-9. The show hunts down player or team statistics to prove whatever points they are trying to make on that particular episode. ESPN knows this business is a bit shaky. I suspect this is why Never carries an asterisk. That doesn't stop the hosts from exclaiming "The numbers never lie!" with deep conviction after each segment.

If you've paid attention to sports in the last couple of decades, you've likely noticed this increasing obsession with statistics. In (American) football, the defense now tallies statistics for tackling the quarterback, hitting the quarterback, hurrying the quarterback, blocking a pass from the quarterback, and possibly other quarterback related actions of which I am unaware. Sometimes announcers will hint at this growing interest by saying something like, "We've only been keeping track of QB hurries since 2004, but..."

Football is becoming more fixated on stats, but baseball is the crowned king of statistical gluttony. These are the Wikipedia categories for Baseball statistics: batting statistics, baserunning statistics, pitching statistics, fielding statistics, and general statistics. The pitching statistics category has 49 different calculations. Forty. Nine. Forty-nine! Just for pitching. They include something called "pNERD," which purports to tell you, the viewer, the rate of "expected aesthetic pleasure of watching an individual pitcher."

What does all this mean? I'd like to suggest a couple things.

1. I feel this fixation on numbers actively reduces aesthetic pleasure or at least distracts from it. If aesthetic pleasure can be calculated, what is the point of enjoying the grace of Federer's beautiful one-handed backhand? Joy and grief are tabulated now, too. So you don't actually choose to like his backhand--the numbers say you will. Did your team win? That elation you're feeling? Just neurons firing. Your pleasure--oh, we have a formula for that. Ugh, statisticians!

2. This leads to what I find most frustrating: the reduction of humanity to numbers. Instead of seeing any of the biographical information of a certain athlete, we see his statistics flash across the screen. Imagine if you and I walked around with our lifetime GPA and cholesterol count on our foreheads. Wouldn't that allow you to determine a person's "value" just a little too quickly? Wouldn't that keep you from knowing or wanting to know many who otherwise may be genuinely worth your time? What kind of pleasure can their be in meeting someone if we have preemptively reduced them to numbers?

3. I think this abstraction/reduction of the human element also contributes to our great scandal and/or pleasure at seeing that element ruined. Certainly, in favor of good taste we wouldn't replay a video over and over of a man having his leg shot apart by radicals in Middle East protests, but we don't seem to shy away from replaying and dissecting some very violent images of bodily destruction in sports. Of course, there are massive differences surrounding these two violent situations, but I feel that one of the reasons it's easier with athletes is that we strip them of some of their humanity. Pay attention next time a knee gets blown out or an ankle is snapped and you'll likely notice the commentators fetishizing the moment. They warn you to look away if you're squeamish, but those who aren't continue groaning over over several replays.

I'm stretching a bit to make a point, I would not dispute that scientists and statisticians have a lot of truth to contribute to the world--and definitely to the sports world. But so do poets. And the poets are dying. I'm afraid that we are exchanging poetry for science. We're choosing the easily digestible, testable, and reducible over the human element and ultimately over our deeper, personal selves.

The result of statistical gluttony as I see it is that the numbers obfuscate the human person. Thus, the numbers always lie.

p.s. I read very little sports journalism, but if there's one sportswriter poet--that is, a writer most interested in human narrative and not in #0-9--his name is Brian Phillips of Grantland and Run of Play. Read him. His piece on the Iditarod is beautiful. Not coincidentally, he likes to write about two sports less permeated with the statistical preoccupation (tennis and soccer).