Sportswriting and the Humanities

A couple weeks ago, Rian Watt at Baseball Prospectus wrote a provocative post about the future of baseball writing. He notes the complaints that sabermetrics—known more broadly, outside of baseball, as analytics, the focus on statistical data—has become stale, with discussions increasingly calcifying around the same few narrow topics: pitch framing by catchers, the effects of defensive shifts, etc. (One factor Watt doesn’t mention is the trend in which talented analysts are often hired by sports teams, thus exchanging their publicly-available work for proprietary work.)  But Watt rejects the idea that sportswriting as a whole is stagnating. He sees an ongoing paradigm shift, in which the ascendant trend in sportswriting is no longer analytics, but writing by those he calls “intersectionalists”: writers who, while by no means rejecting the statistical analytic approach, put more emphasis on the human side of sports:

The best baseball writing I’ve read this year has been about more than baseball. It’s been about politics, and race, and gender, and sexuality, and money, and power, and how they all come together in this game we love. It’s placed the game in its social context, and used it as a lens to talk about ideas that are bigger than the nuts and bolts of a box score or a daily recap. It’s engaged with difficult questions about how to be a fan when players you love are disappointingly flawed and human, and how to be a human being living in an often unjust world.

Craig Calcaterra, among others, wholly embraced the label, putting up an “Intersectionalist Manifesto.” I share Watt and Calcaterra’s conviction that this is a new and exciting trend in sportswriting. I don’t mean to overstate how new this is (and I don’t think Watt does either); much of the appeal of sites such as Deadspin, as well as the now-defunct Grantland, is on their insightful and clever look into the human side of sports. Even traditional sportswriting has its humanistic giants, like Roger Angell, and its hacks, like Mitch Albom. But it does seem to me that Watt is right that more and more new writers are producing interesting writing along these lines, and despite the death of Grantland I think these discussions will continue to thrive. Humanities-based sportswriting is exactly what I’m trying to do with this blog, of course, and so I’m particularly interested in exploring how this style might have growth potential. That’s what I’ll look at in this post.

The reason I think a humanistic approach has the ability to revitalize sports writing comes down to the question of entry points: what you need to know before entering the discussion, and the different ways of getting that knowledge. My opinion is that the reason analytics discussion feels stagnant is that the expertise required to enter the analytical side of sports discussion has become highly specialized; the humanities side is far more open for new writers to contribute, as it is still possible to enter the discussion from many different angles. And where you have a greater number and diversity of knowledgeable people entering a field, you’ll have better and more informed discussion.

To explain what I mean, I want to develop an important distinction: the difference between direct and indirect knowledge. That is, the difference between being knowledgeable about a subject, and being knowledgeable as to who’s knowledgeable about a subject. With direct knowledge, you can participate in the debate yourself, at least at the popular level; with indirect knowledge, your participation is always going to be limited to invoking authority, without the ability to contribute anything of substance.

For instance, I’m basically knowledgeable about evolution. I’m no Stephen Jay Gould (another humanistic baseball fan, by the way), but I’m a knowledgeable layman. Or take vaccines: I don’t have particular studies at my fingertips, but I have a decent grasp of how vaccines work and why, and the issues surrounding their use today. In both of these subjects, I certainly have huge gaps—the only evidence I have that vaccines don’t cause autism is my knowledge that studies have shown that they don’t, studies I haven’t read and couldn’t summarize—but I can confidently explain the issues to people who are confused or skeptical (in fact, I’ve spent way too much time online doing so).

But with climate change, say, my knowledge is almost all indirect. I know the mechanism by which climate change happens, and I know that both temperature and carbon levels have both steadily increased in the post-industrial period, but when someone cites a rogue scientist arguing that the case for anthropogenic climate change hasn’t been proven, I really have no refutation for that, other than falling back on my knowledge that most climate scientists are in agreement that human activity is the best explanation for climate change. Understand, I don’t think my lack of direct knowledge is a problem—no one can become perfectly knowledgeable about everything, so every informed citizen is going to need to rely on expert opinion at some point or another. People who act as though their purported direct knowledge settles the argument in their favor (“have you read all 20,000 pages of the Affordable Care Act? I have”) are engaging in a rhetorical fallacy, one that allows them to cloak their predetermined preferences behind a facade of informed objectivity.

But what is a problem is thinking that, because I know who’s knowledgeable about global warming, I myself am knowledgeable about it. The reason that’s a problem is that I’m liable to get into discussions and arguments in which I ridicule people who hold opposing beliefs, even though the basis for my own stances is pretty shaky. That’s fine as far as correcting glaring errors (“if we evolved from monkeys then why are their still monkeys”), but it doesn’t allow any higher-order discussion. And if I’m talking to an opponent who either knows what they’re talking about or can fake it, I’m going to look silly.

This, unfortunately, is what’s happened to a lot of discussion in the analytical paradigm: as the issues get more and more complex, more and more of the discussion is done by people who follow the experts, as opposed to being done by people who have expertise themselves. I’m not so much thinking about the articles themselves; plenty of writers, like Sam Miller or Jeff Sullivan, do a great job at writing about analytics in an engaging way (and, not coincidentally, mixing in a fair amount of humanistic discussion as well). However, the discussion around the articles—in comment sections, on Twitter, in lesser blog posts—is so often reduced to pure sectarianism: arguments about which sage is correct, or which commenter better understands the sage in question. And it’s no good to say “don’t read the comments”: that advice should apply to mass audience content like news articles and YouTube videos, not to specialized topics like sports analytics, which after all was launched almost entirely by amateurs. It’s to be expected that ESPN.com comments are a cesspool, but if even thoughtful sports commentary has become devoid of interesting amateur discussion, that’s just a manifestation of the problem.

Furthermore, the more top-heavy sabermetrics gets—the more it comes down to a few informed writers egged on by indirectly informed fans—the more vulnerable it is, like an insufficiently diverse species, to being undone by challenges: challenges such as the finding that the “hot hand” may be real or that the act of sports measurement may distort results; probing speculation like Ken Arneson’s “10 Things I Believe About Baseball Without Evidence”;  or even just an inconvenient truth like the Royals going to the World Series twice in a row. If the amateur discussion around the topic is dominated by indirect knowledge, responses to these kinds of challenges are likely to be either faith-based mockery—”look at this doofus who thinks the hot hand is a thing! We’ve known for years it’s not”—or surly silence. The high-level discussion, between the informed folks, might well be fascinating; the broader discussion will stagnate, as everyone watches the experts duke it out before picking sides.

So where do the humanities come in? Well, the reason the humanities is often looked down on by the sciences and other, more conventionally rigorous disciplines is in fact the very reason the humanities are valuable: in the humanities, everyone brings their own expertise. Expertise in the humanities exists, in other words, but it’s not only based on conventional study, either formal or informal. With sciences and mathematics, systematic study is crucial. The different writers working in analytics will have very different personal backgrounds—Bill James had undergrad degrees in English and economics and worked as a security guard—but at a certain level their backgrounds in relation to the topic are likely to be very similar: they’ve been studying sports analytics for a long time. Without that, they can’t really claim direct knowledge. So as the subjects of analysis get more esoteric, the field gets narrower and narrower, and the discussion suffers.

From a humanities standpoint, on the other hand, there’s a myriad of approaches that can prepare you for the discussion. Maybe your background is a humanities degree, or (not exclusive) maybe it’s life experience that’s given you valuable perspective: as a former athlete, as an attorney or teacher or any number of other professions, as a person of color or a woman. Maybe your background is just having thought and talked about these issues for a long time. Whatever it is, expanding the discussion to issues that can be studied in many different ways means that more people will be discussing more topics at a higher level, and that makes the discussion livelier, more dynamic, and ultimately more intelligent.

I hope that this doesn’t come across like a rejection of the importance of expertise or study, an endorsement of a “just say whatever” approach. In fact, as a humanities scholar, I’ve seen firsthand that a flippant approach to authority and evidence is one of the problems the humanities academy faces, leading to all kinds of unworthy writing: sloppy reasoning, unfounded speculation, contrarianism for its own sake. These are problems that humanistic, or “intersectional,” sportswriting will be heir to as well, just as traditional sportswriting is plagued by “old-school” writers just going by their gut and contributing no understanding whatever. It’s not that good humanities writing is easier than good statistical writing; it’s that there’s still so much room for people to develop and contribute their own thoughts, without having to defer to others’. That must be how things looked in the early days of analytics, a wide-open field of opportunity: “Bliss it was to be alive in such a dawn/But to be young was very heaven!” And, today just as it was then, the more good work is being done in the new paradigm, the more amateurs will be convinced that they too can turn themselves into experts.

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