Why Statistical Analysis Makes Sportswriters Unhappy, or the Wilbon Problem

Earlier this year, David Berri shared his thoughts on why sports fans often disregard, or even lash out against, statistical insights into their favorite players’ performances. Numbers remove the mystery, he said. If a quick glance at some advanced metrics shows that LeBron James is a much more valuable basketball player than Carmelo Anthony, then there’s nothing for us to yell at each other about over a round of drinks at Buffalo Wild Wings. For sports fans, knowledge isn’t the end goal; entertainment is. And that’s perfectly fine!

But what about those who are more than just fans? What about the alleged experts, who make their livings writing about and talking about sports?

Surely, these gurus are much more inclined to let science, data, and rational thought guide their conclusions, right?

Take a gander around the ESPN family of networks, and you’ll find the answer: not necessarily. The Worldwide Leader employs plenty of stat heads; Buster Olney, Zach Lowe, and Jonah Keri do a solid job giving nerds a voice. But then there are people like Michael Wilbon.

Don’t misunderstand: I like Mr. Wilbon very much, and “PTI” is appointment viewing for me (even if I tend to miss my appointment a couple times a week). But he has long been the grand marshal of the anti-analytics pride parade. On yesterday’s show, co-host Tony Kornheiser started to talk about Ken Pomeroy’s Luck Factor. Wilbon interrupted with “That’s advanced analytics… get ’em out of here!”

A big part of Wilbon’s role on the show is to antagonize Kornheiser, so I’m not usually fazed by his contrarianism. But then I started to think about his response a little differently. What if, instead of talking about basketball, Kornheiser had been discussing global warming, or the (non)relationship between vaccinations and autism? Wilbon is no dummy; he has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and they don’t hand those out to just anyone. His consistently thoughtful commentary on social issues in sports is proof that there are plenty of sharp ideas bouncing around in his head. It seems rather unlikely, to put it mildly, that he believes Earth is 6,000 years old, that global warming is a hoax, or that energy crystals can cure cancer. So why, when it comes to sports, does he not only reject scientific inquiry, but do so with gusto?

Wilbon would likely agree with Berri that too much statistical analysis “ruins the fun.” And in sports, fun takes priority over intellect.

If science is ignored in the real world, economies tank, diseases spread, and ecosystems falter. But if science is ignored in sports, the consequences are much tamer: unhappy fans, embarrassed experts, and millionaires overpaying other millionaires to throw leather balls around. Analytics aren’t particularly fun to most of us, and Wilbon’s job is all about fun. His ignorance allows him to trade jabs with his co-host, and to entertain the millions of “PTI” viewers who share his perspective. And in the end, no one is really hurt by the fact that Wilbon doesn’t sit around crunching numbers in his free time. I suspect, deep down, he knows that analytics have value. They just don’t have the type of value he’s looking for.

Even as a numbers nerd, I have to admit that I’m pretty entertained by Wilbon. But part of me wishes that Smart Wilbon would smack Entertaining Wilbon over the head, and help him aboard the analytics train. Ignorance is still ignorance, even if it’s mostly harmless. More importantly, Wilbon’s “get ’em out of here” attitude doesn’t exactly set the best example for impressionable viewers who work in fields where statistical analysis really does have crucial, society-altering knowledge to pass along. I’m sure I could gather up some data to prove it, but I fear I’d be wasting my time.