Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Just a bit more football ... while thinking about journalism

During the season, I not only waste my time watching the big men beat each other up, I waste even more time reading football commentary. So, now that it's over, I turned to my sources for one last dose of the drug for the year and ended up thinking how the varieties of football journalism mirror many other tensions among which we all live.

Football coverage seems to go in two quite different directions these days. There's the classic style: inclined to highlight the "heroic," gently opinionated, a little gossipy, yes, even a bit jock-sniffing. The work of Peter King at Monday Morning Quarterback is a delightful example of that genre. He knows everyone, forgives much, and shares his pleasure in the sport.

The other contemporary genre aims to turn football analysis into objective numerical measurements. Modeled on what Sabermetrics has done for baseball, these writers seek to understand football games and plays quantitatively. Bill Barnwell at Grantland churns out reams of this exhaustively and charmingly. Here's a sample from his rumination on the Seahawks seemingly inexplicable decision to pass on the one yard line at the end of the Superbowl -- the pass that a Patriot intercepted, deciding the game.

In fact, this season it was more dangerous to run the football from the 1-yard line than it was to throw it. Before Sunday, NFL teams had thrown the ball 108 times on the opposing team’s 1-yard line this season. Those passes had produced 66 touchdowns (a success rate of 61.1 percent, down to 59.5 percent when you throw in three sacks) and zero interceptions. The 223 running plays had generated 129 touchdowns (a 57.8 percent success rate) and two turnovers on fumbles.

Stretch that out to five years and the numbers make runs slightly superior; they scored 54.1 percent of the time and resulted in turnovers 1.5 percent of the time, while passes got the ball into the end zone 50.1 percent of the time and resulted in turnovers 1.9 percent of the time. In a vacuum, the decision between running and passing on the 1-yard line is hardly indefensible, because both the risk and the reward are roughly similar.

The key phrase there, of course, is “in a vacuum.” This wasn’t a vacuum. This was the Seahawks and the Patriots ...

This stuff is fan-candy, making the reader feel knowledgeable and a participant in the game's sacred mysteries. It may also be great analysis -- or not. Most of us are not equipped to know.

What strikes me is how similar these two sorts of journalism are to various sorts of media engagement with U.S. politics. On the one hand there's political campaign coverage that tries to discern the character and principles (if any) of political figures. That's the classic genre, pioneered by Theodore White in 1960, practiced subsequently by Walter Shapiro and Bob Woodward, and brought up recent times by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman on Mitt Romney and David Remnick on Barack Obama.

Then there's the scientific (or sometimes pseudo-scientific) genre pioneered by Nate Silver in a number of venues and now living at FiveThirtyEight where campaign politics and sports co-exist on an ESPN site. The New York Times has its own version of a data driven journalism site at the Upshot. I think Justin Wolfers writing there gets the award for the most charming "scientific" explanation of why the choice by the Seahawks to pass at the one yard line was likely "right" (though disastrous.)

A key reason that [running back Marshawn] Lynch has been so successful is that his coach has been playing a mixed [random pass or run] strategy all season. Lynch has accumulated impressive numbers in part because opposing defenses have had to be concerned about [quarterback] Russell Wilson’s passing. And so Lynch’s history of success when playing as part of a mixed strategy says nothing about how successful he would be if his opponents knew for sure his coach would call a running play.

Game theory points to the possibility that [Seahawks coach Pete] Carroll’s decisive call was actually the result of following the best possible strategy, and that this is a strategy that involves an element of randomness in play-calling. This leads to the intriguing possibility that if that fateful final play were to be run in a dozen parallel universes, with each coach continuing to play the same mixed strategy, the actual plays called would differ, as would their outcomes.

Delightful whimsy there, and possibly true.

This approach is not so happy when what is at issue are public policy choices. What government does and doesn't do needs to be undergirded by smart quantitative analysis which is what both sports and campaign journalism offer ever more smoothly. It should be the business of policy journalism also to explain what is at issue -- say for example, how the ACA/Obamacare is expected to increase the number of insured individuals and cut the growth of medical costs. Most journalism is not so good at this sort of thing. (There are exceptions; I'm thinking of Sarah Kliff at Vox for one.) It frequently wades so deeply into the weeds so quickly that most of us throw up our hands in hopeless confusion. Or, alternatively, it just defaults to quoting uninformative on-the-one-hand-on-the-other hand sound bites that do not elucidate.

Good policy journalism in a democracy should uncover and draw out what values underlie policy choices. Taking, for example, the ACA/Obamacare: citizens need to be able to think about and discuss why (or why not) we might choose to shoulder the cost and complexities of making sure that more individuals have access to health care. Why do we want to undertake this difficult project? Why is it important to curb costs? Who gains and who might be hurt and do we have criteria for making choices between winners and losers? Policy journalism isn't usually very good at going to first principles; it simply assumes we know the answers to such questions. But do we?

Most of us, most of the time, have to default to trusting that somebody somewhere does know. If we're Democrats, we look to leaders who carry the D label; Republicans look to the other guys. That's not wrong, but we need a better bridge between policies and more personal allegiances. Oddly enough, old fashioned classic sports writing does that rather well for sports. Though the quants provide us with intellectually fascinating new metrics in policy as well as in sports, the best of our human interest journalists still have a lot to show us as well.

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