Sportswriters Descend to the Level of Political Pundits

>> Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Somerby notes the unfortunate parallels:

Undying love of conventional wisdom: Many sports pundits have seemed genuinely angry about the fact that Belichick did something unconventional. (Trent Dilfer, come on down! And take your meds!) In political journalism, the pundit class is often happiest when They All Get To Say The Same Thing. In this case, many sports pundits came unhinged because one of the NFL’s coaches didn’t do The Thoroughly Typical Thing. This reaction seemed quite familiar.

The instant recourse to mind-reading: Many sports pundits instantly turned to mind-reading, thus “explaining” the motive behind Belichick’s unconventional move. (Kill the pig! For one especially foolish example, just click here.) Of course, this is also a common, numb-nutted approach among our political pundits.

The inability to conduct an analysis: Finally, we were struck by how weakly many sports pundits were able to reason about Belichick’s decision. They complained that he didn’t do the conventional thing—and then, they began explaining his motives. But had he done the smart thing—made the right decision? Many pundits showed no sign of knowing how to approach such a question. To them, Belichick’s decision was unusual. Automatically, this made it wrong.

In addition, there seem to be two other major arguments:

  • Credentialism is everything, meaning that those stat geeks and their math who probably got cut from their high school football teams should be ridiculed. Hence, sports pundits and mediocre ex-players can be justified in calling a coach with 5 Super Bowl rings an idiot based on no actual evidence.*
  • The coach's most important job a coach has is not to maximize his team's chances of winning but to "show confidence in his defense." The best way to demonstrate this confidence is to assume that the Colts have a 105% chance of scoring if they get the ball on the Pats' 30.
As I've said in comments, I should make clear that -- as with many such tactical decisions -- the percentages are within a range that makes it impossible to know what the best call was there. I think the best evidence carefully considered supports Belichick, but it's close enough that it's possible that in this individual case punting was a slightly better option, and I wouldn't be inclined to criticize him either way. But to say that the decision couldn't have been right is silly.

*To be clear, I don't agree with the credentialism -- Belichick is a great coach, but obviously it's possible for him to do dumb things, and I think his play-calling and clock management leading up to his defensible 4th-and-2 call was shaky. But if your football experience matters more than the evidence, then given that Belichick has vastly superior credentials to the Michael Wilbons and Trent Dilfers of the world we can end the debate immediately.


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