Black People Are Down With Sports Analytics, But Is The Movement Feeling Black People? | Gradient

Black people are feeling sports analytics, but is the movement feeling them?

Eight years ago, Fire Joe Morgan went dark. When the blog started, an extension of a jokey email chain among friends, it was an oasis in the sports opinion writing scene, known for its scathing, hilarious annotations of poorly written sports columns. A child of the Moneyball era, FJM offered some of the most entertaining criticism of the old-guard of sportswriting, fortold of the coming analytical revolution and satisfied in oft-cliched columns and color commentary. It was a sports geek’s “Revenge of the Nerds,” led by successful sitcom writers writing under secret pseudonyms. It influenced a generation of sharp, punchy internet writers. (Even dull, toothless hacks, like yours truly.)

As funny and formative as that site was, it was also representative of the regrettable takedown approach plenty of passionate yet anal writers came to emulate. The takedown approach, unchecked, could be strident and insulting. The writers eventually disclosed their names publicly and apologize to some of the columnists they skewered in private.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of their tactics can be found in the very name of the site. Joe Morgan, a legendary African American baseball player, successfully transitioned into an esteemed color commentator on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball,” was the center of their Among black ballplayers that emerged after the initial wave of the 1940’s and 50’s, Morgan was one of the best, amassing two MVP awards and entrance into the Hall of Fame. After being a cog in the Cincinnati Reds’ dynastic “Big Red Machine,” his folksy, mellowed style on ESPN carried his career all the way to becoming one of the most recognizable black broadcasters in sports. As FJM saw it, he was also the voice of an outmoded, willfully ignorant old-guard unwilling to understand the increasingly precise measurements fans and front offices were using to interpret the game.

As clever and incisive as their criticism of Morgan could be, a clique of white and Asian TV writers offering incredibly self-congratulatory takedowns of a respected black public figure’s intellect and competence had, at the very least, poor optics. The fact that their cleverness did not stop their sports takes from being completely wrong, like their insistence that actually, Jose Reyes sucked didn’t help. Regardless, I can’t imagine my father, a Baby Boomer with a decades-long career in finance and an avid fan of Morgan’s, warm up to FJM’s invective against his childhood hero, no matter how many metrics were weaponized against him.

This dynamic is familiar for other African American sports figures and the black fans that root for them. When former Golden State Warriors head coach Mark Jackson was fired, Bay Area News Group beat writer Marcus Thompson II deftly noted that some of the criticism about his coaching had nothing to do with disagreements about his X’s and O’s, but a skepticism that a coach of a playoff team possessed any strategy, period. Thompson, who readily admits his criticisms of Jackson’s offense, was still bothered by the undergirding insinuation — that Mark Jackson was not smart. “It stings on a different level when people question [a black man’s] intelligence,” Thompson said. He went on to compare Jackson to Tom Thibodeau, a defensive-minded coach lauded by analysts for his preparation and strategy, albeit with similarly spotty offenses. Thompson continues [emphasis mine] “Mark Jackson crafted a great defense — with tree [sic] players who were not considered great defensive players in Stephen Curry, David Lee and Klay Thompson — and all he hears is he’s just a motivator.” 

With these possibly microaggressive patterns in mind, enter acclaimed journalist and ESPN commentator Michael Wilbon. Wilbon, who is black, openly speculated on The Undefeated about the unique ways black fans appreciate sports and what he saw as a relative hesitancy towards embracing the new wave of analytics in sports fandom. In his view, black sports fans’ passion for the game (he strongly distinguishes passion from an appreciation for sports metrics) inhibits their appreciation for sports and hurts their chances in the front office.

This is an unhelpful bifurcation, and problematic in its own right. But it’s not without cause. While Wilbon’s essay rightly questions sports’ analytics racial gap, his focus on an errant depiction of black culture, rather than the exclusivity and hostility of mainstream fandom, displaces the blame that the real gatekeepers deserve.

The article’s teaser is [again, emphasis mine] “Why blacks are not feeling the sports metrics movement,” presenting you a taste of what kind of column Wilbon is writing. As a longtime critic of the analytics movement, Wilbon, buttressed by anecdotal evidence from some of his friends in and around the game, builds a case that the nature of analytics clashes with the emotive nature of black culture and sensory nature of black fandom. A black Stanford law grad and friend tells Wilbon, “Sports is emotional. And analytics represent the absence of emotion… we are the feel it, smell it, touch it people.” (Translation: We black people, all of us, judge the game on feel, not figures. Get that TI-84 out my face, I ain’t no punk!)

Another friend with a Georgetown MBA laments the imagined existence of metric-quoting geeks yearning to sign NBA star Dwight Howard because an Excel sheet told them so, when, if you could just like watch Dwight, you would see he’s “not a good teammate” and can’t really help a team. But our hypothetical analytics nerds can’t see that, because of their weak-ass calculators.

Specious reasoning for the analytic gap saturates the article. Wilbon delves into the almost fantastical as he describes a shadow network of barbershops and locker rooms equally skeptical of the movement, written under the proper noun BlackWorld, (Aside: Why has no one told me about BlackWorld because it sounds LIT. Is that in Atlanta?) and Wilbon further proves his point by chatting up Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green about his use of analytics, as if professional athletes of other shades are known for pouring over analytics.

And well, what do you know? Green, like most athletes, isn’t simultaneously tallying his Player Efficiency Rating while he’s draining threes. Green tells Wilbon that “from a playing standpoint, [thinking about analytics] would make me robotic and undermine my game.” Shaun Livingston, Green’s teammate, echoes Green’s sentiment, sharing “areas where the numbers don’t assess the impact,” and the tendency for blacks to speak about basketball in intangibles. In Wilbon’s mind, it proves his narrative about analytics amongst blacks in the league.

Unfortunately, Wilbon didn’t interview 11-time All-Star Chris Bosh, a proud stat wonk that once described his passion to ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh by saying he only used metrics like “efficiency and plus-minus” to gauge his performance.

It arguably alienates quality journalists like the Wall Street Journal’s NBA columnist Chris Herring and his analytically oriented work:

Debating whether or not black people are too emotional for math is an asinine discussion, but here we are! Like homosexuality or Bill Cosby, black people are just as capable (or as prone to being woefully deficient) at thinking in nuanced ways about sports math as their fellow white Americans. Amin Elhassan, a black ESPN writer and former front office staffer with the Phoenix Suns, made a similar point to Wilbon, reiterating the capability of black folks to understand and utilize analytics in their understanding of the game.

I’ll add that what Wilbon sees as an aversion to analytics is not a byproduct of black culture. Herring and Bosh and yours truly are not precious blerd snowflakes choked out by a regressive black culture uninterested in anything but hustle and grit. For every anecdote Wilbon offers of a black athlete or fan solely focused on hustle and speculation on who’s “soft,” I can share a story about the perpetually white callers into New York’s sports talk radio scene whining to Mike Francesa about a high profile athlete’s lack of grit. For every Stephen A., there’s a Skip.

How much of this is a black-oriented aversion to advanced statistics? How much of it is an existing culture that perpetuates a racially monolithic culture? What might centuries-old differences in educational access between white and black Americans mean for a front office pipeline sourced from Ivy Leagues? These are difficult questions, and lazy ethnic stereotypes flatten the robust conversation Wilbon is right to desire.

So, it’s not a well-reasoned explanation of racial disparities in the analytics movement. But Wilbon does offer something valuable: disparities still exist. While writers like Howard Bryant and Howard Beck, among others, have analyzed the lack of black leadership and participation in the analytical field, Wilbon offers a snapshot on the emotional effect. It’s hard to deny the racial shape of these disparities in recent hiring trends. Wilbon rightly questions why Nate McMillan was, at the time of writing, the only black coach hired and promoted to head coach. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball, home of many pioneers of the sabermetric revolution, has a heavily Latino talent base (roughly 30 percent) and zero Latino managers since the Atlanta Braves fired Fredi Gonzalez earlier this month. There’s an obvious parallel between the NBA-centric criticism in Wilbon’s piece and MLB’s lack of diversity among their coaches and front office executives.

Joey Cora, a former journeyman with the Padres, White Sox, Mariners, and Indians is an aspiring major league manager with over a decade of coaching experience. He Yet he has never received an offer to manage in the big leagues. In a recent ESPN interview, Cora suggested his intellectual capabilities are dismissed by teams that interview him:

“Cora also discussed the ‘Selig Rule’ — similar to the NFL’s ‘Rooney Rule’ — that requires all MLB teams to consider minority candidates for openings at general manager, assistant GM, manager, director of player developments or director of scouting.”

“‘I have been interviewed and when I tell them I went to Vanderbilt University, the guys that are doing the interview are surprised,’ Cora said. ‘So that tells me it might be a checkmark interview for the Selig Rule. That’s wrong. That’s a process that is faulty. The guys that interview you are not prepared to interview you. They’re saying, ‘We got this guy [to interview], we are going to put a checkmark and we have done our job. We complied with the rule.'”

We shouldn’t be past questioning the biases of those in charge of hiring. There might be more qualified blacks ready to use or at least learn metrics in sports that never get an opportunity, because, oh, I didn’t realize you went to Vanderbilt? I would never have guessed!

Could this trickle down to a culture where the various meetups that favor an analytical approach have a homogenous white and male shape to the panelists? In my admittedly limited experience, each event I’ve attended centering on or attractive to a metric-friendly crowd featured two things: 1) a shared love for sports, and 2) enough black people to sufficiently count with my hands. The metrics are always simple.

So, back to Fire Joe Morgan. Fire Joe Morgan was often brilliant, and always hilarious, as you might imagine from a sports blog crafted by Emmy-winning TV writers. And yet, hell hath no fury like white dudes arguing about WAR or Real Plus/Minus. I don’t blame my dad for getting pissed at me whining about on base percentage and hope you’ll sympathize, just a smidge, for the Mike Wilbons frustrated with the movement, lazy as their arguments may be. Wilbon hasn’t been a reliable enough vehicle to invite black people to engage with the analytical movement in a serious manner.

But, more interesting to me is this: Will the analytics movement, as presently constructed, produce the kind of culture that might sway a Wilbon their way? Enough to prioritize including and seeking out intelligent, gifted aspiring black and brown people that can only grow the scope of what we use metrics to study, studying subjects of potential interest to black fanbases? I trust that at very least, some will eventually defang their claws, offering careful criticism that’s slow to question the intellectual capacity of their targets. Will league executives evaluate their Ivy League networks, and challenge the institutions that produce far more Darryls and Theos than Amins and David Fizdales?

As for right now, I’ll attend more analytics conferences and forums, enjoying the discussion and asking the scores of white people for craft brew recommendations during the happy hour. I’ll probably find the other black person in a crowd of hundreds. He’ll give me “the nod,” and we’ll do it again next time.

But hey. I might just be emotional.