As a sportswriter, I live in a strange place: a realm where facts are still facts. And fans of sports live there, too.
How is this possible?
Aren’t we living in the well-publicized “post-fact age”? Hardly a week passes when we don’t see more theories on how our Information Age devolved into a post-truth disinformation pox.
Americans are divided, often angry and sometimes enraged about the basic facts under discussion on political, economic and social-policy issues. Yet at the same time, these same citizens, in the next breath, remain fairly sane on one widely discussed subject. In this area they are passionate but usually fairly civil. These debates, though sometimes loud, are surrounded by oceans of substantiated facts and often informed by respected experts who depend on rational analysis to make their points. Yes, sports.
At a family reunion, a party, a school function or work, you can discuss the NFL playoffs, the previous night’s NHL game or Tiger Woods’s latest attempt at a comeback, and there may be teasing or disagreement. But no one will offer a conspiracy theory for why the Cubs won the World Series. No one will accuse you of moral turpitude for rooting for a team from your home state, whether it’s blue or red. As long as the subject is sports, you won’t go home saying, We’re never inviting them to a party again.
Sure, in sports we have hot-takers who disregard facts or exaggerate for attention. But if you call Coach Dabo Swinney “a fraud,” you have to slink back your tacky phrase after Clemson wins the college football national title because . . . there’s a scoreboard.
The contrast between our pride in calibrating sports and our inability, or unwillingness, to agree on how to measure more vital issues gets a full-scale shake of my head. Games have referees and umpires who adjudicate helmet-to-helmet hits or determine whether a layup is “above the cylinder.” We have instant replays to help establish the facts, down to a fifth camera angle, when the human eye isn’t good enough to suit us.
When our games are over, we evaluate everyone, often out to the third decimal point. We have opinions, but they are usually rooted in a commonly agreed-upon sports reality; we disregard the tantrums of those who are just upset for the moment or, perhaps, unstable and releasing their pain by trolling. Fans unconsciously factor out “noise” and discount consistently biased sources of information.
One partial explanation for the gap between the way we talk about sports and the way we talk about some other subjects may be the distorting force field of ideology. When we have a deep attachment to unprovable beliefs, ideas and emotions get intertwined. The psychological cost of disentangling them can be profound.
In contrast, we go into every sports season assuming that the results will contradict and often explode our previous opinions. We are reminded, in a healthy way, that we often need a major “rethink.” In a sense, sports force us toward balance in our views because they provide constant reality testing in a way that much of the world never does. As a result, sports focus on what actually works, what wins, rather than what we think “should work” or wish would work or used to work. Sports may be so deeply realistic that they are inherently anti-ideological. I’m tempted to think that the habits of mind that cling to sports are especially useful to society now.
For example, Clemson and Alabama have split the past two college football titles. Yet both coaches, in both years, deferred respectfully to the results, didn’t seek scapegoats, didn’t claim the results were invalid and, by their example, encouraged their fans to take pride in the battle — won or lost — and analyze it with enthusiasm but without distortion.
No one listed Alabama’s mistakes this year more accurately than Nick Saban, its own coach. Clemson’s Swinney generously called Alabama “the best team in the nation — until the last second.” Hard honesty about the football facts is the default position of almost every fine team. Why? Because you want to win next year, and living in a fact-denying state of mind would be disaster.
These days, sports discussions are often rooted in analysis so sophisticated that the information wasn’t even available 15 years ago. When the Nats traded three promising pitchers for outfielder Adam Eaton, many fans consulted advanced metrics, such as wins above replacement, before deciding to cheer or boo the deal. The NBA and NHL have mimicked MLB in bringing rigorous brain power to bear on decisions. The NFL is catching up. No team prefers emotional evaluation to quantification if it helps you win.
What a strange place we’ve entered. Fans want more precision, more science, less “that’s how it feels to me” and more “this is how it really is” when it comes to their games. The media that covers sports is held to a high standard of accuracy because fans are so copiously informed. Yet once they leave the stadium, many of those same citizens apparently want more emotion and less fact-checking and shield themselves from opinions that contradict their preferences.
In sports, we value expert opinion and believe that credible experts actually exist. If a great coach or manager gives his or her opinion, we do not think it is “just one theory,” no better than any other. We accept that some people actually know far more than others about their field because they have repeated their successful results for decades against all comers and all contrary methods. So when Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich talks about basketball, his words have weight.
Such experts are not merely given the benefit of the doubt; their views carry real authority. If Bill Belichick ever reveals his secrets of Patriot success, the line of listeners will be 3,000 miles long. Even analysts who observe sports from the outside can establish their credentials as students of the game.
On what planet have we landed when most people can swap jokes, tease each other and poke holes in arguments about their favorite sports, yet many of us give considerable thought — almost a weighing of social consequences — before we mention a myriad of other subjects under public discussion?
Someday, someone in politics will say, “We were wrong about what caused this Great Event. It did not fit our ideas. But we’ve got to face reality. We’ve changed our minds. We thank those who helped us grasp our mistake. Our new view may produce better results. If it doesn’t, we’ll reexamine it, too.”
I’m familiar with one area that, sometimes, still works that way: sports. Please tell me when it happens somewhere else. But warn me before you call. I don’t want to faint and crack my skull.