When stats turn players into commodities

March, 8, 2013
3/08/13
4:36
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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To know someone is usually to empathize with them. They cease to be a skin-wrapped tumbleweed, and morph into something beyond flesh and movement -- a man with tendencies and tribulations that you can recognize in yourself. The more you learn of the human, the more human he becomes. I feel a connection to Michael Jordan when I read that he, too, gets ordered around by his significant other. I see my middle school self in how Chris Bosh gets bullied over social media because he sends out some kind of Piggy from "Lord of the Flies" signal. Don’t you glimpse your own mortality in the winced eyes of an aging, slowing Steve Nash? Just a little?

This empathy isn’t happening at the 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, an event devoted to celebrating our increasing knowledge of the games we love. Paradoxically, the more we know of the athlete, the less we regard the athlete’s personhood. Because we aren’t really getting to know the athlete -- at least that’s not the point. At MIT Sloan, the collective focus is on successfully using the athlete. The ballplayer is a data point. A number. A series of values that can be compared against other values in the dry, info-rich process of reducing gamble to certainty, of taking human performance and extracting every last win from it.

The wages of better information may not mean losing “the magic in sports,” or whatever cliché we’ve used to romanticize the box score. The Moneyball era has seen a spike of interest in games as fans delight in new ways to understand their passions. If the magic is gone, nobody misses it. Well, maybe somebody does, but their concerns aren’t enough to slow down the ever-expanding popularity of live sports.

The issue is that an era of better information means a greater commodification of athletes. At MIT Sloan, the power locus has officially moved from commodified to commodifier. The nerds are no longer begging the jocks for validation. Beckley Mason conveyed the shift when he wrote about the first major event of the conference, one in which no athletes were featured:

“Titled ‘Revenge of the Nerds,’ the panel was something of a victory lap for those who longed to see sabermetricians in powerful roles within sports teams.”

That panel was moderated by Michael Lewis and manned by four sports-conquering non-jocks (Nate Silver, Mark Cuban, Daryl Morey and Paraag Marathe). There was no athlete to be seen because we did not need them in a setting like this. Cuban, Morey and Marathe have the information and the power.

A few hours after that panel ended, I was witness to a howling kind of nerd revenge. Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry hosted a presentation titled “The Dwight Effect,” dedicated to demystifying interior defense. I anticipated that Goldsberry would be the archetypal researcher, droning on in harmony with the hum of his overhead projector as we all suppressed yawns over a topic as superficially riveting as a Phoenix Suns game.

Instead, Goldsberry got the crowd cackling with an energy that would shame the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. He sported a mischievous grin and exuded a roastmaster’s charisma while singling out David Lee as the counterexample of good interior defense. A graphic dubbed Lee “The Golden Gate” on account of his porous paint presence. It felt like a miniature revolution, that signature moment when geeks felt confident enough to rain shame on a tall, PR-savvy millionaire jock.

Goldsberry’s presentation wasn’t just about mocking Golden State’s All-Star. The specific goal was to illuminate how defensively underpraised Larry Sanders is in comparison to some other big men. Sanders has been playing the right way, in an aspect of basketball fans rarely investigate. Perhaps improved analytics can do the social charity of recognizing and rewarding formerly ignored good work. Perhaps this is all just about letting owners and GMs know whom to pay.

The two choices are not mutually exclusive, but I do wish we cared more about the former option. If there’s broad interest in making players feel like their professionalism matters, I can feel better about laughing at poor Lee.

Stan Van Gundy is the conscience of the conference, bristling through mustache bristles, addressing the crowd as “you people” and berating them with what they ought to know about the folks they seek to quantify. “It’s not a video game,” Van Gundy harrumphs. Equal parts clarity and honesty, Van Gundy captivates by merely saying what’s on his mind in a casually blunt manner. He wants people to understand that taking a quick (read: bad) shot to spark a 2-for-1 opportunity might be wise statistically, but that it can build bad habits, or resentment towards whichever player gets to take the heave.

Even this rare act of humanizing the player makes the athlete sound irrational and annoying. Why can’t these guys just get with the program?

The program, it would seem, is leveraging better information into a better chance of winning. Since the information doesn’t by and large come from the players, the program can make an athlete less the hero and more the functionary.

A hero doesn’t follow orders. A hero leads via his internal compass. We are used to relying on a certain measure of athletic inspiration. I’ll find myself saying “Where did that come from?” when a player uncorks a surreally violent dunk, or a gracefully contorted layup. When Stephen Curry scores 54 points and hits 11 3’s, it reads less coincidental than it does a man tapping into formerly unplumbed regions of his soul. The idea is that the athlete is reaching far within, and presenting us with something from his subconscious.

But what if “far within” isn’t so far anymore? Psychological profiling was a buzzword at the conference, with Cuban and Morey both referring to that frontier when (obliquely) discussing Royce White. General managers want to know what’s going on in there and how the brain relates to success on the field. Perhaps you see a sports psychologist as someone merely there to help a player optimize his talents, to calm him down during free throws. I see that, but I also see someone whose main function is to manipulate the athlete towards a certain end, one that might not be entirely healthy. It’s obvious that medical trainers carry a conflict of interest, especially in the more dangerous sports. Getting a guy upright to play isn’t necessarily the same as favoring his long-term well-being. The same could be so in the psychological realm.

Moreover, there’s something almost dehumanizing about having your brain profiled and manipulated accordingly. The prospect recalls that amusing, farcical Kayak commercial where a brain surgeon operates on his patient while making the patient’s hands perform travel site searches for the doctor. We’re a long ways from Cuban controlling a superstar’s brain, in-game, with a sculptor’s precision. We’re a long ways from it, but such a scenario is the tacit goal of analytics.

The misnomer is believing that such a top-down statistical push errs in its aim. “You can’t measure will, bravery and locker room chemistry” some say. Wrong. Data beats gut every day and 2.57 times on Sundays. The MIT Sloan conference truly is heralding an era of understanding sports better and making better decisions within the industry. No, the result isn’t that we’ll cease properly accounting for will, bravery and locker room chemistry. The result is that we’ll properly account for all of it and cease connecting these human qualities with the humans involved. As the athlete is better known, he will be less respected. The athlete will be less respected because a win is all that matters, and he’s dictating less and less of how a win happens.

There’s a phrase Van Gundy himself is fond of saying in his weekly spots on the Dan LeBatard radio show. When ruminating on certain harsh coaching decisions, Van Gundy will chuckle: “I liked all my players, but I never met a player I liked more than winning.”

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