Wednesday, September 06, 2006

God Truth and Football Outsiders

The American Football season starts tomorrow, and obviously such an event merits attention by a blog dedicated to Repairing the world.
Well, maybe it isn’t that obvious, so I’ll explain. First of all I love sports, always have and, if things continue this way, always will. As a kid I loved playing soccer, and was even pretty good at it. Unfortunately my successful international career was cut short by a freak accident of nature – I was born into a family of aspiring academics, who encouraged me to play soccer only as one of the best ways to get me out of the house for long periods of time. Otherwise, it was worthless.
So, as I grew older, I stopped playing games and moved on to do stuff that responsible grown-ups are supposed to do like being depressed and cynical. But I still liked watching sports. I grew to love basketball, and in recent years I discovered American football, while soccer seems to me nowadays an extremely slow and boring game. Funny how things change!
Anyway, I am forever looking for connections between different fields of life, and especially between my various interests. One of the things that intrigued me about basketball was the level of interpersonal communication and coordination needed between all members of the team in order to be successful. American football is the same in this respect. The pace is slower than in basketball, but the overall complexity of the events on the field is much greater. In fact it is downright perplexing. So much is going on that it takes me a couple of replays to really absorb and understand each play. The incredible complexity and multi-layering of football play makes it harder than usual to understand what is really going on, who is actually responsible for the success and failure of each play, and in what way.

Actually, this is one of the most effective critiques that postmodernists used to defeat the modernist project.
As I already explained here, the modernist philosophy holds that there is a true, objective world, an ideal world – to use Plato’s term for it – and that it is our task, through science, to get as close as we can to the true nature of the world. For most of the modernist scientists – people like Copernicus, Galileo and especially Newton, this project was part of a general belief in God, in the world that He made, a world that is therefore, harmonious, accessible and understandable to human beings, a world that is not arbitrary, but has reasons for everything – we just have to find them.
However, finding the reasons, or causes, of events is not always easy. The more complex the event, the harder it becomes to separate different causes and their interactions with each other, from their effect on the event itself. There are fields, like mechanical physics where this is less of a problem, but the more we study open systems – like the weather for instance, the harder it is to determine cause and effect. Since many of the systems we live in are open systems, the postmodernists definitely struck a nerve when they pointed out the need for a different, better philosophy to explain the world – a philosophy which was finally drafted by Albert Einstein, as the Theory of Relativity.

Sports analysis suffers from the same problem – everybody watches the same games, but usually opinions will differ about what happened, about why we lost or won the game and who was responsible for it. Even when everybody agrees about what are the real causes for success and failure, then sometimes everybody can be wrong, a fact illustrated beautifully in “Money Ball”, a portrait of Oakland A’s innovative manager Billy Bean.
Former ballplayer Billy Bean found himself managing a small-market ball club that had to make battle with obscenely wealthy teams like the New York Yankees. He didn’t have enough money to contend, so, like many underdogs in history, he used the Truth as his only weapon. In this case, it means that he re-examined some of baseball’s deepest truisms, in order to find the edge that he needed to overcome his financial disadvantage. The result was a whole new way of thinking about baseball, accompanied by a new set of analytical tools, that gave the Oakland A’s the advantage of a better, truer understanding of what contributes to success and failure on the baseball field.
It should be obvious that if baseball had (actually, still has) such problems in determining cause and effect, and if it had been so crude in it’s methods of discovery and analysis, that the situation in football, a far more complex game involving many times the number of players would be much worse. If you thought so you would be right. If you thought so and actually did something about it, than you would be Aaron Schatz – founder of the Football Outsiders project and web site, dedicated to discovering the Truth about football.
What is the truth in football? What kinds of truths are there to be found in what many people (mostly wives and girlfriends) would consider a childish, brutal game, dedicated to the destruction of Sunday afternoons?
Browsing through the new, second edition of Football Outsiders flagship publication “ProFootball Prospectus” I found lots of truths, some proven, some hypothetical, waiting to be tested and tried. For instance, many football experts would agree that a tall receiver is better than a short receiver, and most clubs draft talent accordingly. In true modernist fashion, the staff of FO checked the numbers (page 175 in the Prospectus) on this and discovered that statistically speaking, size doesn’t matter, at least as far as wide receivers are concerned, and that speed has as much or more to do with a successful career as size. Another example that seems to me important is the vulnerability of running backs as related to the degree of usage in previous seasons, a line of thought perhaps similar to the pitch count philosophy in baseball, (misused to great effect by the Chicago Cubs in recent years).  According to the statistical analysis presented in the Prospectus (page 167), it would seem that age is a much better predictor of future performance for experienced running backs than number of carries.
There are many other observations like these in FO outsiders work, but what is perhaps the most important aspect of their work is the effectiveness of their models in predicting future performance. Actually, from the perspective of a modernist philosophy of science, such as Carl Popper’s, this is the one major test that every theory must pass before it can be accepted as science – it must be falsifiable. Or, in other words – it must make statements and predictions about reality that can be compared with actual results, and on the basis of that comparison the theory may be rejected or proven true. So, how good is FO track record in predicting future performance? So far it has proven better than anyone else, although not entirely perfect and perhaps it never will be – like I mentioned before – the truth, the ideal, is just that:  we can strive for it but we will not always achieve it, if at all.

So why bother?
Because we are curious, because we believe that we can understand the world we live in, because we hold that it is not arbitrary, that there are reasons and causes in our lives as in football, because we yearn for the truth, wherever we can find it, because, in our hearts, we believe in a God that has made all of this possible, made the search for truth necessary, and perhaps even crucial for our spiritual well-being.
Hence God, Truth and Football Outsiders seem to me as natural a connection as, say, Peyton Manning connecting with Marvin Harrison for a touchdown.
I hope to enjoy both – the action on the football field, as well as the truth behind it, starting this Thursday.


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