Lies, damned lies and statistics

It’s been a while since the end. Grantland went off the air* (webz) at the end of October. Grantland was a special place for me. We all have our separate pathways on the web, the courses we chart every day when we log on. The minutiae we browse. From news to social media. Reddit, Facebook, Wikipedia. Grantland was one of my haunts. I visited every day. It helped me fall back in love with Basketball and strengthen my understanding of the game. And of course it had Bill Simmons. Simmons who I’ve been reading since 2004. Simmons my favourite writer on the internet.

Grantland helped establish and promote the link between sports and culture. Offering wisdom on the importance and significance of sports in society. Telling stories. And of course it was a Simmons brainchild, his columns were always a wonderful amalgam of pop culture references, social commentary and sport.

Since ESPN took Grantland off the air* (webz) I’ve found there’s been something missing in my routine. I feel weirdly discomforted when surfing the web with a cup of coffee in the morning. Gone is my perfect repository for everything sports and culture related. And nothing has come in its place. Now I’m grasping at straws. Spending an evening discovering and reading the Players Tribune, but never going there every day. Spending an evening discovering and reading Sports Illustrateds’ new faux-grantland knockoff, and shuddering. SB Nation has never really been Grantland, for all its merits. There’s a hole in the middle of my personal internet. It was my hub, my centre.

And it speaks to a bigger and fascinating trend in human (western) society. The triumph of scientific rationalism over human emotion (I need to figure out the word that describes the arts, in a more ethereal kind of way, you know, the way the arts make you feel, the way it’s totally unquantifiable by modern metrics). This has been a long-running battle, especially in the social sciences. In political science you have the birkenstocks and the bow-ties. In psychology you have the humanists and the rationalists. All because of numbers and the rationality of numbers. The translatability of numbers. Globalization’s a lot easier when everyone’s speaking the same language. Economics. A number doesn’t lie. A number is a fact. Humans lie. Stories are fiction. Art is dead.

See, Grantland wasn’t financially viable. Its writers and producers and editors were too expensive. Not enough ads. Not enough ad revenue and targeted traffic. Because Simmons, being an idealist, didn’t really think about making money. He was more interested in the success of the idea, of the project, because the project: a place to share knowledge and discuss the important intersection of sports and society; was such a worthy project. Why should money even enter the discussion? Because it matters. FiveThirtyEight, the site created by Nate Silver, the statistician, is a great example. FiveThirtyEight is the place you’ll find every advanced metric available to every sports statistician and fantasy geek on the planet. All of their stories use statistical metrics to compare and analyse sports, politics and society. FiveThirtyEight versus Grantland is the triumph of rationalism in the arena of sport.

Here’s a graph from FiveThirtyEight comparing Josh Donaldson and Mike Trout in the MVP race last year.

Here we have Donaldson making plays in the flesh. Yes, we have advanced defensive statistics to describe all the plays he made here, factoring into the graph above. But is it really the same?


This has been an ongoing aspect of the sports world for generations. As long as we had statistics, we were able to objectively measure and compare players. And as long as we had statistics, we had meaning. We could rationalise and understand what the players were really doing. Hank Aaron chasing the Babe’s record. Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. Gretzky. Kobe’s 81. Patty Kane’s point streak. The Warriors win streak. A team’s playoff record. A team’s regular season record. A goalscoring champion. Without statistics there are no truly objectively great players. Statistics objectify greatness. Are statistics the only measure of sporting greatness though?

*note: the importance of establishing objective greatness. Because with statistics, you don’t have to see the player in action to establish their greatness. Their contributions to success are objectively measurable against their peers, easily establishing a hierarchy of objective comparative greatness. You know that Sidney Crosby is one of the best players in the NHL simply because of his points totals every year. You know Tom Brady is one of the best football players of all time because he has won so many super bowls. You know who Babe Ruth is, because he hit so many home runs back in the 1920s. You know who Pele is, because he scored so many goals. We have statistics to provide an objective measure, which also transcends linguistic differences.

Because there’s the other side to sports. The one when you’re at a live sporting event, and it becomes akin to theatre. Except that it’s unstaged. Everything’s happening in the moment. Every movement of every player, is improvised to an extent. It’s incredible. And it’s also where you can establish and observe greatness. It’s in the fluidity of motion. The ease. You can just see it. The way one of the players moves. The way they make it look easy. It’s always been said of the best athletes: they just make it look so easy, so natural. And when you see it, it’s a sight to behold. Human athletic excellence on full display. When I saw Eden Hazard glide across the pitch at Stamford Bridge in 2013, so effortless, balletic, incomparable to every other athlete on display. In another world, on another plane. When I saw Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta in Barcelona. When I saw John Wall or Damian Lillard drive to the hoop. Just better. There’s no statistic for gut, for instinct and for feeling. And there are players, in the flesh, that give you that feeling, that show you the ease, show you the poetry in motion. And you can’t measure that. And that creates myths. And myths are foundational cultural touchstones. We have the myth of Jim Thorpe, because few people saw him play, and we couldn’t really objectively measure his greatness vis-à-vis established greats since the dawn of “proper” statistics. But that myth is powerful, and wonderful. And we lose that myth with the primacy of statistics.

Jim Thorpe

The statistics tear away the humanity, the feel, the emotion of sport. Sport is meant to be an experience. As a former athlete, there was nothing like the performance and the competition. And statistics couldn’t tell you anything about the way it feels to dunk, or to score a goal. And that’s why we play sports, and love sports. For the way it feels when you win. Or when you lose. Sports are about feeling.

*note: I wrote this last march, and since then Simmons has launched a new website The Ringer attempting to replace the void left by Grantland. It’s solid, still needs to figure out it’s long form-platform, but I’ve definitely read some really good articles, especially lately. Hopefully the financial model works and The Ringer is around for years to come. We need the stories.


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