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Mission Impossible: African-Americans & analytics

Why blacks are not feeling the sports metrics movement

Most Undefeated stampThe mission was to find black folks who spend anytime talking about advanced analytics, whose conversations are framed by — or even casually include references to — win shares or effective shooting percentage, WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) or points per 100 possessions. It’s a failed mission so far. Totally empty. Conclusion: Advanced analytics and black folks hardly ever mix. Set aside the tiny handful of black men who make a living somewhere in the sports industry dealing directly with the numbers and there is absolutely zero mingling.

Log onto any mainstream website or media outlet (certainly any program within the ESPN empire) and 30 seconds cannot pass without extreme statistical analysis, which didn’t exist 20 years ago, hijacking the conversation. But not in “BlackWorld,” where never is heard an advanced analytical word. Not in urban barbershops. Not in text chains during three-hour games. Not around office water coolers. Not even in pressrooms or locker rooms where black folks who make a living in the industry spend all day and half the night talking about the most intimate details of sports.

Let’s take the Golden State Warriors locker room, for example. I thought the complete stiff-arming of the statistical revolution might very well be generational. Old black folks don’t, but younger black folks might.

Wrong.

I asked Draymond Green, the Warriors star whose new-age game is constantly being defined statistically, if he engages in any advanced analytics conversation either professionally or personally. His answer was emphatic.

“No. Neither. Professionally, I play completely off of feel. I hear people discussing my game in terms of all these advanced numbers. I have no part of it,” Green said. “Even paying attention to it, from a playing standpoint, would make me robotic and undermine my game. I’m supposed to step back behind the line in real time to avoid taking a ‘bad two’? That’s thinking way too much. I don’t get the fascination at all.”

Green’s teammate Shaun Livingston finds a professional application, but analytics don’t have any play in his vast life as a sports fan.

“I use it as a scouting tool,” he said after a recent Warriors playoff game. “I want to know, defensively, someone’s 3-point shooting tendencies or whether a guy is a bad free throw shooter so that I know when exactly I want to foul him. I use them as an advanced scouting report. When I played for Mike Dunleavy, he was great with the scouting report … So was Erik Spoelstra … and those things were an important part.

“But in terms of conversations among [black people]? No. Never. Our conversations seem to go the other way, away from data and more toward intangible things. Like impact. There are too many areas where the numbers don’t assess the impact. We tend to talk about sports in those ways. ‘Look at his energy … That guy has skills but he’s soft! … He’s a big game player.’

“I think the analytics are really overrated when it comes to putting a team together. What statistical analysis is going to tell you whether a guy is a good teammate, whether he can lead, whether he has his teammate’s back? Don’t you have to see and figure that stuff out independent of any numbers?”

Well, people ought to, but increasingly can’t — or won’t. The greater the dependence on the numbers, the more challenged people are to tell (or understand) the narrative without them. Makes you wonder how people ever enjoyed or understood the dominance of baseball king Babe Ruth or boxing champ Joe Louis or Masters Tournament co-founder Bobby Jones. Imagine something as pedestrian as home runs and runs batted in adequately explaining Ruth’s overall impact.

Of course, baseball is perfectly suited for advanced analytics. We can probably connect baseball’s unique “explain-ability” by the numbers to stat freaks obsessively deciding every sport’s actions and decisions should be justified statistically. Baseball is the sport whose decisions are made specifically based on statistical probability, on the predictable outcome of lefty-versus-righty matchups, or the outcome in the 20 previous confrontations between pitcher and hitter, or defensive alignments and shifts. But baseball and everything else are radically different.

“Sports is emotional. And analytics represent the absence of emotion, the antithesis. Nobody gets into sports to be dispassionate. And it just seems to me we are the feel it, smell it, touch it people.”

My friend and ESPN colleague J.A. Adande relayed a conversation he had a couple of seasons ago with Stephen Curry when the then-future MVP was transitioning from shooting guard to point guard. Curry told Adande one of the biggest differences he noticed immediately was playing the point took him away from the corners of the court, where he felt most comfortable taking 3-pointers. Curry didn’t cite any numbers, just his comfort level shooting from the corners relative to the top of the arc. Only later, after the shift, did we learn how much better Curry was from the corners. One stat, according to ESPN Stats & Information, assigned Curry some number in excess of 100 for his 3-point sniping from the corners. This tells you just how bogus the exercise is if the “percentage” reports to be greater than 100.

It’s like calculating points per 100 possessions, a very popular go-to stat in NBA circles. Why is that more important than points per 48 minutes, which is the actual time in which an NBA game is played?

It was Adande who a few months ago pointed out to me that two guys who have covered sports for a total of 60 years never, ever resort to any analytic, simple or advanced, to discuss the daily ins and outs of sports. It’s not part of any discussion of any game for any reason, ever. And that’s overwhelmingly true of all the black people we know (and older white people, too) regardless of occupation or station in life. No conversation is ever framed or dominated by numbers.

It was then I decided to spend some time just listening in to as many conversations as possible, especially between black folks in and around sports, paying more attention to people who qualify as fanatics.

“Don’t tell me that there are no black people who are good at math. There are black people who expert at quantitative analysis. I worry that it becomes a way to exclude.”

My friend Larry Irving, a black Stanford lawyer and the most rational person I know — except when it comes to his New York Knicks fandom — said our complete withdrawal from statistical analysis is based on our emotional tie to the game.

“Sports is emotional. And analytics represent the absence of emotion, the antithesis. Nobody gets into sports to be dispassionate. And it just seems to me we are the feel it, smell it, touch it people,” he said. “WHIP and WAR [wins above replacement] and win shares are completely antiseptic. I mean, the coach may use analytics to confirm, but you mean to tell me Knute Rockne couldn’t tell whether the boy could play without some advanced analytics expert telling him?”

The thing is, that could also open the door to the issue of emotion vs. intellect. That is a thin and sensitive line to navigate, especially given the outrage people of color feel when others suggest we’re more emotional than rational about sports. But it’s an inescapable subtopic if dealing with 360 degrees of this. Without question, the emotional appeal of sports resonates with black people, whether we’re talking about the first end-zone dancers, the first high-five, the guttural releases after dunks and quarterback sacks and even putts made, that simply weren’t a noticeable part of sports before the emergence of the black athlete and legions of black fans who followed. It would take a greater and more in-depth discussion than this to figure out the reasons we, black people, are most attracted to sports other than the winning and losing, and where the emotional connection is on that spectrum.

But the bottom line is that this phenomenon of advanced analytics, based on my sampling, is one we want little to do with.

That brings up yet another issue.

Employment.

If the larger sports world is moving in the direction of analytics and we aren’t, isn’t that dangerous? Are we then talking about a dearth of black professionals in the talent pool being scoured by the white, analytics-driven executives who run teams, leagues and networks?

Is it a coincidence that Nate McMillan, an old-school, pre-analytics player/coach, who was handpicked by old-school, pre-analytics player/coach Larry Bird in Indiana, is the only black coach hired this offseason?

One person who has a unique view of this all is ESPN’s broadcast analyst Amin Elhassan, the Sudanese-born former video coordinator, former scouting coordinator, former assistant director of basketball operations (under Steve Kerr when he was general manager with the Phoenix Suns), who studied engineering at Georgia Tech. All this is to say that Elhassan is a black man who knows — even lives — all forms of analytics. He says he worries that black people are either being excluded or excluding themselves.

“So many front offices are staffed by guys like me, who didn’t play the game, who didn’t come in through the coaching ranks … Don’t tell me that there are no black people who are good at math. There are black people who expert at qualitative analysis,” Elhassan said. “I worry that it becomes a way to exclude. Don’t tell me there aren’t any black people on Wall Street who are passionate about basketball. These people exist. Wall Streeters, people with qualitative analysis backgrounds. I know them. I went to school with them. I just don’t believe that one ethnicity is more predisposed to this than another. You realize, of course, that this is the new gateway into the game … into sports?”

For more than a few moments I felt guilty as hell for hating the intrusion of advanced analytics as much as I generally do. Because even though the reliance on this stuff seems to be a new safe haven for a new “Old Boy Network” of Ivy Leaguers who can hire each other and justify passing on people not given to their analytic philosophies, an entire group of people can’t simply refuse to participate in something as important as this phenomenon. The cynical me can easily make the argument this is a new path to exclusion, intentional or not. Or is it creating an entirely new way of approaching sports that’s reserved for the few?

Well, this organization is strong on advanced analytics and, well, you know … a lot of people just don’t share our organizational philosophy!

The origin doesn’t appear sinister. Elhassan goes to the root of the movement, the migration of the concept into the larger mainstream sports world. “It was Detroit, the auto industry execs,” he said. “CRM … customer relations marketing. They made the more targeted pitches. They had the experience of dealing with big data. Initially, it was largely about data gathering. Now, it’s, ‘How do we use it?’ ”

It’s both how to use it and who is using it, and to what extent. The premise that a team shouldn’t use all of the new and available information in the spirit of competition would be absurd, though the word “information” is often thrown around too loosely.

But the movement isn’t about to be slowed. Three more weeks of NBA playoffs will be statistically analyzed to death, then an entire baseball season, then another football season, with fantasy sports participants becoming as adept as general managers in figuring out what they want in a player, in a starting lineup or a starting rotation.

The NBA’s most lucrative free-agent summer is set to begin and I can only wonder if advanced analytics are helping or hurting the game. My friend Neville Waters, a multiple sports fanatic with an MBA from Georgetown, shook his head when the name Dwight Howard was mentioned. “Teams are going to look at Dwight Howard,” he said, “and through advanced analytics mostly determine they want to give him tens of millions of dollars even though there’s apparently no advanced metric that tells you what the results prove … He’s not a good teammate and is a complete risk to sign …”

Michael Wilbon is one of the nation’s most respected sports journalists and an industry pioneer as one of the first sportswriters to broaden his career beyond newspapers to include television, radio and new media. He is a co-host of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption.