Monday, July 9, 2012

Narratives in Sports

Everyone has their pet peeves. Whether it be that you hate nails on a chalkboard, a fork on a plate, or just that annoying noise your significant other makes when  they sleep, we all have them. For me, one of the most annoying things in sports are the narratives that come along with it, mostly because they're wrong.

Now, the word narrative is defined as a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious. (Emphasis added)

So technically speaking, narratives in sports don't even have to be true to be a narrative, but the issue I have with them is that people begin to accept the narrative as fact. "Kobe Bryant is so clutch!" is a common narrative, because every basketball fan remembers multiple games that Kobe hit the game winning jump shot as time expired. Now, what people don't remember as frequently, regardless of what they'll tell you, is how often he missed those shots. Conversely, people love to talk about how poor LeBron James is in clutch situations, and that's entirely based on his final playoff series in Cleveland in 2010 and his poor finals performance in 2011. Based on the narrative, at the end of a close game you would undoubtedly choose Kobe taking the final shot over LeBron, right? Well, the facts don't exactly match up to that belief. Here's a thorough study that was done by Chasing23.com, and has been updated through May of 2012. The study only covers game-tying/game-winning shots, and while Kobe has taken considerably more shots, LeBron has been successful at a far higher rate.

Is that surprising to you? That statistically LeBron is actually more likely to make the game-tying or game-winning shot than Kobe? It shouldn't be. If it wasn't for silly narratives, common sense would prevail. LeBron doesn't have the shooting range that Kobe does, but he's far better at creating his own shot, and at getting to the rim. If people didn't have ESPN and Sports Illustrated and whatnot telling them everyday that Kobe Bryant is the most clutch player since Jordan, they might actually use common sense to come to a conclusion. LeBron is bigger, faster and stronger than Kobe. It is not surprising that LeBron is a more efficient scorer late in the game because LeBron is a more efficient scorer during the rest of the game as well.

Despite the narrative that people play better or worse under clutch situations, the fact is the sample size is small so really anything can happen. One poor post-season in any sport doesn't mean you aren't clutch, but the way narratives take over the sports world, in today's media-frenzied culture, if you drop the snap on a game-winning field goal attempt, you will be considered someone who chokes. Who cares if Tony Romo's QB rating is almost 100 over his career, or that Dallas hasn't had nearly the talent the Giants have had over the last 5 seasons, the reason Dallas can't win the Super Bowl is because Tony Romo chokes! Obviously, that's sarcasm.

On a more local level, casual Twins fans weren't too pleased with Joe Mauer being the Twins all-star selection. A twitter search of Joe Mauer at the time the rosters were announced would have resulted in a ton of negative tweets, talking about his lack of home runs and his injuries. Of course, Mauer is hitting .326/.417/.452, has played in 76 of the team's 82 games, and that .417 on base percentage leads the American League. If Joe Mauer wasn't an all-star, then there's really no point in having the game. If anything, Mike Napoli getting voted in over Mauer is more of a tragedy than Mauer being selected, but since all-star fan voting has a ton of flaws anyways, it's not worth getting into.

So please, the next time you think you know something about a specific athlete, take the time to verify it. Don't be that idiot in the bar who's telling everyone that Michael Beasley is going to be a star in Phoenix, when he's declined every year since he was drafted.