Being Reductive About Sport (And How Silly It Is)

Some folks dislike sport. I use the word ‘dislike’ advisedly; the members of this cohort are not offering critical, politically tinged analysis of sport’s entanglement with big business and its value schemas; they are not exposing sport’s use as an ideology promulgating system, it’s supposed facilitation of political disengagement; they are not critiquing sport for offering a domain in which sexism, racism, xenophobia, and nationalist chauvinism often find unbridled expression; they are not upset by the loss of productivity and the diminution of gross national product that major sporting events bring about. These folks just find sport silly, a waste of time, a ridiculous way for adults and children, men and women, white or black or yellow or brown, to spend their time, whether playing or spectating.  You know some of them; you might be one yourself.

There is a particular mode of description of sporting activity, much favored by these worthies. It is better shown than described. Here, for instance, is tennis: people knocking balls back and forth endlessly across a net strung up between two poles. Here is basketball: young men and women, possibly suffering from gigantism, run up and down a wooden court, trying to throw a ball through a hoop strung up on a wooden board. And here is soccer: twenty men or women run up and down a field, kicking a ball around for ninety minutes, all the while trying to maneuver the ball through and between a pair of posts put up at the end of the field.

And then, the inevitable question: why would you want to waste your time, hours and days of it, looking at, talking about, and getting all worked up over, something as inane and silly as these activities?

One would imagine, given the almost instantaneous self-parody that these reductive takes on sport produce, that the placement of such a question alongside others of its ilk such as–why spend so much time looking at ink marks on a page, or why travel to distant lands to look at ruined buildings, or why spend millions of dollars on hundreds of years old splotches of paint on canvas–would be obvious. But equally obviously, for those who employ them, such descriptions are instead, a marvelously witty puncturing of pretension.

My contribution to this ‘debate’ is going to be a good old-fashioned rehashing, from an older post on the laziness of reductionist analyses:

An absence of a ‘sense of humor’ it seems, is almost endemic to all reductive, ‘X is nothing-but or merely Y’ style analyses….They are also depressingly narrow-minded and lacking in imagination.

Wittgenstein once pointed out–in his critique of psychoanalysis–that a facile reduction of this sort was misguided for the most elementary of reasons: when it was over, you simply weren’t talking about the same thing any more. Boil a man down to flesh, blood and bones to show us that that was all he was, and what you’d have left was a bag of just that. You wouldn’t have a man any more.

Right.

Tennis, IBM’s Data Tracker, and the Hidden Order of Things

If it’s the first–or sometimes, the second–weekend in July, it’s time for Wimbledon brunch–or breakfast. Today, I hosted a few friends to partake of the pleasures of the 2012 finals.  Among them, Roger Federer’s biggest fan, one whose fanhood makes for very interesting watching from up close. I have watched many tennis matches with her in the past five years, and am always struck by her involvement, her anxious following of her favorite, an anxiety compounded and made worse by a tennis match’s fluctuations and the ebbs and flows of its dramatic resolution. It’s been a long time since any sports encounter has done that to me but I remain susceptible under the right sorts of circumstances and thus, sympathetic to her trials and travails. (During the epic Federer-Nadal 2008 final, as it moved into a fifth set and into another cluster of deuces, she had simply stopped watching the television and started doing the dishes instead: the tension had grown to be too much for her. I knew from past experience exactly what she was feeling: a tightening of the gut, a nausea whose phenomenology is distinctive.)

Today, as Andy Murray won the first set, and Roger Federer began his comeback in the second set, I was introduced to a newer palliative for her anxiety. The mundane, domestic, hands-on relief of dishwashing was exchanged for tracking, er, the IBM Data Tracker, which, well let me just let IBM’s marketing folks do the talking from here on:

IBM has mined more than seven years of Grand Slam Tennis data (approximately 39 million data points) to determine patterns and styles for players when they win. This insight is applied to determine the “keys” to the match for each player in a match.

  • Prior to each match, the system runs an analysis of both competitors’ historical head-to-head match ups as well as stats against comparable player styles, to determine what the data indicates each player must do to do well in the match (SPSS technology)
  • The system then selects the 3 most significant keys for each player in the match
  • The Keys to the Match dashboard updates in real-time with current game statistics as the match unfolds

So, at any given moment, the Tracker displays how well the player in question is doing in terms of the ‘three most significant keys:’ conformance with the required value of the key indicates the player is headed for a win (roughly).  Thus, then, the reassuring power of the IBM Data Tracker for the bundle-of-nerves fan, wondering whether the 0bject of her attention, her vicarious desires, is performing as he should in order to win. The Data Tracker dips beneath the contingent unpredictable flux, to reach into the hidden order of things and reveal a glorious stability, a movement along a data line that indicates progress, and hopefully, inevitable movement towards the desired endpoint. The analytic grants us the security, that despite all the seeming variance of the surface, the chaos of the visible, there lurks the reassuring solidity of the conforming data point.

The ancient motivation for the statistic, made so starkly manifest in providing therapeutic relief to the sports fan.