Thursday, November 10, 2005

The sad case of the ego-invested fan

Worst. Manners. Ever.

What the hell is wrong with people?

If there is one universal guilty pleasure in online football commentary, it is the Power Ranking. Give a man a website, a sack of HTML and some team-logo GIFs and in no time he's ranking the NFL teams from 1 to 32. You can do it subjectively, like the indomitable Dr. Z, you can draw hypnotic diagrams, like the elegant Beatpaths model, or you can do what I do here at Down and Distance, which is come up with a silly formula, shroud it in pseudoscientific puffery, and then sit back and see what happens as the season grinds along.

But however you choose to do it, you try to keep your head connected to the rest of you and understand: a) your rankings aren't perfect; b) your rankings will never be perfect; and, most important, c) we're just having fun. Never forget, we are not curing cancer here. We are not finding Osama. We are not overthrowing Castro. We are putting football teams in some sort of numerical order.

Which is why I found this discussion both amusing and appalling. Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders looks at the NFL in unconventional ways, breaking down every play to determine how players and teams compare with the league average in similar situations. The goal is to develop an objective (remember that word) formula that explains past performance and gives you some indication about the future. It's a great concept, one that is reaching a larger audience than ever thanks to a content-sharing arrangement between FO and

But when you throw the doors open wide, you never know just what's gonna come through.

One of the products of the new relationship is the weekly Power Rankings. The rankings are based on FO's innovative metric DVOA, which charts the performance of a player or team compared with the league average. The teams atop the rankings are way above average; the teams at the bottom, way below average. The stats FO uses take some getting used to (I'm still trying), and many readers have trouble understanding their purpose. But in the main, people either get them or they don't. People either decide that this is something they want to read, or they move on to something else. Then there are those who ... how do I explain it? Let's try this: Years ago, when I worked at the newspaper in Des Moines, one of the local crazies would call the city desk from time to time to complain that the anchors on Channel 13 were mocking him. Not people like him. Him, specifically. Right through the TV screen. His name was Al.

Al appears to have some kindred spirits reading the Power Rankings.

It started earlier in the season when the Denver Broncos fell five places despite winning a game. Now, if I were a diehard Broncos fan, I suppose I would think that was dumb. And many Broncos fans wandered over to FO to say so, some of them quite colorfully. Denver eventually floated back up, and the Bronco Brigades mostly shut up and sat down. Tampa Bay fans also had a beef, prompting what remains the year's best FO flame:
And THEIR it is: "You are not giving any props to the Bucs and there fans." One sentence that lays bare (BEAR?) the thought process of that certain segment of the readership that believes power rankings exist not to stimulate discussion, not to objectively explore which team is the best, not to just have a little friggin' fun. The purpose of the power rankings, it seems, is to validate the football fan's belief in his team -- and, therefore, in himself.

This line of thinking took over the Week 10 DVOA ratings thread, as a handful of Atlanta Falcons fans arrived to protest their 6-2 team's ranking: 17th out of 32. Hey, nothing wrong with protest. It expanded civil rights, toppled communism, ended apartheid and killed New Coke. But there's more than one way to file a protest. You can do it like this:
"(I wonder) if perhaps DVOA has a tough time evaluating the Falcons because their offensive system is a bit of an abnormality among modern offenses. Therefore a tool designed to be effective for a normal offense gets funky results for one that seemingly lives by different rules ..."
Which, basically, makes the case that Michael Vick's unique skill set may confound the DVOA system, producing a flawed ranking that underestimates the Falcons. Pretty reasonable argument, I'd say, one that at least bears consideration, and even if it turns out not to be the case, it shows that someone out there is using the space between his ears for something other than storage. You can also raise your question like this:
This just proves that geeks should stick with band. Because they don’t know %^%^ about football.
Which doesn't state the case quite as elegantly, though it raises larger metaphysical questions of who's the bigger geek: the guy who applies mathematical formulas to football, or the guy who goes online and picks a fight with mathematical formulas.

What we see in this discussion is the difference between emotion and ego as it relates to fan involvement. There's nothing wrong with getting emotional about sports. Emotion drives the sports economy in this country and around the world. (Just ask my wife how I turn into a basket case when the Minnesota Twins make the postseason.) As fans, we paint our faces, put on replica jerseys and go to games. When our teams win it makes us happy, and when our teams lose it bums us out. But there's a huge difference between allowing your favorite team to influence how you feel and allowing that team to define who you are.

Once a fan's ego becomes invested in his team, the games stop being fun, and he stops being fun, too. He can't bear criticism of the team, actual or implied. If his team is ranked No. 17 on some Internet rating system, or isn't picked to win a particular game, or is forecast to lose in the first round of the playoffs, it isn't just disappointing, it's a personal affront.

If I were to say, for example, that I think the Texans will beat the Colts this weekend, I would expect an Indianapolis fan to shake his head and say, "You're crazy." And that's OK, because that's the response of a rational fan: He figures that I don't know any better -- that if I can't see that the Colts are going to steamroll the Texans, I must some kind of dummy. Presuming someone is stupid may be foolish, shortsighted and self-defeating, but it is a rational response. However, there will always be a segment of fans who presume that I know exactly what I'm talking about. They'll believe that the reason I'm picking the Texans to win is because I'm trying to insult them. Not the Colts, mind you. Their fans.

It would be pointless for me to try to explain to a fan like this why I picked the Texans, just as it's pointless to try to explain to a crazed Falcons fan on FO why the rating system put them 17th. In either case, he's incapable of evaluating the system because he can't see beyond the fact that it isn't paying the proper respect ("NOT GIVING ANY PROPS") to his team. Or, as he refers to his team, "us." He speaks in the first person because he has aligned his self-image so closely with the team that he sees himself as a member. And I don't mean "member" in some gauzy, 12th-man, we're-all-in-the-same-gang sense. I mean it in a dude-has-a-jersey-with-his-own-name-on-the-back sense.

As the Falcons discussion swept through FO like a big wheel through a cotton field, other readers would hop in to try to explain aspects of the system, cross-examine the Atlanta fans' assumptions or just try to talk them down from the water tower, all to no avail. The arguments shifted, changed, even doubled back on themselves. First, the problem with the rankings was that they didn't take into account won-lost record, "the only statistic that matters." Then the rankings were flawed because they didn't take into account something else: the fact that the Falcons' losses were both narrow, by 3 points. Then the Falcon Faithful pointed out that the Lombardi Trophy is given out based on wins, not DVOA. To which someone said: If that were the case, Pittsburgh would have been the NFL champ last year. At which point, suddenly the problem wasn't the rankings at all, just the way they were explained. "Dont make up lies about the Falcons to justify it," read one post. As the thread stretched into the hundreds of messages, it became a primer on when a fan has gone from having his emotions to his ego involved:
  • He sees conspiracy and coverup. The fact that Atlanta comes in 17th isn't merely evidence of a flawed system. It is the intent of that system. The rankings were specifically designed to screw the Atlanta fan. Further, when the creators were called out, they lied to hide what they'd done.
  • He speaks in absolutes, but discards them as needed. Wins are the "only" stat that matters, unless your losses were close, in which case the margin of defeat is important -- but not a narrow Atlanta margin of victory.
  • He makes one-way excuses. We can talk about Atlanta almost beating New England despite having its backup QB in the game, but we're not allowed to speak about the Patriots' injuries that helped keep the game close. Also, it's not fair to downgrade Atlanta because they beat a crummy Miami team by only a touchdown; if the Falcons hadn't made so many mistakes, they'd have blown them out!
  • He can't even find solace in cliche. This is America: We love the underdog. We love David. Why this insistence on being hailed as Goliath? How many times have we heard broadcasters say that an athlete or team plays better than their stats? DVOA or any other stat-based system allows a fan -- hell, invites him -- to make such a case. He's encouraged to dig up all the sportswriter chestnuts and roast them over the fire: "heart," "intangibles" and my favorite, "clutch performance" (while invoking the patron saint of clutch, St. Adam of Vinatieri). Yet he just can't do it. It's more important that he be validated.
Is Atlanta only the 17th-best team in the NFL? Subjectively, I'd probably rank them a little higher. My silly-but-objective POW-R-'ANKINGS have them as the No. 8 team after Week 9. That seems pretty good for now. But the point is, I understand why DVOA has them where they are, and I respect the reasons for it. Those reasons aren't "wrong." The formula isn't biased. The numbers are the numbers, and that's all they are.

But the rabid fan, the one who sees a low ranking as a blow to his manhood, he'll never be convinced. In one of the posts linked to above, a fan dismisses all attempts to explain the system and concludes, in an ironic and frankly sad act of projection, "Your egos are huge."

Hey, if Aaron Schatz has some of his ego tied up in his mathematical formulas, it's understandable. Those formulas put food on his family's table and shoes on his child's feet. Better to wrap your ego in your own accomplishments than in the accomplishments of 53 strangers you pay to watch.


Walter said...

Dear Paul,
Just wanted to compliment you on an intelligent, worthwhile blog. Yours is a great step-back, objective view of pro football and one I will keep reading. (I just happened upon it in an Atlanta Falcons search.) Myself, I have started a blog in the past few weeks that is Falcons-centric. However, it is not a rabid Atlanta-worship type of thread, but one that seeks to be positive and insightful at the same time. Check it out when you have a minute...I will keep peeking in on Down and Distance from time to time.

Unknown said...

Hey paul, curt @ here. Your posting is hilarious. I got caught in the crossfire of that atlanta thread. He was ragging on Aaron for not paying enough attention to Atlanta's game outcomes. I pointed out that - which pays attention to wins and losses only - had Atlanta ranked #11, and he accused me of paying too MUCH attention to the game outcomes. really funny.

PCS said...

I almost posted to the thread on Aaron's behalf, but then realized I already have enough people sarcastically calling me "super genius" and "looser" and "Dr. Frankenstein." So I kept on lurking, which is what I do best.