On Being Wrong: A Sportswriting Manifesto in Brief

My wife believes that I’m wrong almost all the time. I, being a man, have a very different view of the matter. Which one of us holds the more reasonable opinion? you might wonder. I can’t say for sure. I will add this, however: if it’s reason we’re talking about, consider: of the two of us, only my wife uses a product called “enzyme scrub.”

QED? I’d say so.

However it is between milady and I, I was most assuredly wrong last week when I wondered aloud whether the Observer Effect might influence the Fan Projections here at FanGraphs. Or rather, I wasn’t wrong to wonder it aloud — that seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. The wrong thing, it seems, is the analogy I constructed. For the Observer Effect truly to be in play, it would be the numbers themselves that would change (and not the opinions of the people predicting them) by being readily available to the public.

My B, is what I have to say about that.

Still, my mis-step had its own rewards, as the commentariat suggested a number of legitimately interesting alternatives to the Observer Effect. Alternatives including: subject-expectancy effect, volunteer/participation bias, and something called anchoring.

The result for me — and, I hope, for the reader — was a pleasant and shockingly educational one. One that also made me consider the role of sportswriting — to consider, in particular, what it means to be wrong.

British author John Carlin suggests that the purview of the sporting journalist, first and foremost, is to frame the sporting conversation for the public. He writes in White Angels, a chronicle of Real Madrid’s Galactico era:

You need people to lead the conversations, to stoke up the debates. If only to have someone to disagree with. Because for the fan football is more about talking than anything else.

Football fans only spend a small part of their lives actually watching games: they spend far, far more time talking about football, a game whose greatest value to humanity, perhaps, is that it does us the immense service of giving us a limitlessly fertile subject of conversation, giving us an activity which is entertaining, inspiring, and — even –fraternally binding. Football allows people to reach out to one another like maybe nothing else can.

Carlin’s point is relevant to our honored pastime, as well. For even though baseball reaches many fewer people than does soccer, it’s not an unsubstantial number. And it’s a number that includes mostly Americans. And Americans are rich!

At its heart, Carlin’s point has merit: the sportswriter’s job is to define the topics which are to be discussed around the proverbial water cooler and, simultaneously, to define the terms in which they ought to be discussed. Having been a reader of sporting journalism for approximately as long as I’ve been able to read — so, at least since age 16 — I’m most thankful for those voices who are able to begin interesting conversations. If not for that, I would have almost zero to talk about with any man I met…ever. I mean, what would we discuss otherwise? Our feelings?! Ick.

But I would also caution against using it (i.e. the capacity to start the conversation) as the only criteria by which we adjudge the quality of our sportswriting. Skip Bayless, Bill Plaschke, Mike Frigging Lupica: they all start conversations. Trite, muckraking, even sometimes intellectually dangerous conversations. They’re the literary equivalent of Adam Sandler’s final answer in the quiz bowl scene of Billy Madison — to which answer the principal/host responds: “At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it.”

Frequently, the reaction from the reasonable person to this manner of screed is some combination of rage and/or snark and/or, in extreme cases, a heaving bosom. None of these is healthy (or pleasant for the innocent bystander). And yet, as Carlin would suggest — as, in fact, some American sportswriters have actually suggested — so long as the journalist has gotten a reaction from the readership, then he’s done his job. Some might even go so far as to say that, to the degree that the reader is affected, positively or negatively, then that’s how well the sportswriter has performed it.

I submit that we, the readership, do not want to be enraged by inane sportswriters — that it’s merely the only reasonable reaction we can have. Nor should our anger be regarded as a sign of effective journalism. Why do we return again and again? Because we like sport, is why. And because we’re hopeful that once in a while, our writers will tell us something.

I submit a second thing, too: that it’s okay to be wrong. Or, it’s okay so long as it’s done in a spirit of inquiry and not in the service of blustery self-importance. The question should be asked: Does the author regard his work as hypothesis or conclusion? Is the author writing to promote curiosity or kill it? Does the author have Prince Albert in a can? (Note: this last question isn’t entirely relevant but still very important.)

Of course, life isn’t always flowers and piece of cake. As Charles Simic writes (and Deborah Tannen echos in “For Argument’s Sake”): “There are moments in life when true invective is called for, when it becomes an absolute necessity, out of a deep sense of justice, to denounce, mock, vituperate, lash out, in the strongest possible language.” Certainly, Our Father Who Art in Boston (read: Bill James), for whatever his other shortcomings, was not a stranger to this mode of expression during the early days of our science. (I remember an Abstract article, I think it was, that begins with the bold pronouncement: “It’s time for the amateurs to clear the floor.” That’s, like, T.I.-level invective.) Certainly, censure is sometimes necessary.

To summarize: The sporting journalist should attempt to make his work interesting. He should view his work as an attempt to start a conversation. He should respect the intelligence of his readers. He should realize that, in many cases, certain of his readers will have knowledge that he does not. He should prepare himself to be corrected once in a while.

Mind you, I could be wrong about that.



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Carson Cistulli has just published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.


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Captain Wowbeard
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Captain Wowbeard
6 years 8 months ago

This one of the most eloquently worded articles I’ve read in a while; not to mention a fantastic read. If most aren’t jealous- they should be.

memo_rivera
Member
memo_rivera
6 years 8 months ago

I really like your articles.

Hooray for beer.

Biff Tannen
Guest
Biff Tannen
6 years 8 months ago

Good article. Just got done reading an article by that curly haired freak at the Boston Globe. In it he stated the Yankees picked up a great leadoff hitter in Curtis Granderson. They picked up a great player, not necessarily a great leadoff hitter, did he even look at his OBP or just make an assumption? Since when did these guys stop doing their homework?

Sam
Guest
Sam
6 years 8 months ago

A long time ago. The guys at ESPN still use OBP as a secondary stat. When Alex Gonzalez signed with the Jays the first compared the BA then mentioned the OBP almost like an after thought

Eric
Guest
6 years 8 months ago

I tend to think that being wrong is okay as long as you are legitimately, with all your integrity and stuff, trying to be right. And fair. And honest. Being wrong is part of the learning process, it’s a crucial component of every intellectual pursuit (of which, at least on the internets, sports writing is one).

But being lazy is not cool. And when people lose their shit over Skip Bayless or Bill Plaschke, it’ usually because of laziness. I think Carlin’s point, for example, is lazy. Any asshole can write something that will frame a conversation. The very presence of a story in the Guardian or whatever Britons go for these days, means people will read, then discuss said story.

What we should be asking is for sports writers to frame informed conversations, or at least un-lazy ones.

Joser
Member
Joser
6 years 8 months ago

Yeah, exactly. It’s not okay to be deliberately (or even casually) wrong just because it makes your work more interesting. There may be a place for hyperbole, but if you’re just making stuff up or simply not checking your facts because your writing is punchier when littered with absolutes and reads better without hedging or equivocation, you’ve skated out of the arena of journalism and onto the thin ice of AM talk radio.

dan woytek
Guest
dan woytek
6 years 8 months ago

Carson,
Shouldn’t that subtitle read “a Manifesto in Briefs”.

I guess you had to put pants on to go to France though, huh?

You forgot the inclusion of John Canzano in this article which should be a prerequisite. be good.

LorenzoStDuBois
Guest
LorenzoStDuBois
6 years 8 months ago

There’s nary a baseball scribe who puts pen to paper with more skill than Mr. Castulli. It was because of this that I nearly toppled from my seat when I read the phrase “between milady and I”. Alack!

Padman Jones
Guest
Padman Jones
6 years 8 months ago

Carson’s gotta be the only FanGraphs writer that would draw such a comment.

jjsmmf
Member
6 years 8 months ago

Fantastic read. I hope all aspiring/current sports journalists read this.

mjmetro
Guest
mjmetro
6 years 8 months ago

what got me was the correct usage of the word `however’.

sabes
Guest
sabes
6 years 8 months ago

Remember, when you’re talking about professional journalists, don’t only blame the writer, blame the editor that allows the poor journalism to reach the printed page (or web site, as the case may be).

Joser
Member
Joser
6 years 8 months ago

Editors are a luxury many editorial outlets can no longer afford. Unfortunately and ironically.

Klatz
Member
Klatz
6 years 8 months ago

Are you kidding me? 1065 words to say “I was wrong”. Even the summary is florid.

Joser
Member
Joser
6 years 8 months ago

You’re criticizing extravagant writing and to do so you employ “florid”?

Joser
Member
Joser
6 years 8 months ago

Wait, you’re trying to tie this into the relationship with your wife? In journalism you can be both right and happy. The woman in the marriage can be the same. The man in the marriage has to choose.

commentariat

This is my new favorite word.

diderot
Guest
diderot
6 years 8 months ago

I add my admiration for this article.

Now, having said this, a word from the other side. Someone once said to me, “the real world proof of being careful what you wish for is my job.” That person was a newspaper sports columnist.

True, there is no excuse for intellectual laziness, fallacious argument, herd mentality or simply being an asshole. But try contributing something meaningful several times a week (or day) covering the entire waterfront of sports, when (as pointed out above) there is a reduced or now absent editorial function.

All this isn’t meant to excuse anyone…but to highlight the credit due to those few who do the job well.

Joel
Guest
Joel
6 years 8 months ago

Carston,
You are my hero.
That is all

TheCaiman
Member
TheCaiman
6 years 8 months ago

Reading articles like this keeps reminding me of a moment during the ’09 playoffs when a Fox announcer (possibly Joe Buck, I don’t remember) was discussing Ardolis Chapman, who had established residency in the tiny country of Andorra after defecting from Cuba. The announcer said to the audience, “Andorra, in case you don’t know, is a small island.” Problem is, I DO know, and Andorra is a landlocked country in Europe. Had he just stated, “I think Andorra is an island,” I would not have been offended, but to imply audience ignorance and personal expertise (“in case you don’t know”) and then say something completely wrong was astounding. What an idiot.

Sean
Guest
Sean
6 years 8 months ago

Hate to bring out the grammar police for an otherwise eloquent and very well-done article, but you violated my biggest pet peeve in the English language: using a subject pronoun when the sentence calls for an object pronoun.

“It is between milady and I” should be “between milady and me,” “me” being the object of the preposition “between.”

Pervy in Sweatpants
Guest
Pervy in Sweatpants
6 years 8 months ago

What a boner!

Cody
Guest
Cody
6 years 8 months ago

Enjoyed the column, Carson.

Dave
Guest
Dave
6 years 8 months ago

Great article. I especially liked the reference to Bayless, Plaschke and Lupica. But I think there is more to the story here. These “sportswriters” are simply appealing to the mainstream. There is a reason we never hear Harold Reynolds discuss WAR or FIP, or Bayless choose an NFL MVP based on anything other than “Adrian Peterson runs really fast.” It’s because there aren’t many people who pour over advanced stats in every sport. ESPN et al have found simple, effective ways to appeal to the mainstream viewership and make money while offering very little in the way of actual insight. I think rather than denigrating these sportswriters, we should accept that they simply reflect their audience. It’s frustrating to those who want more detail and analysis but it’s not worth getting angry about. It doesn’t even phase me anymore when I watch ESPN.

Also, it seems that more and more people are referencing Billy Madison these days. A Texas bankruptcy judge denied a motion and actually put this same line from Billy Madison in the footnote.

http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/0306061billy1.html

(Go to the second page to see the line).

Faust
Guest
Faust
6 years 8 months ago

Bayless, Plaschke, Lupica, trite, muckraking – Which of these is not like the others? Muckraking is a good thing, is it not?

These are the comments I would have offered had I not gone all Oedipus on my eyeballs when I encountered the phrase “between milady and I”. I second, and third, and fourth, the objections of any citizens who may have objected to this construction before me.

Fine article, I would say had I read the whole thing, which of course I couldn’t have done, given your transgressions.

Weren
Guest
Weren
6 years 8 months ago

As a sports writer, my primary pet peeve is a commenter who insists on being the high and mighty grammar police. I would encourage commenters to point out inaccuracies (which is different from the notion of being wrong in this article) but nitpicking on grammar is a self-serving practice that never adds anything to the discussion that the writer intended to frame in the first place.

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