• On Fans and Fanatics, and the Science of Sports

    I’ve been doing a lot of introspection this past week. Those that know me are aware that I’m a big sports fan. You see, when I was born my dad was already in his 60’s. So when other kids were outside playing catch with their fathers, I was sitting on the couch watching sports with mine. I remember asking him questions about the rules and the players and the stories of games long past. Pretty soon, I was devoted to sports and to watching and talking about them. That devotion continues through through this day. I am a passionate fan of the Chicago Bears, Bulls, and Cubs… and of the Penn State Lion Football program. And that’s why this last week has led to significant introspection.

    Now there are a number of things that trouble me in the scandals surrounding Penn State (if you don’t know, google it). First, there is obvious horror at child predation, disappointment in one of my alma maters, and anger over the possibility that people looked the other way for the sake of a game. But there’s also something more personal I’ve been struggling with. As I explained above, sports have been a part of my self identity for as long as I can remember. However, as I’ve grown older I’ve realized the meaninglessness of these games, and have questioned why I get so emotionally wrapped up in them. Furthermore, the specific case of college athletics brings with it moral questions related to amateur athletics in the context of a multi-billion dollar industry and the contradiction that is the term “student athlete” at many institutions of higher eduction. And now, because of the abuses of powers obtained through the attention and associated $ sports receive… I felt more inclined than ever to just walk away from it all and stop paying attention to it altogether.

    But then something else happened that reminded me why I think following sports is important, even if we think the games themselves are silly and meaningless. You see… the students rioted. They rioted not because of financial inequalities, or in defense of the victims, or even because they were upset that the reputation of their alma mater was destroyed. No, they rioted because they had a deep love for what they felt Joe Paterno represented, unwavering faith in his moral character, and outrage at what they felt was the defamation of his character by the regional and national media.

    Now, regardless of whether you think of their reasons for the riots (or lack thereof), you have to acknowledge there is power in that. People care about sports. What’s more than that, people often derive their morality from watching, playing, and debating sports. Equally important is the passion with which they do so. Fans are called fans for a reason: they are fanatically faithful of their teams and players…. sometimes to a fault.

    Now there are two other things about sports that really set it apart from most (all?) other sources of morality and passion: they are constantly being measured, and they are is something you can easily discuss with almost anyone: friends, strangers… even family. This combination of passion, measurability, and accessibility provide us with a wonderful opportunity. We can discuss a topic people are passionate and knowledgeable about, and yet we may do so in a manner that upholds scientific inquiry and applies evidence-based decision making.

    Measurement, modeling, uncertainty, observation, hypothesis formation, error, precision and accuracy, correlation and causality… ALL of these things play into debates I have had or read or watched about sports over the last 10 years. Indeed, I struggle to think of a single scientific principle that I have not seen applied to the sports world. Most famously, this approach is the premise of an excellent book (and a supposedly good movie I have yet to see), Moneyball. It is also the subject of many other books, blogs, and even a few university courses and a handful of professional societies. Such endeavors and publications do what many of us strive for every day: to “bring science to the people” and create a democracy that is uses data and facts to make decisions, and not interpret data in support of predetermined positions. In this sense, it is possible that a successful sports commentator may touch more minds than Carl Sagan did.

    This is why – even when I acknowledge how silly the games themselves are and even when I am sickened by the things done by athletes and coaches – I still think sports are worth my energy. They provide a low-stakes, wide-reaching, and comprehensive opportunity to show people the power of rational scientific thought. (And I get to be entertained in the bargain.) …. then again, maybe I’m just a hopeless fanatic blindly justifying my passions and hobbies in the wake of a scandal that has shaken my faith in individuals and institutions I once had tremendous respect for.