The only thing worse than getting piss in your face is getting piss in your face when you don’t expect it. That happened to me last week when veteran ESPN and Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon wrote a column claiming that African American and Sports Analytics don’t mix. The short and simple of his reasoning was that Black people don’t do math, and these math geeks were costing young African Americans jobs in NBA front offices.
Let’s go all old school on this and revive an all too appropriate phrase, “say what?”
Wilbon is a known foe of the analytics movement as are many middle aged African American sports personalities. Charles Barkley, Joe Morgan, Harold Reynolds and others are quick to look askance at arguments built on statistics that were developed in the last two decades or so. His stance wasn’t surprising and he’s welcome to it. But to tar and feather all Blacks? That ain’t right.
It’s smelly liquid in my face because I was one of the first daily newspaper columnists to use advanced statistics in covering the NBA. I did it 13 years ago for the NY Sun, and I continued to do it until the paper’s demise in 2008. The Sun had quite a heyday. Regular readers in those days were treated to a sports section that included such great minds as Tim Marchman, John Hollinger, Aaron Schatz, Doug Farrar, Jay Jaffe, Jonah Keri, Christina Kahrl, Kevin Greenstein, Eric Silverstadt, Max Watman and many others. The influence of the alumni association stretches far and wide. Our coverage always went beyond the usual carping about this player or that player or idle press release regurgitation. From that pulpit, I correctly picked the underdog to win the NBA Finals in 2004, ’06 and ’08. In 2008, I began writing sports columns for The Root, an African American news and cultural affairs site whose editors clearly didn’t share Wilbon’s antipathies.
During that time, I often traded notes from the comments with other African American readers at The Root. And my picture was on my column at the NY Sun and on several occasions I encountered young African Americans who shared my passion for analytics. Even today, my barber and several of his other customers engage me in discussions that might center on PER or WAR. In addition, African Americans who frequent my favorite beer bars do the same. To this day, I think I’ve had more discussions involving sports and advanced metrics with people of color than I have with white people.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I applied on several occasions to Undefeated but this axe grinding has nothing to do with that. I totally get not being hired. I’m nowhere near as good at building my brand as a journalist as I am at building mine as a specialty food professional. My weekly sports writing endeavors in the national press came to an end in 2010, save for the occasional piece at Wall Street Journal or at Slate.
I was delighted that other African Americans in journalism were as outraged as I. Jemelle Hill and Michael Smith took Wilbon to task on their superb podcast His and Hers. They included Chris Herring of the Journal as a guest. And Bomani Jones spoke out against Wilbon’s idiocy.
My passion for statistics was instilled in me by my father who was consistently outraged that Black stars in the ‘60s weren’t given their due and used statistics to back up his arguments. When I was in the third grade he taught me conventional baseball statistics like Earned Run Average, Batting Average and On Base Percentage. 15 years later I gave him a copy of Bill James Baseball Abstract as a gift and he read it cover to cover that day. My Dad passed away ten years ago, but I could see him clear as day shaking his head in disagreement as I read the Wilbon piece.
I think the Wilbon controversy is an age thing (though I’m his age and I don’t think that way). He and several other older African Americans in sports media feel like their powers from several decades of observation have been challenged by these young, mostly white, cats who back their arguments up with new statistical data. To them it’s like they paid their dues to achieve this eminence of dictating the narrative, and now they are being challenged by these youngsters who have neither the credentials of having played the game nor the decades of observation. They resent it. That much is unfortunate but logical. Extrapolating it to the idea that African Americans can’t handle math because it’s not how we intrinsically view sports is sheer lunacy.