Are Sports Analytics Part of a Liberal Plot?''Promis'd Horrors of the French Invasion', Hulton Archive / Stringer Soccer Features
First, there was this Tweet thread from New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat on the analytics movement as a liberal plot:
Math beat tradition. Reason beat folk wisdom. It was like a parable of how liberalism understands itself.
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) February 16, 2017
Then this past week, we had Michael Brendan Dougherty’s essay in The Week, “The arrogant thinking of liberal sports writers,” which included this throwaway paragraph:
But there’s only so much that this new crop of sports writers can truly identify with in the players they admire. Socially cosseted with other journalists, liberal sports writers increasingly identify with the only set of actors in the sports world that come from a cultural milieu relatable to their own: the new class of rationalizing, brainy executives. In another generation, sports writers dreamed futilely of being Willie Mays or Gordie Howe. Now they want to be Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. And their copy and concerns increasingly seem to be written for each other and for these analytics-loving general managers.
It’s interesting that conservatives, who by-and-large push a “stick to sports” line, would so eagerly read a conservative parable into the analytics movement.
On paper at least, the pieces all fit. Pro sports is all about folk wisdom, tradition, feel, honour, drama. It’s slow to embrace change, suspicious of the new. Conservative.
Analytics meanwhile is about empiricism, data, rationalization, challenging received wisdom, scientism, radical change. Liberal.
This metaphor works if you accept the textbook definition of Burkean, small c conservatism that a dwindling number of people, particularly Douthat (I can’t speak for Dougherty), continue to embrace, despite the fact it only lives on today in publications like The American Conservative, Andrew Sullivan’s brain, and a few select divinity schools. This is the classical Toryism which embraces tradition, moral authority, clear hierarchies and established culture, and it has as much to do with modern Republicanism as socialism does with neoliberalism, ie nothing.
But even so, it’s still fairly clumsy…since when is it a liberal tradition to embrace bean-counting middle managers and greedy execs as sporting icons? Or to reduce athletes to human-output machines, who can be sold to other teams at a profit? Or to herald concepts like ‘market efficiency’ and ‘competitive edge’?
This is why sports analytics has also been the subject of passionate criticism from those on the far left. For every sports-loving conservative who thinks like Dougherty and Douthat, there is a liberal who sees sports analytics as a technocratic tool with the sole aim of further concentrating wealth among a few select clubs, exploiting players (workers), and preserving market dominance. This is analytics as neoliberal plot. Their metaphor works just as beautifully as Dougherty’s, and it is just as bogus.
There’s even a metaphor for political centrists. What about the plucky mid-table club which overcomes wealth inequality and a hard luck past to reach the top using only its wits (analytics) and can-do attitude? A meritocracy! It’s analytics as the American Dream!
The problem is of course is that if analytics can bear all political metaphors, it can bear none. This is even before we get into the political leaning of analysts themselves. Though many cut left, there are more than a few conservatives in the crowd. The notion that your embrace of statistical analysis in sports is a measure of your political leanings is silly, and the same goes for sports writers who write about the use analytics in sports. There may be several political fronts in sports writing at the moment; analytics isn’t one of them.