Today we interrupt your NBA Free Agency period to discuss one of the hot topics of the week: a tweet by Los Angeles Clippers guard Lou Williams regarding sports analysis and the people who engage in it. For all the latest trade rumors and free agent signings, check out our NBA Rumors post.
You must have seen Lou Williamses tweet about nerds covering sports. Hit close to home? No seriously, I’d love your opinion on it. I know you’ll explain it well.
Haha! No pressure.
For those who missed it, here is the Lou Williams tweet in question:
So crazy to me that all these nerds cover all sports. Not one athletic bone in their body with all the opinions and analysis.— Lou Williams (@TeamLou23) June 29, 2017
In my view Mr. Williams is half right, half wrong. It depends on the starting point of the conversation. Everyone wants to plant feet in their own set of assumptions and not give an inch. As a result, they end up with the conclusion they were aiming at, talking past each other rather than with. We’ll try to do better.
Williams is absolutely correct if we take the game on its own terms, assuming it’s a detached entity, a good unto itself. Nobody knows the profession like a professional. Nobody who hasn’t participated in those huddles and put sneakers on that floor can approach the insider knowledge of a player or a coach. Others can learn, even teach, intricacies of the game, but their performance will lie on a spectrum. From an objective view most will be found lacking, some sadly.
Many spectators compensate for this lack by attempting to seize power through criticism. When you can’t win in an X’s and O’s battle, attack the person instead. Humor has a place in sports conversation; exaggeration and poetic license come with the territory. But commentators frequently blow by humor into naked contempt, declaring players “awful” or “incompetent” without a strong basis to do so other than it’s simple and it establishes the speaker as more of an expert than the subject so criticized.
In an environment rife with this kind of commentary, one cannot blame a player for lashing out in kind. I interpret Williams’ words as a version of, “You want to shoot from the hip? Here’s my shot. You never played. You don’t know half of what I’ve forgotten about the game. You did not put in the work to get on this court. Stop acting like you are qualified to take a central place alongside me.” That’s pretty much inarguable. Everyone should be as gracious to analysts as possible, leaving leeway for entertainment value in discussing the game, but once that has been given, we should then roll our eyes at non-self-critical armchair quarterbacks who think that their judgments and rants are the core of the experience. The frustration Williams feels about the way we talk about players should echo among all of us as well.
The story doesn’t end there, though. Athletes grow up with the game, and their participation in it, as the main focus. The popularity of the NBA is a given, the benefits that come from being a part of The Show assured. For the entire rest of the world—99.99% of the human population—this is not so. We experience another layer. We approach the game down a different avenue.
The game of basketball exists because of the players, because of Dr. James Naismith and peach baskets and everybody who has shot hoops since. But the NBA exists, along with all of its fame and riches, because of the people who watch it. I’ve said this several times before: there is no inherent value in dribbling an orange leather bladder and tossing it through nylon weaving. If civilization ended tomorrow and we all had to divvy up jobs in order to survive, nobody would be designated the pro basketball player. The popularity of players is not a given. Williams got 13,000 retweets and 31,000 likes because people feel a relationship with the game and invest in it. Take away that investment and there’s no NBA.
Athletes will argue that they are the center of the process because they produce the product and they’re knowledgeable about it. But the product and expert knowledge are only half of the story. How people feel about the product and relate to it matters. You can create the greatest widget ever; if nobody wants it, you might as well not have bothered.
From a product-centered approach, “nerds” and inexpert commentators might not be qualified to speak. From a relationship perspective—taking into account how people feel about and interact with the game—everyday commentators have a central role alongside the experts. Who better to build the bridge between unconcerned spectator (or concerned, but lost spectator) and the sport?
Athletes spend all their time trying to get on the other side of the fence, to become the exalted ones, set apart. They cannot then shed those trappings and become “just one of the folks” for these purposes. If common people have a place in the game—even if it’s just passion for watching it—then common people also need representation in the process. This is true even when that representation looks a lot like the unwashed masses the league hopes to attract. No...it’s true because the representation looks like them. Athletes and coaches may be experts on the game, but people who watch are experts on people who watch. The game needs public voices with that kind of expertise too.
Viewing the process holistically, with all sides represented, it’s just as valid for a media commentator to speak about humble-but-interesting interpretations of the action as it is for an athlete to talk about technical-and-authoritative aspects. Ideally neither party would hold the center against the other, but all would gather around the game itself, honoring it, and each other, in the process.
We all suffer when one party or the other takes a line similar to that in Williams’ tweet or in thousands of careless comments made about athletes every day. Passion and respect for the game (and all involved) should be the twin foundations of discussion. If those don’t exist, there’s little reason to converse.
As someone called upon to write about games, teams, and the people involved, these issues are important to me. If a player shoots like a blindfolded stormtrooper in a given game, I need to be able to say that. When somebody holds a career average of .268 from the three-point arc it’s probably fair to say he’s a bad shooter, understood implicitly as, “In comparison to fellow NBA shooters.” But broadening out those observations to, “He sucks!” or labeling with any kind of personal invective has always been out of bounds. At that point the respect and humility should come to the fore. I can’t shoot .268 from the arc in NBA competition. They wouldn’t even let me don the uniform. I can gather in the circle alongside athletes, but I am not qualified to dislodge them.
By the same token, criticism coming the other direction from players would be equally valid. Entertainment, credibility, authority, and trustworthiness take practice and skill. A thousand hidden things go into “making it” as a sportswriter. If a player were to comment that I split infinitives or blow transitions between paragraphs, that’d be more than fair...as would a hundred other criticisms.
Unfortunately the comments that do come back to analysts are usually no more helpful than the knee-jerk comments athletes complain about. “He’s a non-athletic nerd” is the shadow side of, “He’s an overrated bust”. Neither are helpful.
Critics, media, and nerds who analyze basketball will always have a purpose in professional sports. They represent, entertain, and report to everyone in their audience. It’s a different role than athletes play, but it’s intrinsic to the process. As long as we don’t forget that it’s about the game, not just about ourselves, things generally go well. The more time we spend with accusations like those in the Williams tweet—either defending ourselves against them or making them—the farther we get from the center. Carving out a spot at the expense of others breaks trust and relationship, distracting from the experience. There’s no need, really. The game is big and exciting for us to all have a place.
Keep those Mailbag questions coming to firstname.lastname@example.org!