Friday, January 18, 2013

Hero Worship, Sabermetrics, And The Strange Case Of Manti Te'o

(Trust me, this has to do with college basketball and one of the main themes of my blog...)

A big part of the Manti Te'o hoax girlfriend story has been the failure of the media. There were so many conflicting dates and contradicting stories from Te'o and the media about his supposed girlfriend. Both ESPN and Sports Illustrated have talked about how they saw little red flags in the story, like a total lack of evidence that the girl existed, but went forward with the story anyway. Countless other publications went the same route. In retrospect, the conflicting facts were obvious. How could the media possibly not see it?

Well, I have a video that many of you have probably seen before. But click on it anyway, in case you haven't, and don't read anything below the video until you've watched it first:

That video, as you probably know, is a classic example of selective attentiveness. Your brain is at all times being pounded with sensory information from your eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin, and it can't come close to processing all of it. So it prioritizes. And the result is what is known as "inattentional blindness". You don't realize you aren't seeing something that would be so obvious if you would just look for it.

The magic of inattentional blindness, of course, is that it only works once. Once you've seen that video once, you can't watch it again without seeing the gorilla. You know it's there, you wait for it, and then all you can see is the gorilla. You lose count of the number of basketball passes. And that's the Manti Te'o story. Now that we know it's a fake, we can't see anything but the inconsistencies in the story. And with the story of Manti Te'o's dead girlfriend, the media was focused on the hero worship, and it didn't occur to them to look for that gorilla.

Don't believe you'd fall for the same mistake? I can keep showing you videos. Here are a couple more that I enjoy. Just like the gorilla, you'll absolutely fall it for the first time even though I'm telling you that these are inattentional blindness videos. Like I said, the human brain is simply not powerful enough to process all of the information it gets.


So why does this matter? Why did Manti Te'o's dead girlfriend matter at all? It mattered because in sports, that stuff matters a ton. And nowhere more than college football, where the short season and the fact that top teams almost never play top teams from other conferences means that we really have no idea which teams and which players are the best. So the sport revolves around hype, personal stories and hero worship. Go look at Manti Te'o's stats. He's indistinguishable from 20 other linebackers around the country. If he had the identical season for Arizona or Wisconsin, he probably wouldn't have been an All-American, let alone be considered for Heisman votes after truly dominant defenders like Ndamukong Suh couldn't win the award. But he played for Notre Dame, he talked about God a lot, and he had this tremendous back story. And that gave him hype, and that gave him all of the recognition, attention and rewards.

At this point, we don't yet know if Te'o completely manufactured the girlfriend, or if he was indeed duped at first into believing he was dating a girl who didn't exist. But what we know for sure is that he played it up for show. And we also know that at some point he figured it out, and his teammates figured it out, yet everybody kept pretending to the media that the girl was real. Te'o has already admitted to finding out that the girl was a fake by December 6th, yet two days later he talked about her to ESPN at the Heisman ceremony. And I'm betting that by the time this is all said and done that we'll know that he knew she was a fake at least a few months prior. Anonymous players have already said that they suspected something months ago.

So let's take Te'o's side of the story. Let's say that he really believed the girl was real, but around the time she was "dying" he finally figured out that she wasn't. Why did he continue to play it up? Why did he keep giving national interviews about it? Make everybody wear leis? Give team speeches about it? Because he knew it worked in his benefit. The dead girlfriend story was his ticket to being overrated, to winning more awards and more attention than he otherwise would have gotten for his play alone. The media gave him every incentive to lie.


So the better question is, why do we cover sports this way? Why the hero worship?

Because it's human to do that.  Since the beginning of time, humans have worshipped heroes. The classic story that resonated for thousands of years is the story of Heracles/Hercules. Great ancient leaders from Alexander the Great to Hannibal Barca to Julius Caesar to Charlemagne and Napoleon cloaked themselves in those stories. They had scribes travel with them to write of their impossible victories over epic hurdles, and they were worshipped as demigods. Think it's stupid to believe these stories? The human brain hasn't changed much in 2000 years. Evolution doesn't work like that.

It's much more complicated and difficult to reject these views of humanity and to look at the cold hard reality of facts and numbers. Take the recent baseball Hall of Fame vote. The story to me wasn't the steroid stuff, but that Jack Morris did so well. When Morris played he was considered a decent innings eater. He was never considered one of the best players in baseball. He never serious contended for a Cy Young award. His one World Series performance was considered on par with Josh Beckett's with the Florida Marlins. His overall career, by the numbers, was no more impressive than David Wells or Dennis Martinez. Yet over time, the myth began to grow about that one game where he "willed his team to win", "refusing the leave as long as the game was scoreless". It was a great narrative, and it caught hold. And suddenly Morris ended up on the brink of the Hall of Fame even though, statistically, any arguments for his induction are laughable.

But it's the power of narrative. We want to believe that a terrible quarterback is the reason that his team keeps winning narrow game after narrow game, even though we all know in some part of our brains how much other stuff that had nothing to do with the quarterback was the reason his team won. We want to believe that Tom Brady is the greatest playoff quarterback of all time while Peyton Manning just can't get it done in the playoffs, even though statistically Manning has been just as good in the playoffs, and Brady has had as many playoff clunkers as Manning has.

Similarly, it's comforting to believe that clutch players can just will their team to a disproportionate number of close wins, and that a sign of great teams is playing well in the clutch. Sadly it's not true in football or basketball or anywhere else.


In the wake of the Manti Te'o fiasco, there has been a lot of anger at Te'o for exploiting (or outright fabricating) this story. There's been a lot of anger at the media for not doing a good enough job at investigative reporting. But I think that's all misplaced. They're all responding naturally to the incentives in the world that we live in.

As long as we all demand exaggerated narratives of epic heroes slaying impossible dragons, the media will feed it to us. And as long as that's the ticket to recognition and stardom, athletes are going to play up (or make up) life tragedies and humble beginnings.

Story telling isn't all bad, of course. We all enjoy a good story. But it's important to recognize that it is a story, and at some point we need to separate out fact from fiction. Want to know how good an athlete is? Don't believe the narratives, don't believe reporters telling you that they're a saint. Look at the objective, tangible facts that you have about their performance.

And to me, that's the value of advanced statistics (e.g. sabermetrics). The computers don't know how good looking you are or how many life tragedies you've had or whether the team you're on generates better tv ratings. It's all fine and dandy to love the story of that pitcher who just "wouldn't let his team lose" and stayed on the mound until they won, but if you want to know how good that pitcher is compared to Dwight Gooden it's irrelevant. The statistics are what matter.

Until we stop making people Heisman finalists because their jersey says "Notre Dame" instead of "Kansas State", and because of dead girlfriends instead of tackles or sacks, there will be another Manti Te'o and then another. So don't blame Te'o and don't blame the media. Blame the culture of narratives.

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