Posts Tagged ‘Brady Anderson’

It’s happening again …

Thursday, November 8th, 2007

Why is it that every time I get good and mad at Charlie Weis - you know, mad enough to hop on the next flight to South Bend, march over to him and Charlie Jr. on the sidelines, grab them by their necks, and shove those stupid headsets up their asses - someone has to come along and say something stupid that makes me feel obligated to run to his defense?

Actually, wait. Before you answer that question, let me start you off with a hypothetical scenario.

Imagine you’re the general manager of a baseball team, and you have to choose between two players - call them “Smith” and “Jones” - whose numbers over a three-year stretch look pretty much identical:

  • Smith: .278 avg., 87 HR, 282 RBI
  • Jones: .274 avg., 88 HR, 289 RBI

Taking a look at those stats, you might conclude that Smith and Jones are players of pretty much the same caliber. If you did this, though, you’d be the biggest idiot to occupy a front office since, well, lots of the GM’s who apparently occupy them right now. Why do I say this? Because a judgment like that ought to be based, not just on a brute overall comparison of two three-year stretches, but on at least a year-by-year breakdown of their statistics. If you did such a thing, something like the following could very well turn up:

What these numbers would reveal was that Smith and Jones achieved those similar three-year statistics in very different ways: Smith did it with a single great year followed by two mediocre ones, while Jones had two solid years and a third terrible one. As a GM, you might come up with all sorts of possible explanations for these numbers, which you’d have to play off against each other to reach a final verdict: perhaps Smith was using steroids, or just got really lucky, in that Brady Anderson-esque first season; perhaps Jones was injured, or poorly protected in his lineup, or once again just really unlucky, in that third season; and so on. Obviously it would be tough to figure out which of these explanations was the right one - the only point is that looking only at un-parsed numbers that span three full years isn’t sufficient to make a judiciously informed decision.

Now imagine that you’re a sportswriter with an agenda, and you’re covering the free agency situations of Smith and Jones. Perhaps Jones is in fact offered the better contract because of the judgment that, well, he had two good seasons followed by what may very well have been a mere aberration, while Smith had just one good season before sliding into mediocrity. (Obviously there would be a risk here, since maybe Jones really is a .220-13-54 hitter after all: but hey, we can’t predict the future.) If you were a sportswriter with an agenda, you might gloss over the fact that Smith’s and Jones’s numbers look so different when you break them down into one-year chunks, and instead cook up some OTHER, more exciting explanation of Jones’s superior contract offer: perhaps he’s better-looking, or darker- or lighter-skinned. Maybe the fans like him more. Heck, maybe Jones is sleeping with the owner’s daughter. The details don’t matter - the point is, it would be very easy to use the Smith-Jones situation to make an argument like this:

  1. Smith and Jones have nearly identical three-year numbers, so that can’t be the explanation of the difference in their contract offers; and
  2. There’s this OTHER difference between Smith and Jones - appearance, skin color, fan preference, whatever - that’s pretty salient; so
  3. That other difference must be what accounts for their different offers.

Such an argument, though, would be demonstrably faulty: for you’d have failed to take into account the many other less-newsworthy but still quite plausible explanations that might be given to account for their different offers - in this case, the most obvious one would be the different YEARLY statistics that the two players put up. But if you were a sportswriter with an agenda, this wouldn’t matter to you: you could gloss over these natural explanations in order to get on your moral high horse, and argue - or perhaps just insinuate - that something unjust was going on. You know, “Come and see the violence inherent in the system,” and all that.

Which brings me back to Charlie Weis. Here’s the illustrious Gene Wojciechowski, writing for ESPN.com:

When [Tyrone] Willingham finished 6-5 in his third year (by the way, he beat eighth-ranked Michigan, ninth-ranked Tennessee, Michigan State and Navy), [Notre Dame President Rev. John] Jenkins called for the punt formation. It is that glaring difference in treatment that legitimizes questions asking whether Willingham’s firing was racially motivated. If nothing else, it keeps alive the perception that racial undertones were at work.

Wojciechowski’s argument has exactly the same form as the inanely stupid one offered by our hypothetical journalist-with-an-agenda: since Explanation A (in this case, the coaches’ records in their third seasons) doesn’t account for the difference in treatment, it simply MUST be based on something MUCH more insidious, and the most reasonable candidate is skin color.

Of course, Wojciechowski doesn’t actually come out and SAY that it’s a matter of racism: he simply says that the situation “legitimizes questions” about such a possibility, and “keeps alive the perception” that this might be so. But the same could be said for, say, the government’s response to crazy conspiracy theories about 9/11 or the JFK assassination: MAYBE the reason they’re not addressing these theories is because of a huge cover-up, but it’s much more likely to be due to the inanity of the theories themselves.

The same point applies here: you can say all you want - and Wojciechowski damn near says it all - to paint a picture of Weis and Willingham as coaches with nearly identical tenures, but the fact is that there’s a completely race-independent explanation of why Willingham was fired after three years while Weis won’t be:

The obvious explanation for the Weis/Willingham situation is, in other words, just like that of the Smith/Jones one: namely that TWO IS GREATER THAN ONE. Willingham was fired in 2004 because he’d had TWO straight mediocre seasons (not to mention a prior record as a head coach) that strongly suggested that 2002, i.e. his ONE good year, was the same sort of aberration as our hypothetical Smith’s supposed breakout year, and Weis will be retained beyond 2007 because he has had ONE (very very very) bad season, and the TWO good ones that preceded it suggest that it may (though I stress MAY) be the current one that’s the aberration. When you actually look at the numbers, no explanation could be more obvious than that.

But if, like Wojciechowski, you’re a journalist with an agenda, you can paper over those kinds of statistics. After all, you can’t dispute the numbers:

Weis is 20-14 after his first 34 games; Willingham was 21-13 after the same period and 21-15 when he was fired.

Oh, and in case you haven’t heard, Weis is WHITE, and Willingham is BLACK. Q.E.D.

[APPENDIX: Let me just add two things. (1) I'm NOT saying Charlie Weis is a good head coach, or even that he doesn't deserve to be fired. (2) NOR am I saying that the confidence I once had that Weis could turn this thing around is anything but very fragile right now (see here and here, for example). The ONLY point I was trying to make is that it is simply ridiculous to act as if the only relevant variable differentiating Weis's tenure from Willingham's is the color of their skin. It's not, and Wojciechowski should be ashamed of himself for trafficking in this sort of innuendo. His article embodies all the reasons why so many people in this country are unable to take the issue of racism seriously.]