Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Kirk Herbstreit: Keeping your Taxes Low

I'm currently reading The Big Con, Jonathan Chait's broadside against the Republican Party's embrace of a totally discredited economic theory. Chapter Five in the book, entitled "Media: the Dog that Didn't Watch," contains a paragraph that I think applies very well not just to the political press, but also to the sports media:

The establishmentarian instincts of the media are reinforced by a general lack of interest in policy. You might imagine Washington reporters or pundits as policy mavens, spending their days poring over obscure budget tables and their nights in long, earnest discussions of tax reform over drinks. The truth is that the political press corps closely follows political maneuverings and mostly ignores policies. Having spent a great deal of time in the company of newspaper reporters, I can attest that they consider policy especially mind-numbing minutiae beyond their purview.
This criticism applies to just about all mainstream media discussion of college football. I'm particularly thinking of Kirk Herbstreit here, who is generally seen as a level-headed analyst and one of the sharper talking heads. In fact, I cited Herbstreit's support of Michigan over Florida for the spot opposite Ohio State last year as evidence in Michigan's favor, opining that Herbstreit and Chris Fowler are "the two ESPN studio analysts with a shred of intellectual ability." (That post was also the one other occasion on which I cited Chait. Small world.)

I've begun to swing away from this positive thinking regarding Herbstreit, in large part from reading LD's repeated observations in his Gameday recaps that Herbstreit never analyzes or picks games based on the most obvious factors, like talent, scheme, and match-ups. Instead, he makes picks based on intangible factors, such as which team has "more to prove" or is "seeking redemption" or is "devastated from their last game." Herbstreit encapsulated this thinking perfectly on the Buck and Kincaide Show on Monday, when he explained (and I'm paraphrasing here) that "we all get caught up in x's and o's, but so many games are decided by intangible factors that we can't know beforehand, such as which team has an emotional edge." He then said that the Tennessee-Georgia game can be explained in that way.

Bluntly stated, Herbstreit's mode of analysis is a cop out. His job should be to watch games and then explain what happened in such a way that someone who didn't see the game can understand why it played out the way it did and someone who did watch the game will learn something that they might have missed. Instead, Herbstreit takes the easy way out. He doesn't have to watch or analyze the game to say that Tennessee played with more passion than Georgia on Saturday. He doesn't have to do the mental heavy-lifting of noting that Tennessee ran a terrific series of plays on its first several possessions that exposed the Georgia defense time and again and were evidence that Tennessee used its bye week well. He doesn't have to explain why Georgia was unable to run the ball on Tennessee after the Vols' first four opponents all had success on the ground. Any mediocrity with a degree from an average state school can say that "Tennessee played with more passion."

In addition to being a cop out, Herbstreit's analysis is useless because amateur psychological explanations can go in any direction. Because they are not based on any actual evidence and are intangible (defined by Webster's as "incapable of being apprehended by the mind or senses"), the psychological explanations can be used to justify opposite predictions with equal merit. Herbstreit picked Florida to beat LSU because of redemption, but that makes just as much sense as picking LSU because Florida would be down after losing to Auburn. Brian from MGoBlog nailed this phenomenon over the summer:

Pre-hindpsychology. Michigan and Ohio State's defenses both ended the year in the same fashion: giving up gobs of points and yards.

Kirk Herbstreit on one:

I really want to see where their defense is psychologically after the [final two games].
Kirk Herbstreit on the other:

I think the defense was embarrassed by [the bowl game] and will have a chip on their shoulder.
You're reading a Michigan blog and Herbstreit is an Ohio State alumnus, so I probably don't need to tell you that the former describes Michigan and the latter Ohio State. Ah, television analysts. I don't mean to jump unduly on Herbstreit here since everyone who's ever been paid to say anything about college football on ESPN breaks out similar rationales constantly, but just... yeesh. That's a perfect exemplar of the nothing fluff that passes for useful words constantly: defense A is shattered psychologically! Defense B has a chip on its shoulder!
No mention of the fact that Ohio State returned nine starters on defense while Michigan returned four. No mention of the fact that Ohio State has been consistently better on defense since Jim Tressel became the head coach. No, Ohio State is good on defense because they're mad about being humiliated by Florida, but Michigan is bad on defense because they're shattered in a Made for Lifetime sorta way after Ohio State and USC put up 74 points on them.

Herbstreit's analysis perfectly exemplifies the problem with the sports press, as well as the political press: they resist making the effort to analyze observable facts and then base their opinions on those facts. Instead, political talking heads focus on the personality aspects of the candidates - Hillary is shrill! Fred Thompson is lazy! - and sports talking heads focus on the personality aspects of the teams - Michigan is shattered! Florida wants redemption! - in place of explaining the merits of Hillary's policy ideas or Michigan's uber-predictable running game. The question that interests me (and I don't really know enough about the media to answer it) is whether talking heads are so vacuous because: (1) it's the easy way out; (2) they're not capable of anything more than superficial analysis; or (3) their editors/producers want them to dumb down their opinions so someone with an IQ of 80 can process them.


LD said...

Fantastic post.

I think your reasons at the end for vacuous analysis are all true to an extent, but there's one thing I'd add.

When there's a huge, huge game, a lot of time you actually do see national media guys get into the tangible factors - matchups, talent, formations, specific advantages. The segment of last weekend's College Gameday show on Florida-LSU did that. They actually showed several plays and specific talents, and talked about matchups. When it's a big game (and they know they need to devote a lot of time to something), national media guys actually can cover the sport intelligently, or at least eschew platitude-driven analysis.

The problem, as I see it, is that college football is too big to be covered adequately by the national media. One person can cover one game intelligently, but one person can't cover 20 games intelligently, so we might get good analysis on one game, but take the "easy way out" on 19 others.

OK, one more thing... I think there's another cop out at play here. Analysts (in football or in politics) who don't want to be labelled as partisans make every effort to avoid saying "X is better than Y", unless it's already plainly evident. Herbstreit doesn't want to say "Georgia is better than Tennessee" because it'll alienate some UT fans, and he'll have to eat his words if he's wrong. So instead, he relies on intangibles. Intangible-driven analysis somewhat presumes that everything else is, for the most part, even. Herbstreit doesn't have to say Florida will beat LSU because they're a better team, it's because of emotions and redemption and urgency and whatever else. It's a cop out.

Great post.

peacedog said...

I'd also note that the so called intangible analysis is a very convenient way to help explain deviations from pre-existing narrative. After all, the narrative can't be mistaken (alternately, it can only be minimally off course).

Kanu said...

Well said.

That's why I wish Ron Jaworski did college ball instead of NFL.

Imagine a College Game Day with Phil Steele and Jaws in place of KH & LC. Oh, and since we're in dreamland, we might as well replace CF with Ron Franklin.

Unknown said...

You really should not have linked your article from last December. Quite laughable then, even more so now.

That being said, ALL problems with college football media are solved with a playoff. Even if it is just four teams.

Take all power away from these talking heads.

Michael said...

LD, I think the explanation is that ESPN does the useful analysis when they have time. They do the useless analysis first and then, if they're devoting a whole segment to the game, they get to the interesting stuff. Your point on wanting to appear non-partisan is excellent and jibes with another point that Chait makes about the political media, which is that they are desperate to present both sides, even when one side is plainly lying.

Andrew, the December arguments were perfectly good at the time. How was I (or anyone else) supposed to know that Florida would score more and give up less to Ohio State than they did to Vandy?

Unknown said...

I'm just jerking your chain. Unless or until there is some form of answer to the subjective question of "who is more deserving," everyone who loves the sport is forced to make arguments like you were making last year. It is an absolute crime.

Anonymous said...

The other thing about Herbstreit is that he basically never goes against the grain of conventional wisdom. If a coach is popular, he chooses his words very carefully and couches any criticism inside a bunch of qualifiers ("I like this playcall. It shows [positive emotional quality]. It's just one of those times that the opposing DC guessed correctly."). But if the coach is feeling some heat, OTOH, he'll let loose with a lot of knee-jerk analysis ("With Lloyd Carr, you've got to wonder, is this the year his defense is ready to play against an offense with speed").

I watched the ND-GT game a year ago (a pretty lethargic 14-10 ND victory), and remember that Herbstreit couldn't stop gushing over Weis ("He has the lead and throws a pass on 3rd down. That's aggression"). Now you can hardly get him to say a positive thing about Weis or ND in general.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Michael.

Do you read Frank Rich's Sunday column? He's been hammering on the complacent media for a long time now.

Couldn't agree more on Herbstreit, either. I think he benefits from being Not Insane, like some of his colleagues. He remains Not Useful as an analyst.