Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why Commentary is so Dumb

Here's a great column from an anonymous player across the pond making the point that players are not interested in what is said by pundits:

With top-level football being so complex, it is very difficult to deconstruct a live game within a couple of minutes of it being over, and because of this the "analysis" is usually reduced to goals and individual performance. But the fact that many pundits don't even try to scratch beneath the surface, despite knowing what it takes to win a match at this level, annoys me. It's the trivialisation of what we do by people that we used to call our own and, more importantly, deprives the viewer of some very interesting tit-bits that would, I feel, add to the entertainment.
This point is both intuitive and fascinating. On the one hand, it would stand to reason that former coaches and players would be able to provide insights that go above and beyond those of people like me who did not play games on a high level. On the other hand, as is drilled into our heads every time we listen to Lou Holtz and Mark May try to explain what we just saw, the level of commentary from former coaches and players is, to use the English term, dross.

So why is that? It can't be that former coaches and players are unable to understand what they see. As the anonymous player writing for The Guardian points out, modern footballers are subject to an incredibly complex set of instructions. The same would be true for American football players, who have to understand incredibly complicated offensive and defensive systems. (A related point that has been percolating in my head: with modern college and pro football schemes getting more ornate, an underrated, but critical skill for modern coaches is the ability to explain difficult concepts to players who sometimes might not be the sharpest tools in the shed.)

If we're not talking about an inability to explain what has actually happened on the field, then there have to be other factors at work. I can think of two. First, studio pundits have to talk in 30-60 second bursts and they have to say something that the viewer will remember. The same factor that drags down our political discourse also drags down the quality of commentary. In the same way that it's hard to explain the various options for addressing the U.S.'s long-term debt dilemma in 60 seconds, it's also hard to explain what Alabama was doing with their inside linebackers to negate Florida's zone read plays. The format lowers the quality.

The second factor is that inane commentary is a feature, not a bug. For whatever reason (mostly to ensure that the product can be understood by the dumbest person watching), commentary in cliches seems to be valued by editors and producers everywhere. I have little doubt that if Mark May gave a good, detailed explanation for why Ohio State is getting consistent pressure on the quarterback and why Penn State is failing to deal with their pressure schemes, he would have a producer in his ear telling him that what he just said is unlikely to produce the desired emotional reaction.

The inane reaction to Jay Cutler's injury against Green Bay is a perfect example. This was the dominant factor in the post-game coverage. Both of the local sports talk morning shows were prattling on about it for at least two days thereafter. Why? Because it drives an immediate emotional reaction. It's easy to make unprovable statements about a guy's character and it's certain that a whole bunch of people with IQs of 95 can understand and call in to vent about that p**** quarterback. It's not as easy to explain why Green Bay was able to move the ball at will on its first two possessions and then failed to score an offensive point for the rest of the game. Thus, we end up with coverage that the very players being discussed view as not worth a second thought.


Adam Malka said...

But as anyone who has ever listened to, say, an Atlanta Hawks post-game press conference can attest... isn't it also possible that a few coaches/athletes really are dumb, and really do believe that effort and toughness--and not skill and strategy--make the difference between winning and losing.

Yost Ice Arena said...

This is a great post. One of my favorite bowl games was the Sun Bowl a few years ago. It was Oregon vs. someone. There was audio from the game (the hits, whistles, and crowd), but no commentary. I was in heaven. Also, as a 19 year old Pittsburgher, your banner pic is heartbreaking. I was not capable of understanding baseball when that happened, but it still hits home.

James said...

I think it's likely that most athletes are very intelligent when it comes to their job (sports). They may be stupid by other measures, but they almost certainly have a depth of understanding of the intricacies of the game that we lack. So why do they sound stupid? Simple: it's one thing to know something, and another to be able to explain it to other people in a way that makes sense.

Consider this example: we all probably speak the English language with native fluency. Every day we communicate using a wide variety of grammatical tenses and all kinds of specialized vocabulary. But if a non-native speaker were to ask us to explain why we use certain tenses, or why we pronounce words the way we do, most of us probably couldn't do it (at least not in a way that would make sense to them). We joke that "those who can't do, teach," but really, being able to explain a complicated concept in uncomplicated terms is very difficult.

Neil Young and Geraldo said...

Wow, Michael, its likely that most of the people you know have an IQ of around 95.

Anyway, I'm an elitist, too, and I agree that people of average intelligence suck. I guess that's why I love your blog so much.

Nate said...

I came to the same conclusion watching the World Cup this summer and comparing the commentary on ESPN with that of the website Zonal Marking. It was astonishing just how little the commentators offered in the way of tactical or strategic insight.

But then, Zonal Marking relies on its readers knowing a fair amount of tactical terminology, like, say, "inverted wingers" or "false-9", that a commentator would be afraid to use even he wanted to. If the average fan doesn't know what pressing means, then how exactly is a commentator supposed to describe the type of pressing a team is deploying? And I say this as someone who still doesn't know a whole lot about the intricacies of soccer.

And since you're a Dylan fan, look at this: