Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Philosophy of Sports Debates

I was listening to local sports talk radio the other day on my way home from work, as is my wont. One of the hosts introduced a quodlibet: "Who is the greatest basketball player of all time?" The other host stepped into the fray, and promulgated his judgment, not only of the question, but on the means by which it should be answered. And I think he was dead wrong. On both counts.

Our esteemed sportscaster said, "Everyone will say that Michael Jordan was the best player ever. Well, let me tell you. That's a belief. I have facts. And the facts say, when you add up all the accolades, all the championships, all the records, that Kareem-Abdul Jabbar is the greatest basketball player ever, hands down, no question, end of discussion." Or words to that effect. (Not to go all Richard Rich on you.)

Now, to decide any question, we first have to determine upon what grounds the question will be decided--that is, what is a fitting measurement or adequate method of evaluation. This is easier in some cases than in others. If the question is something simple and numeric, like "Who has the most home runs in baseball history?" then all we need do is count the totals of each player. (PED-related asterisks aside, for the moment.) The question at hand, though, is that of "greatness." How do we evaluate the greatness of a basketball player, or compare the greatness of one to another? This is where the sportscaster's distinction comes in, and in it we can see a deep philosophical bias--and, I would say, error.

There is a certain habit of thinking that attempts to make all of reality quantifiable--that is, this way of thinking assumes that there is a way to assign a number value to anything so that it can be measured. This is clearly the case with measurements of dimension and mass: length, width, height, weight, molar mass, and so on. We can divide these aspects of reality into discrete units and count them. My height can be divided into inches and added up. Simple enough. But some would apply this far beyond what we might usually expect.

A whole industry of "advanced metrics" has crept into sports in recent years and taken front offices by the cold calculating coup of number-crunching. These new measurements claim to be able to evaluate qualities that where heretofore considered "intangible." Whereas before we might debate amongst our friends how much better Player X is than other players at his position, now we have WAR (Wins Above Replacement) that makes this comparison numerical. Whereas before we might simply wax at how "smooth" or "effortless" a player makes the game look, now we have PER (Player Efficiency Rating) measuring the ease with which a player plays. Though the purists prefer combination of the classical statistics and their own "eye test," increasing numbers of fans, scouts, coaches, and executives are coming around to the idea that the intangibles were thought to be such merely because we hadn't yet devised the way to tangere (touch) them.

This belief has its roots in the philosophies of a host of Enlightenment thinkers, both empiricists and rationalists, who thought that reality, if nothing else, was measurable. And many of these, and their intellectual progeny, reversed the polarity of their thought and concluded that only what is measurable was real--that if I could not measure it, it did not exist. Only "facts" are real, and only measurable things are "facts." One sees this basic attitude in the writings of many a combox atheist today.

But, back to our sportscaster: do you see the connection? His primary assumption, the major premise of his argument, is that the greatness of a player can be calculated by a combination of countable things: championships, individual awards, performance records. So, if Kareem-Abdul Jabbar won six MVPs and six NBA titles, and Michael Jordan won only 5 MVPs and six NBA titles (just to truncate things a bit), then Kareem must be the greater player.

This, of course, is absurd. If we rely solely on adding these countable accomplishments, then clearly Robert Horry, who won seven NBA titles but no MVPs, is a greater player than Charles Barkley, who won no NBA titles and one MVP. In fact, such a measurement would populate the top of the "Greatest Players" list with the rosters of the Boston Celtics teams that won 11 championships in the 1950s and 60s. Would anyone say that?

No doubt, if confronted with this argument, our sportscaster would say, "Well, I mean, that's not all you'd take into account, obviously." Yes, agreed. And at that point we have exited the land of quantity and entered the realm of quality, where we can ask interesting questions like, "What does it mean to be 'great' at any endeavor or in any enterprise? What all must we consider?" Here such characteristics as competitiveness, determination, skills of various kinds, and the ability to inspire and connect with fans might come into play--all less susceptible to measurement. (While someone's shooting ability could be measured by a percentage, their ball-handling skills or defensive capabilities could not be.)

This is not a retreat to "belief," which the sportscaster apparently used to mean "sentimentality" or "unsupported feeling." No, now we're actually thinking about the myriad aspects of the matter, and not simply feeding the question into the supercomputer and awaiting an answer.

Let's ask the deeper questions and consider the larger picture. Because no one thinks Big Shot Bob is greater than Sir Charles.

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