As a journalist, I enjoy reading the work of economist F.A. Hayek because I think it helps me avoid producing bad journalism. I don’t think that many sports writers had Hayek in their curriculums, though, as evidenced by this year’s NBA Finals.
Hayek explains that outcomes in society are products of millions of intertwined factors reacting with each other in ways humans can’t see or even comprehend. His message is tailored for politicians, urging them to rely on traditions and rules that have been established and passed down throughout generations, rather than trying to centrally plan society. But his lesson could just as easily be aimed at the talking heads on ESPN.
Because like economics and politics, outcomes in sports are the product of millions of intertwined factors reacting with each other in ways humans can neither see nor comprehend. And just like politicians, sports analysts don’t seem to understand this.
They instead concentrate on a few of the most tangible “factors” and use them as ex post facto explanations for the outcome on the court/field.
The phenomenon is so prevalent that philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined a term for it: the narrative fallacy.
“The (narrative) fallacy is associated with our vulnerability to over-interpretation and our predilection for compact stories over raw truths,” Taleb wrote in his bestselling book, The Black Swan. “It severely distorts our mental representation of the world; it is particularly acute when it comes to the rare event.”
Consider the narrative of NBA Finals MVP LeBron James, one of the most controversial characters in sports.
James is controversial because while he’s been considered the best player in the game for the last several years, he’s also been known as a “choker” — someone who plays his worst when the stakes are highest. This reputation was made after scoring only 15 points in a pivotal 2010 playoff game against Boston, and only averaging three points in fourth quarters of the 2011 Finals. It was also made despite him being one of the leading fourth-quarter scorers throughout his career.
But all this was forgiven after a thrilling seven-game series against the San Antonio Spurs that saw James hit the game-deciding shot in the final seconds of the last game. Gone is his choker moniker, replaced with discussions of whether he deserves to be called the greatest of all time. My children will now likely grow up thinking of James the same way I grew up thinking of Michael Jordan.
How did this happen? Well, if you ask sports analysts: “LeBron James last night turned the corner into unquestioned superstardom,” said sports writer Skip Bayless on ESPN: First Take. “Because on the biggest stage under the highest pressure—game 7 of the NBA Finals… he proved he has the full repertoire of weapons.”
James’ performance only one game earlier shows how close Bayless’ entire narrative was to never even existing. With the game close and less than a minute remaining, James turned the ball over twice and put his team down by five with less than 30 seconds left. What happened in those remaining seconds forever changed the way he’ll be viewed. A combination of miraculous shooting from the Heat and miraculously-bad play by the Spurs caused a five point lead to evaporate into an eventual loss. It may have been the biggest collapse in Finals history.
What if the Spurs hit one more free throw or had one less turnover? What if Tony Parker never tweaked his hamstring? What if Tim Duncan was in the game for the Spurs? What if…?
If any one of those factors broke in the Spurs’ favor, James would be viewed as the pseudo-superstar who comes up short in the clutch— the biggest goat in sports. Instead, he’s got a shot at being considered the GOAT, as in “greatest of all time.” Should a random bounce of a ball really go that far in rating a player’s greatness?
My goal isn’t to denigrate James’ accomplishments; it’s to shame ESPN for falling into the narrative fallacy. A few random ball bounces were the difference between the narrative of James being the goat, or being the GOAT. If ESPN and its broadcasters want to be taken seriously as credible, scientifically-minded analysts, they need to take note of this.
Ken Silva is a writer from Ohio. Lebron James image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.