The folly of narratives in sports and politics

NORTHWESTERN COMMAND –  I am paid to write stories and contribute narratives. But I wonder if many of narratives in the media are simply wrong, simply vehicles to create headlines and stories in a 365/24/7 world. Readers demand content. We have to meet demands. It’s vicious cycle.

(Disclaimer: the following is not a political endorsement of any kind. As Michael Jordan said, people of both political preferences buy sneakers. … and subscriptions to the Post & Courier)

We also like to create storylines to make sense of what does not always make sense.  But I question whether our narratives are typically rooted in truth.

Is Hurricane Sandy is really going to determine today’s election? Did Romney’s first debate win made much different?

I question all this because the most accurate pollster of the last election, Nate Silver — a math whiz who started in the prediction business by forecasting baseball player performance — has had no variance in his poll since the spring despite story after story about gains and losses in poll over the last few months. Obama has remained a one- or two-point favorite in his polling system for the last six months.

After all, most folks are emotionally or ideologically invested in one candidate and have been for some time. There are very few true independents. And what might matter more is what candidates’ ground game can get more people to get to the polls.

Why I am I talking about narratives and politics? Because we have narratives in the sports world, too. And yours truly is sometimes guilty of distributing them.

Said Obama during his halftime interview on Monday Night Football: “Sports reporters are a lot like political reporters.” Obama said both sects of reporters like to declare ‘this guy is a bum or that guy is a bum’ based off of the most recent small sample size. We’re all flapping in the wind. Some of us are more guilty than others, but Obama might be on to something.

Humans are pretty darn bad at separating truth from noise, reporters included

So have we debunked some narratives regarding Clemson and ACC this season?

Narrative No. 1: Clemson is not a consistent team and is going to trip up unexpectedly a time or two in 2012.

This became a familiar conversation piece because Clemson has had a number of unexpected losses during the Tommy Bowden Era and in the early years of Dabo Swinney. The public, some journalists, acted as if stumbling was just part of Clemson’s DNA.

I think this is mostly false.

Why is Clemson avoiding unexpected losses this year? Because they are simply a lot more talented than not only their opponents but they are much more talented than Clemson teams of the past.  For instance, the 2010 Clemson team that lost at Boston College did not have the offensive firepower to overcome mistakes. The 2009 Clemson team that lost at Maryland played better later in the year than earlier and had a freshman quarterback in Kyle Parker. The 2008 Clemson team that lost at Wake Forest was overrated from Day 1.

This year’s Clemson  team has a veteran quarterback in the second year of the same offensive system and is surrounded by the best skill players the program has ever seen. Boyd can make mistakes – three INTs at Duke – and Clemson can still route opponents.

Clemson might be more focused this year, they are playing more to a standard since key players have another year of maturity. But more than anything they are simply more talented and more experienced and that’s leading to a greater margin of error as seen by points margin.

I thought Clemson would slip up a time or two because of its offensive line. But a better-than-expected OL has allowed Clemson to break from the narrative.

Narrative No. 2: The ACC is stricken with parity.

The ACC and Dabo Swinney have loved to talk about the ACC has been hurt due to parity in recent years. They explain parity is why the ACC hasn’t placed a team in the BCS title game, it simple struggles to produce zero-loss and one-loss teams.

This narrative is fraught with folly.

Look, there are two teams in the ACC recruiting at a high level: Florida State and Clemson. These two teams have grown the talent divide between themselves and the rest of the conference. Florida State and Clemson are 16-2 this  season, the rest of the Atlantic Division is 16-20.

There is not parity in the ACC — at least quality parity some are alluding to — there simple haven’t been elite teams. Florida State and Clemson might be beginning to change that.

Narrative No. 3: Sophomore slumps are inevitable and Tajh Boyd is headed toward one.

I propagated this story line. I did so in part because I thought historical trends at Clemson are interesting. The last three second-year starting quarterbacks at Clemson have all regressed. Boyd slipped in the second half of last season. And there’s something to be said when opposing defensive coordinators have a year’s worth of film on a first-year player.

Of course what has happened is Boyd has improved in about every facet of the game, most notably in the run game and his ability to compartmentalize poor plays.

Why did Boyd not fall victim to the trend at Clemson? First of all he’s more invested than Kyle Parker – who took a summer off from football in 2010 – or Charlie Whitehurst or Cullen Harper. Boyd is a pleaser. He’s lived in the film room and absorbed Morris’ teachings on footwork, etc. And it’s worked.

I still think historical trends matter but comparisons on an individual basis are dangerous. Every person has different levels of motivation, etc. And Boyd has defied the sophomore slump narrative.


In summary, there is a lot of noise out there.

There is a lot of noise created by, yes, the media to fill airtime and newsprint.

I think we have to be careful about falling into line to follow the popular narratives. More asking ‘why?’ less nodding in agreement.

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