Sunday, October 30, 2011

Postgame Pressers and the Art of Evasion

Most of us are accustomed to occasionally having to answer difficult questions about our behavior, our actions and inactions. As children, we have to explain to our parents why we didn't do our chores, why we got a bad grade on our report card, or why we got in a fight with a sibling. As adults, we have to explain to our bosses why we were late to work, why we didn't get a project done in the allotted time, why a customer is complaining. Bosses have to answer to their bosses and CEOs answer to a board. But very few of us are held publicly accountable for our actions. Elected officials or those in positions of power may occasionally have to answer difficult questions from a reporter. And fewer still have the task of answering public questions in the immediate aftermath of a decision. Even politicians for the most part have time to anticipate, reflect, prep, and eventually spin answers to difficult questions. And that's what fascinates me about post game press conferences in sports--it is one of the few times when a person is asked to publicly account for a decision almost instantaneously to making the decision.

That said, more often than not the press conferences are still banal. Reporters generally don't want to damage working relationships, so they tend not to be too pointed in their queries, and usually don't ask too many follow-up questions. And coaches and athletes are pretty well schooled in how to avoid "incriminating" themselves, usually giving standard responses to questions that they have more or less heard before.

But occasionally interesting things do happen in press conferences. Most people remember the instances where the "heat of the moment" gets to the respondent and results in a spectacular display of emotion. But of greater intrigue for me are the moments when a coach ruminates on some kind of philosophical discourse. College football coaches are particularly notorious for this. Perhaps being in an academic environment emboldens them to become faux philosophers. Consider Wisconsin coach Brett Bielema's comments after the Badgers heartbreaking loss on a last second Hail Mary against Michigan State last week: "I'm not spiritual but everything happens for a reason. I really do think that." Personally, I'm not sure how deterministic teleological outcomes can be attributed to purely material forces, but I'm guessing that many would still give him a pass on his logical consistency if his answer didn't seem like a convenient way to avoid responsibility for taking timeouts that enabled Michigan State to have enough time to complete their unlikely touchdown pass.

Speaking of the avoidance of responsibility, that is how I read most postgame comments. There is no doubt that there is a lot of luck involved in sports, and it can be awfully tempting for a coach to invoke luck, "the fates," "destiny," or the "[name of sport] gods" when a decision doesn't work out. And it's even more tempting when the media perpetrates the same phraseology to explain events that unfold. ESPN's Skip Bayless originally picked the Texas Rangers to win the World Series, but after the St. Louis Cardinals' unlikely triumph in Game 6 (following an unlikely late season run to even make the play-offs), he picked the Cardinals to win game 7, reasoning that they had proven that they were a team of destiny. And since the Cardinals won game 7, there is no reason he won't employ such "logic" in the future.

Without denying that luck and random variation plays a huge role in sports, I'm inclined to believe that all too often factors that can be controlled are confused with factors that can't be controlled. I'm not sure the Cardinals would have made the World Series had the Milwaukee Brewers not started Mark Kotsay in centerfield in game 3. Roenicke's reason: "I think Kotsay going in there, I always feel good when Kotsay is in the lineup. Especially when we start him, he seems to have a big day; something always good seems to happen when he's in there. The numbers matched up good." At least he mentioned numbers, though it appears that most of decision was based upon "feeling," and no mention is made of the significant decrease in range that Kotsay has compared to other centerfielders. The Brewers lost the game 4-3, with all four St. Louis runs scoring after Kotsay couldn't get to a flyball that one of the other centerfielders would have almost certainly caught.

So in light of what ended up occurring, did Bielema or Roenicke use the occasion of the postgame press conference to admit they were wrong? Of course not--that almost never happens. You are more likely to hear a manager blame a phone miscommunication (which was an excuse given in a World Series press conference this year) than express regret over a decision (which was not done in a World Series press conference this year).

But along with mea culpas, what you usually don't hear are statistically-based defenses of decisions. In many ways, the standard responses of coaches are no different than they were 20 or even 50 years ago, even though technology and greater sample sizes (through the passage of time) have given decision makers greater means to evaluate decisions. After seeing what happened to my favorite sports teams over the last couple of weeks, I'm inclined to turn game management over to a computer. Even if that means that postgame press conferences will never again be as interesting, at least they won't be as infuriating. Until that happens, though, maybe we should just let coaches and managers off the hook. If any of us had to stand before an assembled pack of interregators at the end of our workday, how rational would our responses be?


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