Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Greg[g] here's a nurse.

Seeing Stewart Mandel's mailbag rules today (as Ian suggested, the [douche]bag is back!) reminded me that I haven't unleashed hate on an unsuspecting and uncaring sportswriter recently. And last week the perfect target revealed himself, Gregg Easterbrook.

Now, I used to read TMQ back in the day on ESPN, but when he "moved" (more on that in a second hour) to, which isn't a daily or even weekly destination for me, I stopped reading. And didn't miss it that much either.

But before I go off too much, let me say that I don't think his column is completely useless (or else I wouldn't read it when I'm reminded to). I like some of the football theory. It's the kind of stuff I try to write about sometimes - coming up with a hypothesis and trying to figure out if it works. Easterbrook does this pretty frequently. For example, during the season he'll go off on teams that throw the ball trying to get that final first down and end the game, only to throw an incompletion, turn the ball over with more time on the clock than they would've had they run the ball, and then lose with just seconds on the clock. He also has a hard and fast rule on not going for two until the fourth quarter. Just the last two weeks, he's had plenty of theories, such as the idea that trading down for more picks is always preferable, or that teams should draft bigger players higher (I can't really pin down that one). Anyway, I like ideas. And I like trying to work them out empirically to see if they have merit - and that's my main problem with Easterbrook.

Easterbrook doesn't write like someone trying to discover a deeper truth, no matter what it is. He writes like a political advocate, which I suppose is natural, considering his real job. He writes as if the point he's trying to make is all that matters, and damn any information to the contrary. Personally, I don't like this kind of style, but I suppose that's natural, considering my real job. Y'see, though I could write a billion words about how much I don't particularly like my legal training or the way it made me think, I think it does place upon you a sort of intellectual ethic (which is one reason why I took such offense when two other bloggers described me as intellectually dishonest earlier this year). Legal training forces you to accept it when results go against what your trying to say, and obligate you to disclose negative precendent - because it should be out there so we can get to the larger truth. Easterbrook doesn't do that, because his job is purer advocacy than even the law - it's just win, regardless.

And it's so clear in his writings that this is a problem for the reader. It bothers me a lot when I read TMQ and I, a non-professional dilettante, can spot the errors of omission (or just errors). Here are a few, just in the last two weeks (links to TMQ are here and here):

1) In arguing that draft scouts are talking out of their asses (an easy argument to make, one would think), Easterbrook tackles the "size" question:

Vic Carucci of declared 185-pound cornerback Tye Hill of Clemson "lacks ideal size". A few sentences later, Carucci said 189-pound cornerback Ashton Youboty of Ohio State has "good size." Yours truly adds that Scouts Inc. calls DT Brodrick Bunkley "undersized" at 309 pounds, DT Johnny Jolly "big" at 317 pounds. Jolly weighs 2 percent more than Bunkley. How can 2 percent represent the difference between "undersized" and "big?"

Well, I suppose it's when the term doesn't rely on weight alone in its definition. Because what Easterbrook doesn't tell you is that there are differences between these players, and those differences might have something to do with... err... size. Tye Hill lacks size at 185, Youboty doesn't at 189. That's a natural statement when Tye Hill is 5'9" and Ashton Youboty is more than two inches taller at 5'11" 3/4ths. Likewise, Jolly is an inch taller than Bunkley. Easterbrook presents it like these players are identical, when they're not. The definition of size, while not as precise a term as height, often includes height. This is an error of omission which directly counters his point. He ought not have used these examples at all.

2) This week, Kiper is Easterbrook's target (of praise and criticism). First of all, I think it deserves mention that mocking a mock draft for being incorrect is poor form, because the mockery fails to follow the same rules as the mock draft itself. For example, when Kiper (or anyone else) does a mock draft, they rarely account for trades. So simply saying "Kiper missed on x/32" doesn't work too well when there were plenty of trades. Of course Kiper's not perfect, and he'll make mistakes, and there can be valid criticism of him. One valid way to do it is to point out inconsistencies, rather than inaccuracies - which Easterbrook tries to do, but falls short.

Here's one shot:

On March 6, Kiper predicted Oakland would use the seventh overall choice on quarterback Jay Cutler; on March 27, Kiper said "it would be odd" if Oakland used its first pick on a quarterback. (Oakland passed on Cutler.)

All right boys and girls, can you spot the error of omission here? Did something happen between March 6th and March 27th that might've made him change his mind? Anything? Like, maybe the Raiders signed a quarterback as a free agent? March 23rd the Raiders signed Aaron Brooks to a two year contract. Maybe Brooks isn't the best choice, and maybe the Raiders should've drafted a QB, but that's not the debate. The question is consistency, and in this case, Kiper had good reason not to be consistent.

Same paragraph:

At various points Kiper predicted the Eagles would take Justice or Holmes or Jackson or Ernie Sims or Greenway; they took Brodrick Bunkley.

In every mock draft Kiper did, Bunkely was off the board before the Eagles picked. Kiper never made a statement that the Eagles would pass on Bunkley for one of the above named players. The Eagles' selection here is not inconsistent with anything Kiper wrote.

Likewise, Easterbrook misses on critiquing Kiper's comments, often by missing or omitting the context of his comments:

For the Titans to choose Matt Leinart would be "a no-brainer." The Titans passed on Leinart.

Kiper, who correctly had Vince Young going to the Titans in his last mock draft, from what I recall of the draft, meant that Leinart would be the safer pick than Young, not that the Titans would be foolish if they didn't pick Leinart.

When Donte Whitner went eighth overall, Mel said, "That's about right. I had him going 16th to Miami, but that's still about right." Kiper did have Whitner going 16th to Miami -- in a January mock. The day before the draft, he forecast Whitner to Cincinnati at the 24th slot.

The context here, from what I recall, was that Kiper could understand the selection (when everyone else was panning it) because there were teams with needs at safety picking not far behind them. Like the Dolphins at 16 (who did, in fact, take a safety). If the Bills wanted him, Kiper argued, picking Whitner there wasn't that wrong-headed.

The thing is that Kiper's kind of an easy target, because what he's asked to do is virtually impossible with all the variables. And of course people are welcome to mock him and critique him. But let's do it fairly. This sentence isn't fair:

This year he issued five mock drafts, each contradicting the one before.

Well, there's a very good reason for that! In between each mock draft, things happened! Things like... free agency allowed teams to fill holes Kiper may have been predicting to get filled in the draft (like the Raiders' QB situation). Things like... trades changed the teams picking in slots, so it isn't surprising that Kiper's January 31 mock, which had the Falcons taking Jonathan Joseph at 15, changed when they traded the pick to Denver. Things like... players getting injured or gaining weight, like LenDale White's hamstring dropping him from 10th in the 1/31 mock. Things like... players showing up big at the combine (which I'm not personally a fan of, but many teams do value that), like Manny Lawson. Things like... off-field troubles... possible drug test failures... etc. Things happen. And when they do, it's natural to expect a professional writer and pundit to change their position based upon those external circumstances. Perhaps that means that the early mock drafts shouldn't be considered useful at all (and I can't see why anyone would consider them useful), but again, Easterbrook's argument doesn't hold water. The thesis is flawed, and the examples he provides don't tell the story, and appear shoehorned in to back up that flawed thesis.

3) Another example of Easterbrook not telling the whole story in advance of his (perhaps wrong) argument is his idea relating to the sale of naming or trademark rights on NFL stadiums. I can't really tell from his paragraph if he thinks all teams should or shouldn't sell the stadium naming rights. I suppose it appears like he values the argument that certain high-revenue teams make that lower market teams should maximize revenues by selling these rights. Facially, that argument seems sound, on behalf of the high-revenue teams. It may just be an aside, but Easterbrook makes a point at mentioning that it's not just a few teams that haven't sold naming rights:

Despite the impression that everything in pro sports is for sale, roughly half of NFL franchises have either never sold the stadium name or sold it once and then taken the name back.

Again, I can't tell if this is for or against the argument. But I spotted the flaw in the data right away. Yes, 15 teams play in stadiums without naming rights sold. But of those 15, how many of the teams actually have sole control over the building and actually have the power to sell the naming rights? Plenty of these stadiums are owned and operated by public or quasi-public Stadium Authorities. That's what happens when the public pay to get something built - they like to hang on to it. So if the Falcons have a long term lease to use the Georgia Dome from the authority, what makes Easterbrook think that the Falcons could necessarily sell the naming rights without authority approval? In many of the cases Easterbrook mentions, the team may want to sell the naming rights to bring in more revenue, but the stadium authority may have final say and not want to do so. Also, "taken the name back" suggests that teams have made an active choice that they don't want to sell the name any more. In a few instances, I'm not sure that's an accurate description of what's happened. For example, the Titans used to play in Adelphia Coliseum, and after the scandal and subsequent bankruptcy, it's pretty natural for them not to have the company on there any more (just like how the Astros don't play at Enron Field). Pro Player/Dolphin Stadium also changed name in reference to the bankruptcy of Pro Player's parent company. So again, we're not getting the full story, but the point he's trying to make (whatever it is) is made anyway.

4) This one seemed too obvious, that it was almost just lazy writing - he could've used some different language here to avoid saying this:

When I look at the Cowboys' roster since Troy Aikman retired, I have not seen a premium quarterback. When I've looked at Cowboys' rosters since Jerry Jones bought the team, I have not seen a premium young quarterback in waiting. (Aikman was already there when Jones made his purchase.) And when I looked at the list of Dallas choices in the 2006 draft, I did not see a premium young quarterback. Or any quarterback. How might Matt Leinart have looked in silver and blue? He was there for the taking at a reasonable cost in trade-up terms.

Drew Henson is how old? And how much did it cost them to sign him? Perhaps I don't know what a "premium quarterback" is. And yeah, Bledsoe's old, but he's also 7th all time in passing yards, 5 in completions, 13th in touchdowns, has played in a Super Bowl, and is a borderline hall of famer (in my opinion). Is that not "premium"? Regardless of what "premium" means, Henson's the guy in waiting. It's obvious that the Cowboys weren't going to draft a QB this year when Henson hasn't shown himself to be a waste. Maybe in a year the Cowboys can be faulted for not taking a QB early. But also, there's the argument made elsewhere that drafting QBs early is a waste of cap space - especially when plenty of very good QBs were drafted far later on. This just seems the opposite of the argument Easterbrook should be making... which reminds me...

5) Easterbrook, in several locations this week, knocks a couple of teams for drafting "skinny" guys - like DBs and WRs - and praises other teams for drafting linemen, and then attempts to draw a connection between immediate results on field with the latter:

Houston, Jersey/B, Philadelphia and Tampa were the teams that emphasized offensive line in this year's draft. Prediction: Houston, Jersey/B, Philadelphia and Tampa will improve their records.

This appears, to me, to be an empty argument. For one thing, teams draft for many different reasons - sometimes for immediate need, sometimes for long term need, sometimes just the best player available. For example, the Carolina Panthers drafted a running back in the first, and a DB in the second. This is because their lines are pretty well set already. Or how about the Falcons, who have added linemen via free agency over the last 5 years and primarily drafted wide receivers and defensive backs in early rounds. They've been in the playoffs or near (or suffered catastrophic injuries) over that stretch. Among bad teams, there might be a connection between improving the line and improving the record, but once you get above bottom dwellers, the draft has less of an immediate effect no matter what position is drafted.

OK one more omission...

6) In addressing the Vikings' moves over the last few years, Easterbrook writes this:

Two seasons ago, Daunte Culpepper to Randy Moss was the most feared battery in the league. Now the gentlemen have been traded for Troy Williamson and Napoleon Harris, both third string on the Vikings' depth chart, plus a draft choice that just became rookie Ryan Cook. These are looking like some of the worst trades since Russia's Baron Edouard de Stoeckl sent Alaska to William Seward for $7.2 million and an archipelago to be named later.

Seward's deal was mocked in real time too... The point Easterbrook fails to make, but should be obvious to anyone, is that both Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper carried with them onerous salaries or demands for salary. The NFL is a zero sum game with the salary cap. If you spend money on a receiver or a quarterback, you cannot spend money on a lineman or linebacker or someone else. If you aren't directing 25-30% of your salary cap allotment on a pitch and catch combo, you can spend that to shore up or improve at 20 other positions on the field. Not having Culpepper on the field last year sent the Vikings on a pretty nice winning streak and they almost made the playoffs. Randy Moss and his massive salary contributed to the inability of the Raiders to field a competent defense last year, and their record showed it. The NFL's market for talent is affected by externalities, and not merely on-field ability. A great but costly player is often not as valuable to a team as a good but inexpensive player (along with the ability to spend more elsewhere). Easterbrook has to know this, but for some reason he doesn't want the reader to know it.

And these errors by omission are so frequent, and blatant, that it just seems like Easterbrook is just playing dumb.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in his intrusive political writings. Look: I'm a political junkie. Just look at the blogroll and you can probably tell. But I have a policy about politics and sports - they're annoying as hell when mixed together. Sammy Kershaw is right - let's talk about Nascar, old Hollywood movie stars, anything at all but politics, religion and her. Easterbrook doesn't agree, and I think it hurts his column. Now, this isn't something I have against his particular politics, but just the confluence of sportswriting and political writing in general (I was as annoyed at Patrick Hruby and Hunter S. Thompson's Page 2 columns as well). I think Easterbrook is welcome to his opinions, and he's free to use his space however he wants. But I think his column would work better if he stayed focused on the NFL here and wrote about everything else at The New Republic. But that's just me.

Back to the point, he's just playing dumb at times. Examples:

1) When Edwards ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, the knock was he lacked sufficient government experience for the White House. What's he done since 2004? Run for the 2008 nomination. Well, he has been running a center to fight poverty in the South. Something that Edwards, whatever you think about him, has voiced concern about for a very long time. That's a tangible action since 2004. Perhaps it doesn't have a nice fancy title like Senator, but it is doing something. And this issue served to form the basis of why he ran in the first place. All of this is something a beltway insider pundit knows. But it doesn't fit with whatever he's trying to say, so he leaves it out.

2) The Smithsonian's secretary has virtually no responsibilities, other than deciding what to order for lunch, since the location and use of Smithsonian facilities is determined by Congress. The argument that the Smithsonian's secretary makes too much surely has merit. But it's moronic to suggest that he has no responsibilities, simply because the location and use of facilities is "determined by Congress". Surely members of the House of Representatives aren't running the museum on a day-to-day basis, even if they have the final say authority by law. Surely Easterbrook knows that Congress controls the Smithsonian's budget, but congress doesn't prepare budget proposals, make hiring decisions, mundane tasks, etc. Easterbrook isn't that dumb, but he's playing it because it fits whatever he's trying to say.

3) The entire paragraph entitled "Orwell would wince". Politicians use terms that sound better for their position. Things like "undocumented arrivals" instead of illegal aliens, or "detainees" instead of prisoners. First off, phrasing things in a way that serves your purpose is not something new. In politics, people have been doing this for, oh, millenia. Is it a late term abortion or a partial birth abortion? Is it integration or is it civil rights? This is nothing new, and it's nothing all that special. Second off, this is something that Easterbrook does all the damn time! Using words in a way to prove your point, even if the way you use those words confuses the issue... hey! I just wrote like 10,000 words about that! Orwell would wince. Because he wouldn't like that kind of chutzpah.

And finally, as I'm sure most of you dozed off about 10 paragraphs above, I wanted to touch on one other thing. welcomed Easterbrook back with a front page banner last week, and they've promoted him decently this week too on the front page. But they haven't really mentioned why "he's back". Sadly, this is another example of the readers not exactly getting the full story.

For those who didn't read him back in the day or at, you may have wondered why he left at all. Well, the reason was a that he wrote on his New Republic blog a few years back some very biting commentary criticizing the makers of Kill Bill for its violence. His premise, which I personally believe went at the issue at entirely the wrong manner, was that the producers and studio heads that put out the movie were all Jewish, and therefore ought to be predisposed against violence. But he also suggested (and apologized for this) that these same Jews "worship money above all else, by promoting for profit the adulation of violence". I do not claim to know what was in his heart, but simply stated, this looks bad. He apologized and attempted to clarify his statements. Also, I believe ESPN did not fire him because his statements bear the appearance of anti-semitism (though I think they had every right to do so for this reason). No, I think they fired him because the head of the company who owns ESPN, Michael Eisner, was one of the people he criticized. And it is surely the prerogative of any company to fire an employee who publicly criticized the boss, especially in this manner.

The point I'm getting to is that one might think that because of the way he left ESPN the first time around, he might be more mindful of including stereotyping races, ethnicities or whatever in his writings. Alas, it appears he hasn't. He still refers to homosexuals as "nontraditional males", a term I have difficulty finding meaning in. And in his first column he included two pretty clear stereotyping jokes (and not even good ones): one about illegal immigrants gathering at a 7-11 to get day laboring work on NFL scout teams and one about how Koreans are short and play lots of video games.

Now, I'm surely against censorship, and indeed, I think if people harbor prejudices or stereotyping, we may as well see it in the open - so we can regard the speaker for what they truly think. But Easterbrook's screwed up before, and a several-thousand word column on carries with it some responsibility. If nothing else, this bears watching.

That is, if I can bear watching it at all. I mean, there's only so much I can take of a goofy middle aged man with the weirdest looking unibrow I've ever seen writing about hot cheerleaders and stuff. Just lame, and gross.

Sad. Let's hope ESPN is paying him enough to buy some undershirts now.

Post edited slightly for clarity.