An AFL-style centralized resource of GAA statistics could work to protect players from bullshit (the world of cheap opinion) and put manners on pundits by forcing them to prove what they are saying is actually true.
GAA punditry is booming and jam-packed full of individuals who see it as their role to entertain (not educate); as a result the viewer is often disrespected and patronized. Worse still expertise is not always what it purports to be – asserting something with conviction does not, necessarily, make it true. Indeed, pundits can often benefit from being wrong.
Sadly, the vast majority of GAA punditry is framed by the result. We tend to evaluate the performance of a team solely in the light of how the game turned out – we miss the ebbs and flows that a contest follows before it arrives at a result.
In his book, The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb addressed narrative fallacy – here the word “narrative” refers to natural post-hoc explanations for success (or failure) and the human propensity to create stories about what we have seen after the event i.e. we like to collapse a highly complex event into a simple story. Paradoxically, the less you actually know the easier it is to construct such a narrative.
It is, of course, easy to question someone’s heart when you are sitting on a high stool and clutching a pint of the black stuff. Spanish coach Juanma Lillo memorably described such critics as the “prophets of the past”. Lillo denounced those who enjoy the luxury of interpreting events backward from an outcome while a coach is expected to know the morning of a game what everyone else knows that evening.
In this podcast Kilkenny manager Brian Cody cuts right to the nub of the issue when explaining that he ignores pundits since “they don’t have to be right” – pundits are free from accountability because their success does not actually depend on being accurate in the first instance.
To properly analyse a game you need to examine a whole chain of connections to a performance, but all the pundits appear to be interested in is reductive narratives.
Hurling is a complex game made simple by fools.
So, this is where Champion Data come in.
In June 2015 Andy McGeady wrote a more than interesting column for the Irish Times which suggested that the GAA should work to compile and then share performance data associated with inter-county games – essentially Andy argued that comprehensive statistics should be gathered from GAA matches and centralized for anyone who feels so inclined to access.
To illustrate his argument McGeady used the example of the work carried out by Champion Data for the AFL in Oz – when faced with the prospect of each individual franchise in the Australia Football League having to develop their own analytics department the association engaged Champion Data to collect, collate and deliver performance statistics which the teams, media and fans could consume.
A similar departure in Gaelic games would be a welcome one. Performance statistics would not only inform the public about the result of a contest, but it would also work to illuminate the process involved in actually obtaining that result. Such analytics could help us to carve through the thicket and get beyond the white noise of instant judgments to discover why whatever happened did happen in a game. And, better still, such statistics would help to develop how we actually talk about the game and push us beyond the subjective judgment of pundits.
Tipperary’s Damien Young put it best – while in conversation with Kieran Shannon the Drom & Inch man explained why he delved into the statistical side of the game: “what motivated me was to try to better describe the game”.
Take a look at the following. In total the 2018 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship featured thirty-three games (including replays). And, the following table illustrates how each individual county performed (on average) in the games that they played across a number of key statistical categories.
Based on those rankings we can then pluck out some interesting patterns. On the following scatter plot graph, for instance, we can combine each team’s average work rate ratio with their respective ability to create scoring chances.
So, the graph measures the determination of a side to tackle the opposition while it also measures how successful each side was in terms of imposing their own attacking game over the course of the championship.
Below, Limerick are out on their own as the team who worked hardest (off the ball) to make life difficult for the opposition while the Shannonsiders also worked hardest on the ball when creating the highest number of scoring opportunities on average to boot.
Who would have thought that the team which worked hardest (both on and off the ball) enjoyed the better chance of success?
The point here is that if we had access to such information not only would it help teams to prepare to meet the actual demands of the game, but it could also work to protect players from the world of cheap opinion. Indeed, widespread access to such information would place pundits in the position of having to prove what they are saying is actually true.
Statistics, and the subsequent analytics associated with the interpretation of those statistics, would help us to get beyond the bullshit which can often be associated with hurling contests. Essentially, data tells the truth (without data you are just another person with an opinion).
Bill James, the famed statistician who sparked the sabermetric movement, was motivated to write about baseball in the first place because he discovered a mountain of bullshit which simply had to be stamped out; as he explained himself Bill James used “statistics as a sword to cut toward the truth”.
In our post-truth word where a made-up story is just as powerful as a real one bullshit is no laughing matter. According to Harry G Frankfurt, a professor at Princeton University, bullshit is something that is constructed in the absence of any concern for the truth. By virtue of this, Frankfurt argues, “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are”.
Harry G Frankfurt insists that we need to fight an unending battle against bullshit.
But, perhaps, all the pundits’ bullshit has done sports journalism a favour.
Maybe, just maybe the pundits’ disregard for the truth has reminded us why we need it in the first place.
So, the next time you hear hurling people discuss a game listen out for solid argument based on information as opposed to simple perceptions (and bullshit) – the latter can be very misleading.
Given the efforts put in by the players, our analysis deserves some too.
For a copy of the statistics accumulated from the 2018 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship please email me directly (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will forward you the three-page pdf.