Big Data Meets the NBA

A little over a month ago, Charles Barkley went on a tirade about NBA analytics. He called analytics a creation by “nerds,” “who ain’t never played the game” and “who never got the girl in high school.” The attack combined just about all the rhetorical fallacies you can reasonably imagine—ad hominem attacks, straw men, petty name-calling—into a four-minute speech.

Sports media swiftly attacked Barkley’s rant for being “completely useless” and Barkley himself for being an “idiot.” His argument, the nerds said, was yet another instance of a former player not understanding or wanting to understand the more complex statistical understandings of the game that are now employed by many teams’ personnel departments and a certain coterie of enlightened sports writers. John Hollinger, for example, developed a statistical measure called Player Efficiency Rating (PER), which takes the entirety of a player’s statistical performance into account, and parlayed that metric into a front-office job with the Memphis Grizzlies.

Player efficiency leads to conflicting valuations of player performance. Rudy Gay, for example, might seem like a valuable player on any team. He scores points and rebounds effectively for his position. But Gay ranks low in PER because the points he scores require him to take a lot of shots (mid-range jumpers) that aren’t the kind of shots that PER values (layups, three-pointers).

Writing about Barkley’s rant and the larger conflict between former players on one side and analytics-informed GM’s and sports writers on the other, Bryan Curtis insightfully asserts that this ongoing battle “isn’t about methodology. It’s about power.” I would go one step further and say that it’s about labor.

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At his media session during NBA All-Star Game weekend, Kevin Durant went on a tirade of his own. Angered at how sports writers had depicted his team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, he blasted the media who, he claimed, “don’t know shit.” Unlike Barkley, Durant is known as a rather nice, genial guy. Unlike Barkley, he has never thrown a person through a window. But his tirade provoked response pieces that accused Durant of biting “the hand that feeds.”

So he apologized:

I’ve been in the league eight years. The media and myself have had a great relationship for eight years. I said something. Two days in a row I said something. Am I allowed to be upset one time? Am I allowed to be mad? Am I human? Do you look at me that way? I can’t say nothing wrong? We had great communication for eight years and it’s still that way. But I had a moment. Everybody in life has one. (emphasis added)

Durant’s questions about the perception of his own humanity have a lot to do with Barkley’s tirade and reflect tacit concerns about the labor of players (and former players) who are now subject to the scrutiny of Big Data.

In 2013 the NBA installed SportVU cameras in all 30 of its stadiums, allowing for, in the words of the NBA, the development of “a plethora of innovative statistics based around speed, distance, player separation and ball possession.” In representing these new statistical values, SportVU renders players as mere dots on a screen with their speed and distance continuously tracked, and Durant’s questions implicitly wonder if he’s being seen as just another numbered dot on a screen who doesn’t have the right to question the narratives that the media spin about his career and his team’s performance.

All of which leads me to the 1996 animated/live action/sports/comedy/labor film Space Jam. In the film, diminutive worm-like alien creatures, known rather interestingly as Nerdlucks, want to capture the Looney Tunes and make them the main attraction at Moron Mountain, a failing amusement park on the alien planet, owned by the nefarious Mister Swackhammer, a cruel and exploitative boss. The Tunes, seeing easy marks, challenge these pathetic weaklings to a game of basketball, but the Nerdlucks steal the talent of NBA stars (Barkley among them) by transforming into slimy ooze that penetrates the player and removes his talent, turning the player into an uncoordinated goof seemingly afflicted by a rare neurological condition. (Even Karl Marx himself would be hard-pressed to come up with a better metaphor for alienation.) Once the Nerdlucks unleash the power of the NBA players’ essences they become gigantic, overly-muscled demons called the Monstars. With NBA players missing their unique talents, the NBA shuts down and Michael Jordan must come out of retirement and team with Looney Tunes to defeat the Monstars using a combination of Jordan’s talent and Looney Tune shenanigans. The NBA players’ essences are restored, the league is saved, and the Monstars turn against Swackhammer, sending him to the moon.1

While the Nerdlucks of today’s NBA may not be stealing NBA player essences in any literal sense, they are turning them into Monstars.

Box scores have always been dehumanizing ways of understanding sports, reducing the play of the game to numerical values that form the basis of measurement and comparison. But with omnipresent cameras looking down from above, representing players as a bunch of moving dots, it’s fair to wonder whether the NBA is any different from other workplaces environments in which surveillance becomes a way to ensure efficiency. Employees from such disparate fields as package delivery to freelance writers are now being tracked by software that enables employers to monitor and then evaluate workers based on their efficiency.

Players may see GMs and analytics departments as Swackhammers, greedy bosses demanding soulless substitutes for the labor they perform. In this regard, the rants of both Durant and Barkley can be understood as plaintive cries – Looney cries! – voiced in objection to a dehumanizing machine that represents and values the game in a new way. Although his argument may have been articulated clumsily, Barkley’s rant seems motivated by concerns about the welfare of players and how their work is being devalued. Front offices and sports writers might claim that analytics don’t efface or devalue players’ labor and that they merely offer alternative ways of understanding—perhaps even appreciating—that labor.

But when efficiency becomes the primary virtue of labor, it’s fair to wonder what gets lost in the process, as a player may worry that the explanations or justifications for his inefficiencies are being lost in the data. In this regard, Barkley’s rant is less about the opinions and statistics used by those who’ve “never played the game,” and more about the devaluation of the labor of those who do; that is, there’s a worrisome separation between those who perform the labor and those who decide how that labor is measured and valued, between the players’ talents and the narratives constructed by “nerds” who reframe or devalue those talents. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a GM might cite analytics against a player in contract negotiations. And if analytics are understood as a shift in the “evolution” of the game, then it seems reasonable for players to feel threatened by complex, esoteric narratives over which they have little or no control.

It may be difficult to see the labor concerns of professional athletes and their multi-million-dollar contracts as anything resembling our own. But the struggle for narrative control—to define the value of labor—between management and labor continues, no matter how nerd-like the manager or how talented the employee. The ubiquity of this struggle might inspire us to think about the inefficiencies and idiosyncrasies of our own labor and of the stories we tell ourselves about them that form the very essence of our humanity because these narratives are everywhere threatened in the name of greater employee efficiency.
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1 At the end of Space Jam, the Nerdlucks (now no longer Monstars) rebel against Swackhammer and ask to live in Looney Tune Land, but Bugs Bunny wonders if they’re “looney enough,” which prompts the Nerdlucks immediately to don boating hats and hunting caps and engage in destructive and self-destructive hijinks (smashing one another with sledgehammers, shooting each other with shotguns) that mimic the behaviors for which the Looney Tunes have become famous. “Looney-ness,” then, becomes destructive and idiosyncratic behavior in defiance of both authority and good taste that Nerdlucks demonstrate to signal their transition from de facto slaves on Moron Mountain to recognized members of a more inclusive and welcoming community. In Looney Tune Land Charles Barkley may be taken seriously.

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