Monday, April 04, 2016

Second Guessing and the Media

Gearing up here for this NCAA Final tonight between the North Carolina Tar Heels and Villanova Wildcats. I actually had Villanova making it this far in my bracket -- which is otherwise a dumpster fire -- although I didn’t think my Heels would be there, too.

I can say “my” Heels as an alum and lifelong fan. Perhaps I was too close this year to recognize UNC’s strengths -- namely a deeper roster than most as well as a big size advantage that here at the end of the season has routinely translated into a big edge on the boards. Of course, ‘Nova has shot lights out over the last three weeks, a trend that tends to make rebounding less important. I’m leaning toward thinking the Wildcats have a small edge as tip-off nears, but who knows?

Amid the lead-up came a diverting quote from UNC head coach Roy Williams, something that gave the sports talk shows something to focus on today. It came after the win versus Syracuse on Saturday night during the postgame presser, and it kind of reminded me of some of the poker-related jibber jabber from last week.

Williams actually started the press conference in a bit of an ornery mood, early on cutting off any questions about whether or not the 65-year-old coach plans to retire any time soon. (The answer is no.) Later, after the players took their questions, it was Williams’s turn, and the first question came from John McCann of the Durham-based newspaper The Herald Sun.

McCann began by saying “we love to second guess you, coach,” then asked kind of a pointed question that if you think about it more or less challenged the idea that the coach has has any idea at all about the decisions he makes.

Noting how Williams had “stuck to [his] guns” as far as line-up choices went this year, McCann asked “How much of that during the season was total confidence in your guys versus a coach hoping that his guys would get it together?”

“Well, John, take this the way it’s intended,” Williams began. “Not to be as critical, but I’m a hell of a lot smarter about basketball than you guys are. I mean, I’m serious. What do you do after basketball season’s over with? You cover baseball. What do you do after baseball’s over with? You cover football. I don’t take any breaks.”

From there Williams stepped back to add a more general observation about the media’s relationship to the sports they cover, in particular with regard to college hoops.

“This year more than ever I heard announcers and writers question things... more than I’ve ever heard. And one of the other guys said ‘you know, we’re not in the locker room, we’re not at practice every day....’ If you asked me if I’m as smart a sports fan as you, I’d say probably not, ’cause I don’t work on those other sports. But I do see our guys in the locker room every single day....”

From there Williams pointed out how the team has had 98 practices this year, and after polling the room he determined a couple of the reporters had each been to one of them. “I would never criticize somebody about something that they know a heck of a lot more about.... But it is, it’s journalism to a certain degree today.”

“So it wasn’t stubbornness,” he concluded, alluding back to the larger question about line-up decisions. “It was intelligence.”

As a UNC fan, I find myself questioning Williams’s coaching decisions plenty of times. A lot, even, and certainly a lot more than I questioned Dean Smith when he was on the Heels’ bench. But all fans do that, especially when it comes to the teams for which they root and therefore (likely) have a kind of inherent bias affecting their judgment. It’s part of what makes following sports fun to do.

I do like his point, though, about the sports media tending toward “hot takes” and angrily forwarded criticisms that more often than not aren’t based in well intentioned argument supported by good reasoning and supporting evidence, but rather just designed to “stir the pot” (and perhaps gets some extra clicks online).

I say Williams’s response got me thinking a little of some of the back-and-forthing from last week regarding the so-called “poker media” and its relationship to those they cover. That’s a discussion I couldn’t care less about, really, and not just because I consider myself a guy who writes about people who play cards (to again evoke Benjo DiMeo’s line) and not full-fledged “media.”

No, I don’t find the topic that meaningful because I instinctively adopt the position of humility being recommended by Williams, at least when it comes to reporting on poker players and what they do at the tables. One of the detours in last week’s convo had to do with the relative poker knowledge among those reporting on tourneys. I’d agree it’s a requisite. I’d also agree that possessing something less than the knowledge of those being reported about should automatically suppress the impulse to “second guess.”

Not only do I not second guess, I don’t guess anything at all. Doing so would be more akin to reporting on yourself than someone else.

Photo: “Roy Williams at a Press Conference for the University of North Carolina Tarheels” (adapted), Zeke Smith. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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