Numbers aren’t everything

Published 8:12 am Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Statistics are fascinating to me, particularly when it comes to sports. “Advanced analytics” might sound like the name of a dreadfully boring college course, but in reference to basketball, it sounds like my idea of a fun Friday evening. Raw data is a valuable tool in detecting trends and analyzing players. I love seeing the numbers.
For everything modern statistics are able to analyze, it’s important to remember that some variables will always be left out of the equation. Seeing those intangible, indefinable characteristics in action is one of the things I love most about sports.
Benjamin Watson, current tight end for the New Orleans Saints, made a tackle that defied all the numbers during a 2005 playoff game when he was a member of the New England Patriots.
Tom Brady’s attempted pass to the end zone was picked off by defensive back Champ Bailey, who was one of the fastest players in the league at that time. Watson was on the opposite side of the field and began sprinting in an attempt to catch Bailey as soon as he caught the ball. It took 100 yards, but Watson did catch Bailey. The defensive back never saw his slower, heavier opponent until Watson was slamming him out of bounds at the 1-yard line, saving a touchdown.
There is no statistical equation that can account for effort and determination. Every number relating to speed and distance in this instance favors Bailey, yet he did not score.
Perhaps the best example of raw data telling an incomplete story occurred in the 1992 Summer Olympics. Derek Redmond, an English track athlete, was running a 400-meter race when his hamstring snapped and he collapsed to the ground in agony. Redmond rose to his feet and limped to the finish line, refusing stretchers and medical attention every step of the way. Redmond’s father eventually made his way to the track and assisted his injured son to the finish line, technically disqualifying Redmond. The official results of the race state that Redmond “did not finish,” and nothing more.
The Olympics used the footage from that moment as part of their “Celebrate Humanity” campaign, and the narration from that commercial best exemplifies the point: “Strength is measured in pounds. Speed is measured in seconds. Courage? You can’t measure courage.”

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