The Eyeballs versus Computers Debate – Objectivity Is In the Eye of the Mouse-Holder

November 11, 2009

Read the debate intro and the arguments from Loyal Homer and Bleacher Fan.

What came first, the sports or the hype? Who knows?! What I do know is that both exist and both need each other to maintain. Hype is perfectly legitimate and necessary to set viewer expectations (pay attention to hype for next Monday’s NFL game on ESPN – is it possible to “sell” the value of Baltimore and Cleveland?) and set the stage for the appearance of drama… even if the whole charade only lasts for half of a quarter. Hype drives sports, and sports rely on hype.

The catchall “sports media” is responsible for creating hype, and therefore value. The Sports Debates is guilty of it as well. Each week the writers here contribute what we believe will be the best game of the coming weekend, and present our arguments backing up that presumption. It is less overt hype, but hype nonetheless.

I have no problem with hype. However, there is value to the comment in the argument from Bleacher Fan that the hype machine tends to overinflate value. That is, rather than excite for a coming reality (the upcoming New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts game will be excellent, for example), hype has been twisted into a warped tool designed to create false value, driven by inherent bias. While Loyal Homer is correct that eyeballs see the details – the eyeball test evaluates teams based on intangibles like hustle and headiness that a computer may never grasp – they also come with bags of unavoidable bias. Therefore the best method for evaluating a college football team involves computers, and a debate win from Bleacher Fan.

In theory the eyeballs seem to be the best method to judge a college football team. The polls seem to get more right than they get wrong, regardless of Bleacher Fan’s astute observations about recent poll missteps. However, it is really not just eyeballs being used to judge a team, who those eyeballs belong to matters as well. A lot. One expert is better at evaluating teams than another. For example, I trust Sports Illustrated writer Stewart Mandel much more than I trust ESPN’s Lou Holtz. Duh. The voting and polling system is fraught with errors from voters who do not deserve the vote (many of the voters on this list of the original voting cast from the 2005 Harris Poll do not deserve a vote because they do not watch and follow college football), do nothing to retain the vote, are not screened for football knowledge to evaluate if they deserve a vote, and in some cases still get a ballot sent to them after they have died, as was the case with the Heisman trophy.

It is not that college football is just wedded to an antiquated approach to things – hence the reason eyeballs are still thought of as a legitimate way to judge the best teams in college football. It is that the entire organization seems immune to criticism when making blatantly obvious mistakes.

Bleacher Fan makes an excellent point, too, about the various types of bias that ultimately obscure the vision of voters. Size matters. Er, rather, MARKET size matters. The more mediums, locations, and distribution channels content can be bought, sold, and distributed, the better for the sports media organizations. Eyeballs exist in this paradigm as well… as in, “how many eyeballs are watching the game, reading the story, or telling their friends to tune in?” And, the more money a sports media organization has, the more biased nimrods they can include on college football hype shows. It is a vicious cycle.

Loyal Homer’s basic argument – that humans are able to be more objective than computers – does not hold water with me. While it is true that eyes can perceive hustle plays that demonstrate why a team goes from good to great, human eyes are never alone. They are unquestionably accompanied by history, bias, geography, allegiance, friendships, appreciation for that coach that always returns your calls or gives you the soundbyte you need, etc. I remember covering a high school baseball team one rainy Spring. After making an in-person visit to practice to grab some quotes and get the low down on the team, my car got stuck in the mud trying to escape the rainy baseball facility. The head coach, coaching staff, and a number of players ran over to push my car out of the mud. I will never forget it. Their kindness was the focus of my next column. While I am not communicating that their kindness bought them long term favor in my eyes, that team got the benefit of the doubt when rumors floated past my ears.

While I do not agree that numbers “cannot be influenced by bias or self-serving interests” as Bleacher Fan stated, computers do offer a certain level of objectivity that lends itself to a better overall product. Sure, people program computers… and computers often reflect the human bias. But, that is why the world has committees!

Weirdly, I personally still believe in the bowl system as being a good thing for college football. I also believe it is a legacy that started small, but has compounded and is – short of an act of Congress – a permanent part of our sports culture. But, when it comes to determining the national championship contenders, perhaps some things ARE better left to machines.

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The Eyeballs versus Computers Debate – The Numbers Do Not Lie

November 10, 2009

Read the debate intro and Loyal Homer’s argument about what the best method for evaluating the strength of a college football team is.

If there is one thing in college sports that I hate, it is the ability of the media to influence rankings. Through the bogus power of the hype machine, the media holds more control over determining bowl consideration than do the teams that actually play in the games.

As proof of that statement, look no further than the 2009 Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

After a three-win season in 2007, Notre Dame managed to pull out six wins in 2008. As a result, the media in their obsession with promoting Notre Dame (because the Fighting Irish can draw a crowd and drive viewership on TV) felt they deserved a bowl game invitation with only a 6-6 record. In fairness, the Irish DID win the bowl game, but it came against the fourth place team in the WAC – the Hawaii Warriors.

Following that 2008 finish which I would rate as average at best, Notre Dame entered 2009 facing a schedule that most expected would pose no challenge to the Irish. Slotted to play teams such as Washington (0-12 in 2008), Washington State (2-11), and Michigan (3-9), it was safe to assume that the Irish would manage to win at least six games again this season. Does that make Notre Dame one of the 25 best teams in the country,? Absolutely not!

If we were talking about the Buffalo Bulls of the MAC, nobody would have even thought twice about considering them as being worthy of any national attention in 2009. Even though the Bulls finished 2008 with a better record than Notre Dame (8-5), including a win over #12 ranked Ball State in the MAC Championship (and like Notre Dame entered 2009 against a very weak schedule), Buffalo was given no love coming into the new season. Notre Dame, on the other hand, undeservedly got a preseason ranking as being the 3rd best team in the nation. ESPN analyst Lou Holtz even went so far as projecting Notre Dame to play for the BCS Championship.

Notre Dame, on the heels of receiving that top 25 ranking, went on to lose the second game of the season to a very weak Michigan team. What did the analysts do in response to that loss? Rather than acknowledge that Notre Dame was perhaps not as good as they originally thought, the analysts instead perpetuated the hype machine even further by errantly inflating their opinions of Michigan, bumping them up to the top 25. How has Michigan played since then? After wins against two MAC schools and against Indiana (annual bottom-feeders of the Big Ten), the Wolverines have lost five of the last six games… hardly top 25 play.

The problem boils down to bias. Whether that bias is the result of networks hoping to attract large television audiences for the broadcast, or former coaches blatantly supporting programs they once led, reporting and analysis by sports media must always be taken with a grain of salt. ESPN does not exist to fairly report sporting events from an unbiased perspective. ESPN exists to sell commercials and earn Nielson ratings. It makes good business sense for the NCAA, and sports outlets such as ESPN, USA Today, and the Associated Press to pay the most attention to (and pour the most praise on) those “major-market” teams, regardless of whether or not they are TRULY better than teams in the Mountain West or the MAC.

Just last week, BCS officials openly admitted to bias. A bowl director publicly voiced hope that Notre Dame finishes the 2009 season ranked among the top 14 teams in the BCS, because of the economic benefit of having the Irish play in one of the BCS bowl games. The implication of those comments was that a two-loss Notre Dame (a team that had not been ranked higher than #18 in the nation during the first nine weeks of the season) would STILL be considered a “better” team than either TCU or Boise State, despite the fact that those teams had not yet lost a game. As a side note, Notre Dame decided to repay that unfounded support with a loss against Navy the following weekend. That is HARDLY playing like a BCS-caliber team.

Another example is Utah, the only undefeated school in the country last season, and a team that did not get the opportunity to play for a national championship because people “thought” the team was not as good as Florida or Oklahoma. Why not give them a chance to prove the team’s strength?! Utah was the only unbeaten team in the entire nation, yet it did not even get consideration for the BCS title.

It is the same problem that has USC ranked ahead of Oregon today. Oregon has the exact same record as USC, actually BEAT USC this season, and also crushed California (a team that was also ranked in the top-ten when playing the Ducks), but is still ranked behind them. Why? Because USC is SUPPOSED to be better than Oregon, not because USC IS better than Oregon. The fact that USC lost to Oregon, apparently, has no bearing on the team’s evaluation.

Football standings should be decided ON THE FIELD, not by the opinions of sportswriters and analysts. Analysts can be wrong from time to time, but numbers do not lie, and numbers cannot be influenced by bias or self-serving interests such as trying to attract viewers. The most objective and fair way to evaluate and measure strength in a sport is to use facts and results, not expectations and assumptions.

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The Eyeballs versus Computers Debate – The Brain Outsmarts the Computer

November 10, 2009

Read the debate intro and Bleacher Fan’s argument that computers are better for evaluating college football teams.

The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) reeks of controversy and has since its inception in 1998. The powers that be have tinkered with the formula almost on an annual basis. It is maddening to most people, me included. If you are looking for a serious headache, go to the BCS page on Wikipedia. The explanation of the role of the computer in the BCS is a head scratcher. I have yet to be convinced that the words “mathematicians” and “algorithms” belong anywhere in any BCS conversation. What does belong in these types of conversations is the voice of humans. Humans actually watch the game. Computers may pull up gamecasts and box scores but they do not “watch” the games like humans. Computers are not able to read the intangibles that a human can see. Therefore, an eyeball test by college football experts is absolutely the best way to determine the nation’s best college football team.

I am not as convinced that the media plays a huge role in getting the teams it wants in certain bowls. Some in SEC corners agree that the conference lets Florida and Alabama, to a lesser extent, get away with more in light of all the officiating errors of late. That is ludicrous, by the way. Let’s take a closer look at the Associated Press poll. A quick look at those who vote in the AP poll shows voters from all over the country. Voters are not just in SEC country. Voters are not just in Big 12 country. Voters are spread out all over this great nation. The same goes for the Harris Poll and the USA Today/Coaches Poll. It is pretty difficult, in my opinion, to come up with some type of voting conspiracy. In addition, all three of these polls are voted on by ACTUAL people. I know we live in the 21st Century and today’s “Internet-age” generation wants a computer to tell them all the answers. But, call me old school if you want, do we not trust what the human eye sees?

As Sports Geek touched on in the intro, we all saw how the Iowa Hawkeyes flirted with disaster much of the season. There was the scare the first week of the season against Northern Iowa. Then there was the come from behind win against Michigan State. Let’s not forget the win over Indiana in which they overcame a big deficit. Yet, for all of these near losses, Iowa was, until losing Saturday, fourth in the BCS. The computer rankings had Iowa as the second best team in the nation, ahead of Texas and Alabama. One component of the computer rankings had Iowa as the number one team in the land. Can that be serious? The humans, on the other hand, were not as quick to support Iowa, as last week Iowa was sixth in the coach’s poll and seventh in the Harris poll. The computers obviously overrated the Hawkeyes, and that was confirmed with the loss this past weekend.

Computers just do not tell the whole story. They take a set of numbers that are drawn in from strength of schedule, quality victories, etc., and spit out a ranking. What a computer cannot read is the circumstances regarding the victory. Humans, as a group (not individually) should be able to look at teams objectively. With that in mind, eyeballs are able to choose the best overall teams.

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