Sport AFL Lies, damned lies and statistics: Numbers threaten to obscure plain facts

Lies, damned lies and statistics: Numbers threaten to obscure plain facts

Charles Barkley, pictured in his pomp with the Houston Rockets, has some forthright views on the subject of statistics. Photo: Getty
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The AFL Women’s competition has been exciting us over the past few weeks and now, with the beginning of the Marsh Series, it is the men’s turn to impress.

Unfortunately, there is another group of people who are also looking to impress in 2020 – the dreaded ‘stats people’.

These men and women have been spending months hunched over their computers inventing new ways to quantify what is good and bad in the game.

Here’s hoping what the players and coaches are doing will be positive for the game.

I can’t say the same for the stats people.

We are on the edge of a precipice here.

Our game is in danger of being overtaken by meaningless numbers and acronyms.

The traditional perception of what constitutes success and failure will be challenged.

Like most things in sport, we tend to follow what happens in the United States.

Everything seems to dribble its way south, such as the prevalence of Fantasy/Dream Team football competitions.

No longer is the old ‘footy tip comp’ enough; to be a true supporter you have to spend hours each week agonising over whether you make Dustin Martin or Nathan Fyfe your captain for the week and how many dream team points they can accumulate.

It’s all stuff that originated in the US and eventually infiltrated our traditions.

Worryingly, the next trend to dribble down here will be the never-ending statistical overanalysing of every square centimetre of a football game.

Stats that will confuse, confound and completely befuddle the average supporter.

Even worse, they will try to replace good old-fashioned football knowledge.

The type of knowledge that is born from years of watching the game.

I think of St Kilda legendary trainer of 50 years Ken Whiffen who, after each game, would give me a nod and wink if he thought I did well, or a blunt ‘I’ve seen you do better’ if he was unimpressed.

Ken never had to look at stats before giving his opinion – an opinion I valued as much as any coach I played under.

My fear is the prevalence and proliferation of stats will supplant this innate knowledge of the game.

We will rely on numbers rather than experience to rate our champions.

If you think I’m exaggerating let me show you some of the stats floating around US basketball right now.

First there’s the ‘Offensive Efficiency Rating’ (OER) which is defined as … “Individual Offensive Rating is the number of points produced by a player per hundred total individual possessions. In other words, ‘How many points is a player likely to generate when he tries?'”
The basic building blocks of the Offensive Rating calculation are Individual Total Possessions and Individual Points Produced. The formula for Total Possessions is broken down into four components: Scoring Possessions, Missed FG Possessions, Missed FT Possessions, and Turnovers.”

It seems simple enough, but the formula for calculating this stat is 17 lines long.

Finally, if you aren’t confused enough they now talk about something called Win Shares to determine a player’s value.

Win shares is calculated by adding up the amount of points a player scores (in career), calculating the number of offensive possessions, adding something called marginal offence points and then marginal offence points per win, multiplying that by credit offence win shares per player – adding a whole bunch of other convoluted mathematical mumbo jumbo and you end up with a judgment on whether the player was any good or not – seriously?

It’s no wonder Charles Barkley recently stated: “I’ve always believed analytics was crap. The NBA is about talent”.

“All these guys who run these organisations who talk about analytics, they have one thing in common – they’re a bunch of guys who have never played the game, and they never got the girls in high school, and they just want to get in the game.”

I don’t know about the high school bit, but I do like the rest of it.

I ask you to keep an eye out for such statistical nonsense that will undoubtedly encroach on our game.

Rebel against it. Treat it like the garbage it is and trust yourself, your experience and your knowledge of the game when deciding who played well and who didn’t.

Perhaps create a ‘dob in a commentator’ hotline if any of them starts speaking this garbage.

If we are diligent and reject the stats nerds, they will have nothing to do but return to World of Warcraft and leave our game alone.

Nathan Burke is a former St Kilda captain who played 323 AFL games for the Saints, winning three Trevor Barker Awards as best-and-fairest player

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