Saturday, August 20, 2011

Honesty in Commentary

The most popular way to write about Arsenal's 2011-2012 season thus far is to over-dramatize every aspect of the team. Everything has been used, from "Wenger is on the hot seat" to "Arsenal transfer woes" to talk about they won't be playing in Europe at all next year. The idea is to sensationalize what's going on at Arsenal so as to make the story as dramatic as possible in order to draw as many eyes to the page as can be managed. This is such a dishonest way of writing and commenting that I have a hard time believing that it is a strategy that actually works. But if you look around, the general opinion of Arsenal at the moment is that the team is slipping, desperately grabbing onto any object around them to keep them from plunging into the abyss, and one more draw or loss will certainly seal its fate.

Reading write-ups from today's match, you would swear that Arsenal limped their way through this match with no skill, no effort, and no chance to ever win. Not only that, but you would also come away with the impression that Arsenal was doomed, fundamentally flawed as a matter of fact, and that their season may in fact be over before it was ever able to get started. Look, I'm not happy about how the Arsenal season has started. Getting one point out of a possible six is not the way anyone wants to start things off. But at least some attention has to be paid to mitigating circumstances or you are producing contextless criticism of the team and not offering any real insight. You're being lazy, as a matter of fact. Consider:

  • 8(!) of the players that started the game for Arsenal were 25 years or younger. The three subs they brought on were 18, 20, and 23.
  • At the start of this match, Arsenal had 2 players ineligible due to suspension and 5 players unable to go due to injury. Another player was injured during the match as well (Laurent Koscielny, the fourth fullback injury for Arsenal).
  • Arsenal played the last 20 minutes of the match with 10 men due to the double yellow to Emmanuel Frimpong and was forced to use one of their substitutions early when Koscielny pulled up lame in the 14th minute.

People will call details like this excuses for why Arsenal didn't win the match. Of course they're fucking excuses for why Arsenal didn't win the match! Two players had their first Premier League start today and a third saw his first action ever in the EPL! Against a team that 40% of Soccernet's staff predict to finish in the top four this year! And Arsenal still didn't concede until the 78th minute on a terribly unlucky bounce that led to an own goal! At the beginning of the match, the commentators were saying that Arsenal would be happy to get out of Emirates with a draw and that was before one of their center backs went out with an injury and their defensive middie was sent off. Yet all of the talk after the match wasn't about how this was a tough loss for a spirited Arsenal side playing with less than half of their ideal starters. It was about how misery is being heaped on the Gunners, how one point out of a possible six simply isn't good enough, and how things have never looked worse under Wenger.

Look, I'm an Arsenal fan. I understand that I will be accused of being a homer and that I don't see how bad Arsenal is because I want to see them through these rose colored glasses. But that isn't true or fair for a number of reasons. I'm not misleading myself about this team, I actually see them for what they are: a collection of kids who are short at several positions due to injury, suspension, and transfer activity. The current squad is around half power and, again, there is still a week and a half left in the transfer window to bring in new impact players with some of that Fabregas money. Not to mention, people will come back from suspension. People will heal. I will feel a lot better about this team when they can actually roll out a full lineup instead of a list filled in by young players who would usually be subs at best, practice field impression makers at worst.

The real problem with the homer accusation is that it has become a crutch that people lean on in order to dismiss any real debate in sports. It's an ad hominem attack, one that is constantly abused by writers and pundits (or just fans) who want to "win" an argument without actually debating anything, and unfortunately there is no easier, more effective tool right now that to loudly complain "oh you're such a homer" no matter how intelligently another person is composing their arguments. A homer is a delusional fan. That definition is accurate and such people absolutely exist. But the application of this term is what is so maddening and damaging. To give an example that people who know me think I would be on the other side of, it's not a "homer" argument to say that Jacoby Ellsbury deserves consideration for American League MVP this year. I'm sure many people who hate the Red Sox (something I am assuredly guilty of) would toss the homer flag on that because it's ridiculous, or it's absurd, or how could someone think that. But the reality is that dude is batting .313 with 22 home runs, 79 RBI, 33 stolen bases, and an .887 OPS from the leadoff position. Even if you don't believe that he actually should be the MVP, it is a very reasonable argument to make regardless of where you're from or who your team is. It's something that should not be dismissed out of hand because you have a connection to the team you're arguing about. Fandom does not automatically make you illogical.

So what's my point with all of this? It's a matter of intellectual honesty in sports reporting, be it from fans or from professionals. Sports are supposed to be fun. Their purpose is to remove violence (real violence mind you, the kind that is used to kill) from competition and give the people something to root for, give them something to be happy about. There is nothing fun about trying to talk about this shared experience with someone who only wants to show you how right they are and doesn't give a fuck about what you have to say. There's nothing fun about reading material that is full of blatant lies, or at least a manipulation of actual events for the sake of selling copies or increasing hits. And there is certainly nothing fun about seeing all of this happening and then being made to feel like you are the one at fault because you're sticking up for a team or player that you like. Arsenal lost to Liverpool. It was a tough loss to take because it was a defeat at home to a major competitor for the title. But let's not try to make it more than that. Let's not try to make it a referendum on Arsene Wenger's job, or something that is indicative of the direction that Arsenal is taking early in this decade. Put the rhetoric away and find an avenue of reporting that doesn't use controversy as a substitute for not having anything interesting to say. As always, go Gunners.


  1. The baseball analogy was helpful. Sports media is just like all media these days, saying things loudly and sensationalizing gets more interest for the moment even at the expense of the industry's long-term credibility.

  2. You're right, but the problem is that there seems to be no meaningful backlash. For as much mockery there is directed at the 24 hour news networks (for just one example), they are not in danger of going off the air or undergoing a major overhaul. The media's bastardization of the main mission of media seems to be one of those universally accepted truths that isn't actually as universally accepted as we want to believe.