‘While the Jocks Watch’

Turn on a sports broadcast. Any sports broadcast. A colourful intro with computer generated effects pitting legendary players from archival footage into the modern game fades as a booming voice introduces the panellists in a modernized studio. A major-league sponsor’s logo flashes on the screen as the panellists come into view, tall, well-dressed men, sometimes overdressed, who break down the game’s biggest story lines.

TV studio sports broadcasts are boring and formulaic, but the first mistake anybody could make is the insinuation that sports broadcasts are primarily made up of men. They are not made up of men in the general sense, as if they picked up four guys off the street and said “you’ll do”. The men they choose for these programs are ex-players, ex-coaches and people whose connections to the game make them unable to make statements contradictory to their claims.

And it’s an intimidating place for any non-player. How can I admit I’m skeptical about the effects of fighting in hockey while some panellist makes the argument “well I’ve PLAYED the game. You’ve never been the bench and felt the boost you get from watching one of your guys in a scrap.” One man’s singular experience became a universal truth in the time it took him to forget all the fights in his career where nothing out of the ordinary happened in the next few minutes.

The insiders don’t necessarily exist to give the viewer an inside look. Or maybe they do. Whatever their stated purpose is, it’s not necessarily performed. You will never turn on any of the ex-player analysts with the major networks [names redacted] with the intention of learning something new about the sport. It’s always the old thing. It’s how ‘this team has confidence going forward’, how ‘this player is skating hard and playing physical’, how ‘this goaltender has been shaky in the last few days and that’s all just mounting pressure’. It’s the same old car with a new coat of paint.

Radio and TV hosts love getting comments from the ex-players and reminisce. They’ve been in the game and know the game, better than any average schmuck would, who is on the outside for a reason. Somebody who has played the game knows far more about the game, just because he played the game. All the Xs and Os, all the convention, nothing has changed since the ex-player hung up his skates in the mid-1990s and we can still turn to him for wisdom. “Why did the Washington Capitals lose in the playoffs?” “Well, I’ll tell you why. They lack all the characteristics of winning teams have. When I won the Stanley Cup in the 1990s, we had Jonesy, Smithsey and Mikey, who did all the things inside the dressing room you couldn’t see. The Capitals didn’t win a Stanley Cup, so obviously they don’t have those leaders.”

For most of the old guard have made their money and had their time and fame. Why could they possibly want to shine new light on an old problem? I’ve read brilliant pieces of work from people who proved that NHL teams don’t influence shot quality, that starting extra shifts in the offensive zone heavily influences a player’s offensive numbers, and that short-term team performance is influenced by unsustainable percentages.

I’ve seen research that determines the best team should only expect to win the Stanley Cup 22% of the time and that the amount of time spent with the puck can be quantified in most cases simply by looking at the shot clock. These aren’t things that were figured out by traditional analysts, or people who spent their living inside the game. These were things learned by people with an interest that is less than financial.

It’s not that this means people who played the game are unable to research the game or come up with new knowledge about the game, it’s just that the ones who do are not often found on the usual channels.

In the field of hockey discussion, legitimate, progressive analysis of the game is kept on the back pages of the newspaper or a, and any numbers bandied around during a game acting like a can opener—they’re only good if you know how to use them. Shot attempts on goal, the use of shots as an indicator of team puck possession… all things that I have seen on a hockey broadcast at some point in 2012, but their impact is never explicitly discussed in depth. Much of the interesting commentary on a broadcast is brought up by a connected reporter who doesn’t believe every cliché the players convey to him. You wonder why they don’t hire more of these guys.

Not that I really mind. The blogosphere (and the space I’ve been given on this blog) is a place to communicate ideas. While the Jocks Watch, we can call this. Bill James called the cliché the first line of defense in an excellent essay from his 1984 Baseball Abstract:

“Cliches are the soldiers of ignorance, and an army of sentries encircles the game, guarding every situation from which a glimmer of fresh truth might be allowed to escape.”

James’ old-fashioned version of While the Jocks Watch was mostly on sheets of lined paper. He’d keep up correspondence with his readers. Primitive, but it kept James going, researching baseball and providing those who wanted alternate commentary with alternate commentary. The sports blogosphere, baseball or otherwise, is the natural evolutionary descendant of the Bill James Abstracts.

But it doesn’t have to be all about advanced analytics. Amusing anecdotes, forums for depressed fans or fiskings of lazy writers find their way onto these online spaces that are disseminated to people who share a common interest. Whatever form the blogosphere takes, whether it’s advanced analytics, a forum for depressed fans of a team that can’t win, or a place to gawk at Sidney Crosby’s butt, while the jocks are watching and talking, we have the option of looking for something else, something that suits our interest.