In light of Aaron Hernandez’s recent arrest for murder, Kevin Rossi explains why statistics and research are essential in creating context for complex claims. (And, for the record, no, they are not.)
The following article was originally posted on Sports Analytics Blog.
As details surround the case where Aaron Hernandez, the 23-year-old New England Patriots tight end, allegedly murdered his friend and semi-professional football player Odin Lloyd, writers from bloggers to national columnists tried to connect Hernandez’s brutal actions to the society we live in. We revere athletes too highly. We allow the “gangsta culture” into locker rooms and onto sporting fields. We celebrate gangsters like Jay Z and Tony Soprano over clean-cut, high-performing athletes.
The fact is these anecdotes are merely anecdotes. Without the proper statistics and research to back such claims, the points remain circumstantial and lacking true merit. This is exactly why when dealing with as complex of a task as linking a single athlete’s actions to being the product of an entire society, statistics and data are paramount.
Prior to Rolling Stone and Buzzfeed reporter Michael Hastings’ fatal car accident at the young age of 33 last month, he left some advice for young journalists. His fourth of ten points: “When writing for a mass audience, put a fact in every sentence.”
Maybe sports journalists, even the most widely read of all the national journalists, need to take Hastings’ advice as a reminder. It seems that some journalists are taking the same path that Charles Pierce fears the American media is taking. In his latest book, Idiot America, the Esquire politics writer and Grantland columnist describes a theory about the current media that “anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.”
Instead of making a statement loud enough that people think it is true, back the statement with proven statistics and research so that people know it is true.
When it comes to using facts, specifically numerical data, in linking the Aaron Hernandez case to society, Dave Zirin’s column for The Nation and, in slightly less detail, Jeremy Schaap’s oral essay for ESPN were the gold standard. As much of the mainstream media was focused on the 29 players in the National Football League that were arrested since this year’s Super Bowl on February 3rd, Zirin and Schaap took a different viewpoint.
The point to be made in Zirin’s column was simply stated in the column’s headline: “Why NFL Crime Hysteria is Overblown.” Throughout the column, Zirin cited the FBI, the ACLU, while also linking to various outside studies and sources backing up his position. Regardless of the heinous nature of Hernandez’s alleged crime and the seemingly large number of arrests since the Super Bowl, the NFL’s crime rate is still below that of the average male of comparable age and race in the United States.
In perhaps the defining statistic of the entire column, Zirin said, “In a study last December by Stephen Bronars, ‘NFL players are arrested about one-fourth as often as men age 22 to 34 in the general population…. The arrest rate for NFL players has averaged about 2.9% compared to 10.8% for men age 22 to 34 (based on FBI crime data by age for men in 2009).’”
Schaap took a similar stance in his oral essay on SportsCenter over the weekend. The dead-time in the sports news, with the NBA and NHL Finals having just ended and the NFL and college football yet to have started, leaves open space in the day for sports media outlets to highlight arrests that may have otherwise gone uncovered. This is not to say that the Hernandez case would not have been extensively covered no matter what time of the year given its magnitude, but other crimes below murder like driving under the influence, drug possession, and domestic abuse may have gone unnoticed by many.
At first glance, the fact that 29 NFL players have been arrested since the Super Bowl looks alarming. Admittedly, I was taken aback before reading about the subject as well. Statistics and research create the context for arguments to be made. When dealing with a complex game of connect the dots between the actions of a professional athlete and the society that produced the athlete, context is not just important. The context provided by statistics and research is essential.
Kevin Rossi is a junior Drexel Sport Management major with minors in Communications and Business Administration. From Yardley, Pa., Kevin has worked at Double Eagle Golf where he is now Social Media Coordinator and Comcast-Spectator as their Market Research Intern. Currently, Kevin is the Drexel Men’s Basketball Beat Writer for Philahoops.com, Vice President of the Drexel Sport Management Student Union, and Athletic Communications Intern for Temple University.
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