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March 26, 2019

Al Morganti: Why the Phil Martelli firing was handled wrong in the age of analytics

It’s been just about a week since the drama involving the firing of St. Joseph’s head basketball coach unfolded, and perhaps the biggest lesson to be learned by those individuals involved in managing any sort of major sports organizations that the choice of words and attitude truly matter.

The point here is not to argue whether or not Phil Martelli should have been fired. The bottom line is that nobody is owed a job for life, and many universities dismiss coaches every year.

The looming issue is the manner in which the firing took place and one rather cold phrase from St. Joseph’s athletic director Jill Bodensteiner which read “. . . as basketball is an important strategic asset for St, Joseph’s.”

This was not an easy chore for Bodenstiener, who may very well turn into a sensation leader, but in a city that thrives on tradition, calling the sport of basketball “a strategic asset” for the university came across as a cold, industrial assessment of the program. Even those who thought Martelli’s tenure had run its course – and there are many, acknowledged that the words used to dismiss the coach were more than just awkward.

The bigger problem is that the phrase “strategic asset” indicates an even larger problem that is taking hold throughout the entire universe of sports.

The reason virtually any person watches sports is for the emotional involvement. The very word fan is a form of the term fanatic, and fanatics have very little relationship with the cold industrial words that have creeped into everyday viewership of sports.

Much of this has its basis in the term analytics, which is a phrase that serves as a barrier between what you see and what you are told you see.

Mind you, this is not a diatribe against the use of analytics. In fact, the view from this side of the computer is that no team and no player can be provided with too much information. It is the responsibility of the individual coach, or player or whomever to sift through that information and decided what works and what does not work.

The disconnect occurs when that “information” is forced into the eyes and ears of fans who simply want to watch the games. The clutter of statistics, and charts, and graphs and trends become too overwhelming that it detracts from the game – and it disassociates the sport from the emotion.

Thus, you get industrialized language when all you need is a simple statement directed at the heart of the fan base or the coach, rather than the number crunchers in the office on the lower floor.

At his point, there will be those saying this is just another column by somebody yelling “get off my lawn,” and refusing to enter the new age of sports. Then again, there are reasons we all like to see a chalk line on the green lawn on a baseball field and not statistics on a white board.

Think of it this way, most people attend a concert because they like the music. They don’t care what notes are being played, and they certainly would not care for a legend of notes being sprayed across a screen behind the band as it played.

Many people know there is a Hendrix chord used by Jimi Hendrix, but it is of no value to anybody listening to know the notes in that chord. It just sounds good.

You can also think of a rainbow.

Almost all humans simply look at a rainbow and enjoy the colors. However, you get the idea that some of the people reporting and putting a sporting event on TV today would now consider tarnishing that shot of a rainbow by covering the colors with a graphic indicating the intensity of the angles that cause the refractions of light and colors.

Can’t we just enjoy the rainbow or the game?

Somehow, all of this industrial language has infiltrated the world of sports, and for the most part it is nothing more than showing off for those few people who actually know that is being reported.

There is certainly a place for all of this information, but it should be directed at similar people who understand the language. Instead, it is being used as the language of sports and it is getting in the way of simply enjoying what actually happened in front of your eyes.

Before almost any statistic gets involved in a story a very simply question should be asked – Who gives a darn?

If the honest answer to that is “only the people who are as involved as me in these particular numbers,” then the article should be sent to only those people. Otherwise, it is either simply showing off, or trying to tell people they need to be as smart as me to explain what you saw.

And if the author thinks he or she actually needs a primer to accompany the story – well, that should be a pretty good indication it is being written for a very small community, and should probably stay in that community where it will be appreciated as most sports fans don’t want to be given homework when reading about a game.

On the other hand, if those numbers can be explained in a way the simply explains what happened and why – more power to the new information.

Baseball has always been a game consumed by numbers, but now a screen shot of a home run also includes launch angles, velocity et al – and it can serve to diminish the sheer power of the home run. If you heard the bat hit the ball, and saw where it landed, and heard the crowd – that should be plenty, at least at the moment of the home run.

So, what does all of this have to do with the firing of Phil Martelli?

It’s pretty simple, we have reached a point where the business of sports, and the analytics of sports is dangerously close to overshadowing the emotions involved.

Whether the coach deserved to be fired or not, the basketball program at St. Joseph’s University should never be termed a “strategic asset,” especially by the athletic director.

Sports is so much more than that.