Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Month: October 2015

Sport Geek #20: brooms, shirts and madness

No grand narrative this week – just straight into the most interesting stuff of the last week or so…

As the rugby World Cup final approaches, everyone’s still a bit hot under the collar over technology and replays. Here’s the Economist’s take on it all.

The haka – why let the All Blacks get the upper hand with a silly dance? Continue reading

Sport Geek #19: the Joubert Ultimatum

Decisions made in real time are never perfect. Don’t second guess an operation from an armchair.” So says the over-zealous CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen in the Bourne Ultimatum.

Referee Craig Joubert probably wishes World Rugby, his governing body, had said something along those lines. Instead, they hung him out to dry.

Its bland statement says that instead of awarding a penalty in the dying moments of the match – which Australia kicked, winning by one point – “the appropriate decision… should have been a scrum to Australia for the original knock-on.” In other words, bad call. Wrong team won.

World Rugby goes on to say: “Despite this experience, Craig has been and remains a world-class referee and an important member of our team.” BFD. Joubert is the scapegoat, end of. He won’t be welcome in Scotland any time soon, that’s for sure.

What on earth was World Rugby hoping to achieve with this statement? It can’t change the outcome of the match. Australia will probably go on to the final now, and if they win, fair play to them. But that semifinal spot should have gone to Scotland. This only fans the flames of injustice.

This whole saga goes deeper than one bad call. The whole role of the referee is under threat. When the stadium is shown the instant replay, but the referee can only use TV for specific decisions, it’s a recipe for disaster. No wonder Joubert ran from the pitch: refs are not trained for this kind of immediate feedback.

Umpires in tennis are now more involved in player behaviour than line calls. Is Nadal wasting time? Is Serena making more death threats? Is Kyrgios… whatever. Football refs still have a lot of autonomy, but goal-line decisions are in place, and it won’t end there. Cricket umpires are still useful, but frequently over-ruled by technology – and it’s only going one way.

In rugby, it feels like this might be the tipping point between human decision and technology. Referees now go to the video for all manner of things before a try – a slight knock-on? A hint of a forward pass? Go to the TMO.

If referees become no more than procedural conduits for decisions taken elsewhere, we are reducing them from the role of judge to that of court clerk. Does the game lose something, other than just the flow? Or are these decisions too important (and too financially costly) to be made by one person?

A big part of sport is second guessing a decision from an armchair. Perhaps after all, Noah Vosen was wrong.

Anyway, to the small matter of some cracking things for you to read from the last week or so… Continue reading

Sport Geek #18: yips, slides and smog

“How far should we go to stamp out violence in sport?”

When I wrote the sentence above, the pun was unintended. But as I scrolled back to edit it out and replace with something that didn’t use violent imagery, it occurred to me that it is exactly the point.

Killing, murdering, fighting, destroying – when sport is full of such metaphors, should we be surprised when violence is committed on the pitch?

It depends on the game, to an extent. Let’s start with baseball. Chase Utley’s slide take-out of Ruben Tejada last weekend is upsetting to watch. Not because you can see Tejada’s leg get broken (which it did). It’s that Utley isn’t sliding to second base, he’s going for the man. You can see the intent.

Other sports are more inherently violent. The line between what is accepted in rugby and what isn’t is very blurred. You can take a player out without the ball at the ruck. But you can’t tackle him without the ball elsewhere. You can’t take someone out like Utley did, but there are legitimate means.

Which makes Sean O’Brien’s punch look pretty silly. That’s not even close to playing hard, it’s just punching.

So O’Brien gets banned for one game, and Utley is banned for… just two. Had O’Brien actually hurt his opponent more than just winding him, perhaps it would have been more – but the similar sanctions given the very different outcomes seem odd. Diego Costa got a three match ban for stamping on Emre Can last season, which didn’t break his leg.

Should we ban players for their actions, or the result? It might seem obvious to say for actions, but when this is jail time, yet this gets nothing, it’s a confusing world. Sport administrators seem incapable of handling violence with consistency. Meanwhile the fans and media dial up the fighting talk.

On a cheerier note, here’s the best sports writing of the week. Continue reading

Sport Geek #17: sackings, self-portraits and the Wuhan curse

When things go wrong for a team, sacking the coach is the usual response. By the time you read this, Stuart Lancaster may well be out of the England rugby job. Brendan Rodgers has been sacked from Liverpool this week. Jose Mourinho bravely said he was going nowhere and he’d have to be sacked from Chelsea.

The urge to sack is understandable, but often wrong. In both rugby and football, two examples of how sticking with the manager can pay off are clear: Alex Ferguson and Clive Woodward. I won’t list their achievements here – it would take too long. The point is, they both were given time after average starts.

But for club owners or international bosses, the desire to (be seen to) take action overpowers the braver decision to stick with a manager. Strangely, this is the direct opposite of the sunk cost fallacy, where projects that are clearly a bad idea are pursued because of the money already wasted on them. A similar effect is to double down after bets go wrong. Where does that instinct go when deciding a coach’s fate?

Of course, we can’t know how things would have turned out if we had acted differently. Would England still have won the 2003 World Cup without Woodward? Will Jose Mourinho turn things around at Chelsea? Impossible to say. A manager-centric view of the world would say “no” and “yes”. A player- or luck-centric view might say “yes” and “no”.

In a world where results can be influenced by luck, it seems odd to sack managers so frequently. Of course, making poor transfer deals might be reason enough, but in international sport, you can’t buy in new players, so the win-it-all-or-bust approach seems unduly harsh.

So why not act more bravely, and stick with someone? A little bit of sunk-cost thinking might help.

Meanwhile, here’s the best sports writing of the last week: Continue reading

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