Math Police: Sports Division

Did you hear that the Big East conference has four teams in the Elite 8 of the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament?! Did you know that no conference has ever put four teams in the Elite 8 in the history of the tournament?!?!?!! Are you excited? Neither am I, except that this gives me another opportunity to rant about the inability of people to understand simple math concepts.

It's not that there aren't four Big East teams in the regional finals. There are: Louisville, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, and Villanova. The relevant fact, however, is that there are currently a total of 16 teams in the Big East, whereas no other power conference has ever had more than 12 teams. The previous record for one conference putting teams in the Elite 8 was three. Sixteen is to twelve as four is to three. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) In fact, when the Big East put three teams in the Final Four of the men's basketball tournament in 1985, there were only nine teams in the conference (and Louisville was not among them). The ACC, which also had nine teams that year, also had three teams in the Elite 8.

As anyone who follows sports knows, this is hardly the only mindless misuse of numbers that we run across on a regular basis. The NFL went from 14 to 16 games in 1978, but fans and commentators continue to talk about season records as totals rather than per-game averages. Baseball fans talk about 162-game records as if they are the same as 154-game (or less) records, such as the talk in 2001 when the Seattle Mariners went 116-46 and "tied" the all-time record for wins in a season. Whose record did they tie? The 1906 Cubs, who went 116-36.

The most ridiculous version of this was when I heard an announcer a couple of years ago talk about the great achievement of the NC State football team, when it won 10 games in one season for the first time (or for a couple of years in a row -- I can't recall the exact meaningless claim). Because of changes in the rules, however, that year the 'pack had played 15 games, whereas up until a couple of years ago most teams could only play 12 games (including a bowl). When you hear that, say, Oklahoma has won ten games in a season x times, you're talking about a team that frequently did so when they only played ten or eleven games, not a team that lost five games in a season while winning a minor bowl. But State won 10 games. You can't take that away from 'em!

This lack of comprehension of the meanings of numbers carries over to other basic concepts of logic. For example, the NFL recently adopted the so-called "Brady Rule," which makes it illegal for a defensive player to lunge at the legs of a quarterback (which is the move that ended Tom Brady's 2008 season during the first game of the year). Along with all the predictable repetitions of Jack Lambert's infamous "Why don't you just put a dress on 'em?" complaint, talk-show host and former defensive lineman Mike Golic assailed the rule because it would "prevent me from doing my job," which was to bring the quarterback down.

That's correct. Many rules make it harder to bring down a quarterback. Defensive linemen can no longer head-slap linemen; they can't grab blockers by the facemask and throw them out of the way; they can't bring weapons onto the field; and the quarterback is allowed to run more than two steps without being called for traveling. In fact, quarterbacks can never be called for traveling! (In the NBA, meanwhile, "crab dribblers" think they can take as many steps as they need -- but even pro basketball has limits.) Lots of rules. As in the legal system, if the rules change, the outcomes change; but that doesn't mean that the rules should never be changed. The worst argument, of course, is that "it's a violent sport" and "injuries happen." I'm sure that defensive linemen didn't say that when career-ending crackback blocks were banned, even though that made it harder for offensive players to do their jobs.

Why complain about this silliness? In part, just because it's fun to complain about sports on a Saturday afternoon. It does, however, seem odd to consider this inability to understand the function of rules and the basic context for numbers when we hear so often that "sports makes boys like math." If so, then it makes many of them enjoy playing with numbers without understanding them.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan