Recency bias

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

TheUndefeated.com, a site owned by ESPN that describes itself as “the premier platform for exploring the intersections of race, sports and culture” (or as the original editor-in-chief Jason Whitlock put it, “Black Grantland.”) published a list this week with the purpose of identifying the “50 Greatest Black Athletes.”

Spoiler alert: It’s a terrible list.

And not just because your initial reaction might be to roll your eyes and wonder why identifying the 50 greatest black athletes would be such a big deal, wondering why they wouldn’t just do the 50 greatest athletes.

And also not just because you’re like me and couldn’t help but make a (slightly racist?) joke upon seeing the headline that it may just be redundant. (Like I said, just a joke because ... ya know, Larry Bird and stuff.)

It’s a terrible list because they let it all get settled by the American public via SurveyMonkey. The survey went out to 10,350 adults, effectively trimming a list of 200 down to 60 and from there to 50.

SurveyMonkey is kind enough to maintain all the demographics on these voters which makes me think part of the intent with this list was to try and point to race as a catalyst for people behaving differently. Well, the fact they kept the stats and that ESPN.com, Fivethirtyeight.com (ESPN’s site for stat junkies) and TheUndefeated.com all ran stories about the demographic breakdowns of the voters, showing some differences between white and non-white voters but far more due to age.

Of course, it could all be looked at as a valuable social experiment as well, trying to gauge the nation in a new way. That goal has undeniably been accomplished, so you can decide which idea was the true motivator.

Regardless, the list is junk.

For starters, the criteria for greatness in reality is 100 percent arbitrary, but they tried to break it down into 40 percent overall rating, 20 percent dominance, 20 percent impact on society and 20 percent inspiration.

This is flawed because all four criteria are clearly interlocked. People’s judgements overall are already influenced by how they feel about the other three categories whether they realize it or not. Plus, doesn’t your work as an inspiration have an impact on society? Like, isn’t society impacted by being inspired?

The problem here is that impact on society criteria is really more of something along the lines of “best social justice warrior.”

I think that’s fair to say because Mike Wise, “The Undefeated’s” token white guy, wrote his reactionary column complaining about the exclusion of guys like Tommie Smith and John Carlos (the guys that held up their fists during the Star Spangled Banner at the Mexico City Olympics).

Eventually he says this, “Now, I get it’s also not a list of ‘The 50 Greatest Black Social Justice Warriors.’ Yet a hefty percentage of every selection was determined by impact on society and inspiration.”

So even the website that published the list doesn’t like the list because people that voted on it don’t obsess over an athlete’s social commentary as much as they do.

However, the biggest problem with the list is a ridiculous tilt of recency bias.

Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles are at nine and eight respectively, slotted right in between Jerry Rice and Hank Aaron. Meanwhile, Tiger Woods isn’t even on the list, so effectively, being great for one Olympics is valued exponentially higher than completely owning a sport for over a decade.

You can’t even say it’s because he identified himself as “Cablinasian” one time because I saw Dave Chappelle’s Racial Draft. Woods went No. 1 overall to the black delegation. That’s inarguable.

The most realistic reasoning for Woods’ exclusion is his infidelity and subsequent fall from grace, but the mere blowback from that whole debacle shows the guy has an absurd amount of impact on society. (I’d like to take this opportunity to mention they didn’t clarify if that impact had to be “positive.”)

There are plenty more injustices like Steph Curry (28) coming in right ahead of LeBron James (29), and the fact that Jim Brown sits just behind them at 30, or Jack Johnson, the reason for the phrase, “The Great White Hope” not even making the list. I can’t stand the guy, but Kobe inexplicably fell short of the list, and Bill “I have 11 NBA championship rings” Russell got slated at 36 — two spots behind Herschel Walker ... how? No Randy Moss, but Larry Fitzgerald at 42. What is happening?

Recency bias again shows at the top. I personally think they got the top three names right, but they’re in the wrong order. It goes Michael Jordan, Jackie Robinson and then Ali who clearly should be at the top of the list because he said so.

These are the types of things that happen when you open up voting on stuff like this to the public. There’s a reason leagues try to minimize the impact of the fan vote on all-star games.

There’s a reason the Baseball Writers of America vote on the Hall of Fame.

There’s a reason America is a republic rather than an outright democracy.

In fact, that conclusion is by far the most valuable contribution this list has made to the public at large because the list itself should be printed, rolled up and mounted next to your porcelain reading chair.