Highlights this week include: a discussion of human polls generally and the Doug Lesmerises' controversy specifically; new installments of The Philosophers Club and Twitter Tracker; plus this week's Undulating Curve of Media Hype. Ready, set, go.
Doug Lesmerises is a sportswriter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I had no idea who he was until about a week ago, and I'm betting you didn't either. Turns out he's an AP voter and he decided to do a novel thing with his ballot starting last week, which was (i) throw away his ballot from the previous week, (ii) take into account the games that had been played already, (iii) not take into account his personal belief how good he thinks teams probably are based on things other than the games that had been played, (iv) not take into account predictions about where teams will end up ranked at the end of the year. In a nutshell, this is resume-ranking and this is apparently what AP voters have been told to do the entire time. According to Lesmerises, the AP guideline is: "Base your vote on performance, not reputation or preseason speculation."
After Ole Miss lost to South Carolina on Thursday, Rebel Bradley Sowell had this to say about his team's previously lofty ranking: "I'm glad it's gone so we can get back to working and win some ballgames. You can't really pay attention to [the ranking] anyway. I'm glad it's over with so everyone can just stop talking about it and play ball." That speaks more to the state of that program under Houston Nutt than anything else I could possibly imagine. Ole Miss fans agree.
So there you go. Lesmerises read the AP guidelines for voting, adhered to them and came up with a top 25 ranking reflecting his assessment of the resumes of teams based solely on the actual results of the actual games that had already been played. So of course he was feted throughout the land for doing his job correctly.....what's that? No? Everyone called him an idiot and called for his ballot to be taken away? Well, that's completely irrational isn't it?
The answer is yes. Completely and utterly irrational. First of all, the AP guidelines for ranking teams tell everyone to do exactly what he did. Second, the reason they have guidelines for ranking teams is that, in order for a poll of numerous people to be a valid measure of anything, the pollsters have to be in agreement about what exactly they are ranking. Third, the reason the AP chose resume ranking as its guideline rather than anything else is that it's the only completely rational way of ranking teams. Fourth, as evidenced by Lemerises' explanation of this week's rankings, he's thinking long and hard about what he's doing.
Unfortunately, a lot of people out there are arguing with Lesmerises about the wrong things. They're saying that he's stupid or just being provocative because he's ranking teams differently than other pollsters. But in doing so, they are ridiculing his method, not his results, even though the method is a rational system prescribed by the organization administering the poll. They are arguing with points 1-4 in the previous paragraph rather than the results of points 1-4. You may disagree with the way in which Doug Lesmerise ranks certain teams, and that's fine, but in doing so, you should, for example, be arguing that Florida's wins are better than Houston's wins rather than that Florida deserves to be #1 because you and everyone else obviously knows that they're the best team in the country. In short, the debate should be framed the way that Chris Littman at The Sporting News framed it: I understand what you're doing and it's legitimate, but based on this resume standard, I disagree with you for the following reasons. Let's talk about rankings in way that's meaningful rather than counterproductive.
Bruce Feldman: "RT @MoveTheSticks Did Jack Youngblood get as much credit for playing with a broken leg as Tebow is getting for playing with a cold?"
Bruce Feldman: "Wife's observation: why are there six cops surrounding Bobby Petrino during this interview?"
Bruce Feldman: "Well done. RSFarley@BFeldmanESPN. Arkansas State Troopers are assigned to make sure Petrino doesn't leave for another job during halftime."
Now, if I may speak about polls a bit more esoterically (as if this entire weekly column isn't a bit esoteric to begin with), I have gone on record several times stating my general support for the BCS, while laying out a plan to modify the system to help it achieve its own goals better. But my one caveat to this general support has been that the ranking systems have to get better. For example, as I said last December, "(1) there should be nothing that computers can't take into account except for perhaps margin of victory over a certain point (really, beating a team by 42 points isn't much different from beating them by 28 points), (2) there should be more computers to get a meaningful average, and (3) human voters shouldn't be idiots." I should also add to this list the following: (4) the coaches should have nothing whatsoever to do with anything related to polls.
Caveats one, two and four are easily fixable by a rule change. Caveat three is much more difficult to fix because it hinges on the vagaries of human minds (some of which don't operate at optimal capacity), but this Doug Lesmerises incident has brought me around to thinking that we're on a good path towards fixing that as well. While resume ranking is nothing new, and pollsters have been claiming to do it for years, absolute pure resume ranking is really a rather recent phenomenon, at least as far as I'm aware. And more importantly than it being new is that it has operated largely in the realm of bloggers like Sunday Morning Quarterback. But then something happened and mainstream printing-press-by-god-sportswriters like Doug Lesmerises started to take note and realize that what they had been doing for all these years didn't really make sense.
I think some of it has to do with things like SMQ becoming Dr. Saturday (while remaining Matt Hinton) and writing for a fairly mainstream outlet like Yahoo Sports (while still pounding the drum of resume ranking), but I think that, more than that, it's a symptom of a larger trend: we live in a golden age of college football discourse. Sure, there's a lot of nonsense out there, but if you know where to look and who's worth reading, you can find serious (and funny) discussions about aspects of college football that has been largely ignored for years. When I was growing up, the AP poll was pretty much gospel. While there were debates about whether one team really should have been ranked x spots higher than another, no one seriously asked fundamental questions about the poll like what it was trying to measure. Now, everyone is debating resume-ranking methods, established scribes are beginning to take notice, and those with votes are actually thinking about the "why" and "how" of their ballots.
For instance, here is a quote from Doug Lesmerises about the poll generally, as told to Pat Forde of ESPN:
"What people think in August [when filling out preseason Top 25s] is at least partly based on what Phil Steele and Athlon thought in April [when their preview magazines are written]," Lesmerises said. "A multi-gazillion-dollar industry based on people putting 15 minutes into a poll that is based on a magazine that did its rankings in April is not a good system."
The voters have become self-aware! Seriously though, I can't imagine hearing an AP voter say this 5-10 years ago.
You might think it a coincidence that this new awareness arises at the same time as the proliferation of other, more open sources of media (i.e. blogs), but I don't. Most mainstream writers read sites like BON and Dr. Saturday and EDSBS. We've been contacted numerous times by ESPN.com authors about things that we've written. That story about Chip Kelly giving a refund to a fan for his trip to BSU? The one that you saw on SportsCenter? That was originally reported on EDSBS. Sportswriters read these things now and there's a new openness to the discourse on the college football polls. And that's most definitely a good thing.
I don't mean to say that they're stealing our ideas or don't have original thoughts themselves. I just mean to say that the echo chamber is gone. There are dissenting thoughts out there and some members of the media are starting to pay attention to them and re-evaluate their own ballots. And while other members of the media don't pay attention to the dissent when it comes from people like me or Peter or Matt Hinton, they might when it comes from someone like Doug Lesmerises or Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News.
Right now, those two AP voters are outliers. But if the mainstream media debate over Lesmerises' ballot this past week is any indication (there were even multiple television segments about it!), more and more mainstream writers and AP voters are going to start to actually think about what they're doing and why they're doing it, rather than just doing what's always been done. And the more the media and AP poll drive talk about this "novel idea" of polling, the more Harris Poll voters catch on and, perhaps, the better this whole BCS thing might get. But seriously though, get rid of the coaches' poll.
And now, without further ado, but with apologies to New York Magazine and Adam Sternbergh, here is your weekly Undulating Curve of Media Hype.