12 May 2011

Simple Narratives in Sports

Joe Posnanski, who writes for Sports Illustrated, also maintains one of the best all-around sports blogs. His latest post takes a look at post-steroids era baseball and the simplicity of attributing lower offensive output to no more steroids in baseball. At the start he gives one of the best examples of the 'simple narrative' which rears its ugly head in the development world but is pervasive in just about everything else.
One of the constant themes here is the power of narrative in sports. We like a good, clean narrative. Take Tiger Woods. Let's say Tiger Woods never wins another major championship. I think he will win again, but let's just say for argument's sake that he does not. What will the narrative be?

It will be this: Tiger Woods was well on his way to becoming the greatest golfer who ever lived when his personal life spiraled out control and he never recovered from that. 
AT&T National Golf Tournament @ Congressional Country Club - Hosted by Tiger Woods
Would that be the whole story? No. I don't think so. I'm not sure it would even be the major part of the story. If Tiger Woods never wins another major it will be because he hit his mid-30s when most golfers begin to lose their game, because his knee never came all the way back, because putts stopped dropping (as they tend to do), because talented younger golfers came along, because equipment changes flattened his advantages, because ... because ... because ... the world is more complicated than any single line. Was Tiger Woods' six-month romp through the tabloids devastating? I have no doubt. Did it play a role in his slump? I have no doubt. But there are a thousand other factors flying around here.

Over time, I suspect, those thousand other factors will be lost to time and the story will be: Tiger messed around, got caught, and never was the same.

Why? Because that's an easy-to-follow narrative. And because the public explosion of Tiger Woods' personal life is the most interesting part of the story.
We like simple narratives. This is an old topic, but I bring it up because it is always in the context of development. This is not development related in topic at all, but the same problem exists. While being critical of the use of simple narrative by a given NGO, I think I have neglected to mention or even consider that it is pervasive in everything else.

The Red Sox ALCS comeback in 2004 almost always has people talking about Curt Schilling's bloody sock. What they forget is that Schilling, while serving up a gutsy performance, was not all that great in the game. The Yankees line up continued to swing at pitches out of the zone. The past two games the Yanks had the chance to put the series away and failed to do so. Energy was lacking in the New York line up and hope was building within the Red Sox and it could be heard throughout Fenway. In other words, the Yankees choked and the Sox pulled themselves together.

The simple story is that the will of the Sox defeated the evil Yankees. That sounds really nice but is just not true. Many small things came together to put the Yankees up 3-0 and eventually lose 4 straight.

Even when working together, a single actor does not have complete control over an outcome. It probably made many Red Sox fans sleep a little easier to have Bill Buckner as the scapegoat for losing the 1986 World Series. Did they forget the wild pitch that tied up the game before Mookie hit the fateful grounder down the first base line? How about the barrage of singles that came before that with two outs and in some cases, two strikes? For Cubs fans the name is Steve Bartman and there are other examples in other sports.

Simplicity is problematic because it betrays the truth of what took place and caused an event to happen. NGOs and governments have the opportunity of moving away from simplicity by engaging in a continuous dialog with their donors and advocates. Social media is a great space for this since a series of posts can develop a conversation and unveil some of the finer points of how aid and development work.

Queens - Flushing: Shea Stadium - 1986 World Series Celebration Banner
Unfortunately, there is little evidence that any large organization is doing this in earnest. World Vision USA has done a mediocre job and the same goes with Oxfam by having Duncan Green blog. The model, to me, still is the Center for Global Development who use different platforms with many of their lead researchers and fellows participating, but they only half count since they are more of a think tank than an NGO.

So who is going to step up to the plate? Or are we going to still hear more stories about Bill Buckner?