Sammy Moorin

Dr. Butts

WRI 210

March 6, 2015

Ethnographic Map of the Field of Basketball

Being from Kentucky, basketball is an integral part of my everyday life. Whether it be in season, or out, a University of Kentucky basketball fan does not rest with their fervor for the sport. Because of this, I would consider myself a connoisseur of the field of basketball and I have noticed a quite interesting trend. Within the umbrella of basketball there seems to be a major split in how the sport is displayed to the public. There is a great divide between presenting the sport in a press related way and a science related way. In this paper I will analyze and describe the ways in which the two representations of basketball use rhetoric to target their specific audiences and effectively present their ideas and opinions; I will also contend that the press side of basketball has a broader audience due to the general shortness of story length, lack of rhetoric complexity, and human relate ability.

In the modern day, the media is all around us. It comes from our phones, our friends, our T.V.s, our computers, you name it and it probably spits information at us. Our brains have become used to being overloaded with words and images and because of this, we have evolved into needing hyper stimulation. Although we look to be entertained at all times, we have lost a lot of our ability to focus on one thing for an extended period of time. An average American’s attention span in 2013 was a whopping 8 seconds long (Keyes). “People’s brains are taxed,” says McCormack, because “too many things are competing for our attention. If you can’t get to the point quickly, you risk being dismissed or ignored. (McCormack, 7).” So, how exactly does this affect the two viewpoints in basketball?

Consumers look for short condensed versions of information so much so that Twitter exists. Whole stories are condensed into 140 characters in order to make it more convenient for the reader to understand the content. Here are two examples:

When I searched the twitter hashtag #basketballscience, this was the closest thing I could find to an actual scientific study. This tweet is an attempt to sum up a press article about a study that was conducted but I could not find a single tweet that was directly speaking towards the science side of basketball on it’s own. There were no tweets like “can’t believe the average angle I should shoot at is 50.8 degrees #becauseim6foot #basketballscience.” Twitter is a media outlet designed for a broad audience. It lets the average Joe have a general knowledge of a lot of different things. Throughout this class if I have discerned anything about science writing it is that it is not something that can be classified as simple and or general. For the most part nowadays if a scientist writes about a discovery it is because it is not common knowledge and is something he needs to explain in detail for others to understand. Because of this, twitter is not the kind of outlet that lends itself for science writing. On the other hand it lends itself perfectly to press style writing. For example:

This tweet is a perfect example of how sports reporters use twitter to present their news or ideas. “Calipari says he won’t use platoon system again at Kentucky.” It conveys the complete message of what needs to be understood to a reader in under 140 characters. It is fast and to the point making it easy for the consumers of ESPN to get their news and move on to the next story.

Similar to the tweets allowing viewers to rapidly intake a lot of different information, the ESPN show SportsCenter uses short segments to keep the attention of the viewer. In this clip from 2013, SportCenter gives a quick recap of all the best plays thus far in the NCAA tournament (SportsCenter). While the whole video is 2 minutes and 51 seconds long, it is constantly changing and keeping the viewers’ brains stimulated with images and spoken word at the same time. There is even a countdown that keeps viewer reminded that they are about to see new material about every fifteen to twenty five second. In psychology our tendency to pay attention to new stimuli over familiar stimuli is referred to as the novelty preference. SportsCenter understands this preference for new and changing information and uses it to keep a massive audience entertained and attentive.

Rhetoric can both expand and contract the scope of your audience. The only thing that restricts the audience in the tweet about Kentucky basketball is the name Calipari and the word platoon. These are types of jargon that are frequently used in the basketball reporting world: names of players or coaches and sport specific descriptors. Although this type of jargon does restrict the audience, I believe that the jargon used in the scientific side of basketball is much more restrictive. Phrases like “gambler’s fallacy” or “lexis ratio” that are used in science writing need years of background knowledge and study as opposed to something like a name which requires one google search to understand (Tverski, 8). An average American can understand that Calipari is the coach for the UK basketball team by someone just telling them. In contrast an average American will not understand that a Lexis raio is “a measure which seeks to evaluate differences between the statistical properties of random mechanisms where the outcome is two-valued (Wikipedia).” Although both use jargon as rhetoric, the press jargon is much more accessible to the general public than the jargon used by basketball scientists.

There is one piece of jargon that overlaps between both the science side and the press side of basketball writing and it is the metaphor of being “hot.” Being hot or on fire means that a team or player has a higher percentage of field goals either from a certain position on the court or just in general. This jargon is especially useful to science writers that are analyzing statistics visually after a game, for example:

This piece of visual rhetoric is a very effect tool for analysis and data interpretation in the basketball science field. It is meant to show the frequency of movement and shots of basketball players throughout the court. It is being presented as if it were an aerial thermal map of a court. The more red the area, the ‘hotter’ or more frequently visited that place is on the court. This specific thermal map is showing one half of a game between two teams. Without much extrapolation one can assume that the team that was shooting on the left side of the court ended up winning the game due to the massive discrepancies in frequency and ‘hotness’ of the left side of the court. The metaphor of being hot lets science writers use visual rhetoric to effectively present their data without having to explain the specifics as much as they usually would.

On the other side of basketball, we see the metaphor being used during live reports of games when a certain player is making a lot of shots. Often times reporters will imply that the other players ought to pass to the guy with the “hot hand” because he has a higher chance of making it. Although it is not scientifically true that that player has a higher chance of making the shot, it gives fans and viewers someone to cheer for therefore making them more invested in watching the game itself (Tversky, Vallone).

Another crucial part of basketball that is highly utilized by both sides is the epistemological inscription device that deals with the accurate measurement of elapsed time. Or, as the press side of basketball would put it, the shot clock is a very important tool in understanding basketball. Although it does not seem like it may be so high tech, the shot clock performs a task that humans could not do. Without the shot clock there would have never been a documentary called “I Hate Christian Laettner” or a study that can tell players the optimum time to shoot the ball during a game to achieve maximum field goal percentages. The usage of the shot clock is where the two perspectives differ. The science side uses the shot clock to produce data points in order to make correlations and extrapolate conclusions (Skinner). The reporting side uses the shot clock to help viewers understand the plays and calls that are being made in the game itself. One uses the shot clock to make things even more complicated and one uses the shot clock to make the game of basketball more understandable for everyone.

The simplistic rhetoric used in press writing allows their audience to stay broad as opposed to the complex writing techniques and vocabulary used in the scientific and more formal side of basketball. To prove this, I went searching for one informal article (press) and one formal article (science) that were talking about the exact same thing and then put them through a text analysis program that measured for the the Flesch-Kincad Grade Level. The Flesch-Kincad Grade Level takes into account many factors including word length, syllables per word, words per sentence, overall word count, and different words to come up with the reading grade level necessary to fully understand the given text. When I analyzed the two articles, one from Wired (Stack) and then the actual scientific study (Skinner), I found that the outcomes for the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Levels were nine years apart. The scientific writing required a full college degree while the press writing required the completion of elementary school. According the US Census in 2014 the percentage of people in the US with a college degree is 35% while the percentage of people in the US with above a 5th grade education is 99%. Due to their simplified rhetoric, the press side of basketball broadened their audience by 58% while the science side cut out 65% of the US population.

Even when analyzing an ethical dilemma, the two sides of basketball approach the subject in very different ways. Let’s take the example of performance enhancing drugs. When looking through the articles on performance enhancing drugs (PED), I found an interesting dichotomy between those from the reporting world and those from the science world. In the reporting world, every article was taking a negative stance on the usage of PEDs and bashing either an institution for not testing well enough or bashing a player for his usage of PEDs. In contrast, the science articles generally did not take a stance one way or the other on the usage of PEDs and instead wanted to analyze the actual benefits of their utilization in the sport. The two articles I chose to take a closer look at are “Systematic Review: The Effects of Growth Hormone on Athletic Performance” and “The Gaps in NBA Drug Testing.” Why do these two approaches yield such different responses to the same ethical problem? ESPN puts themselves in the shoes of the players that are losing playing time because they are staying true to the rules of the game while the Internal Medicine article is trying to approach the situation from a purely analytical perspective. The main difference that I noticed was the use of quotes and dialogue within the ESPN article which added emotion into the equation and the seeming lack of the human element in the Internal Medicine article.

Humans relate to other humans. We are biologically designed to identify with people on an emotional and intellectual level. This is the reason we have teachers in the classroom and not computers. This is why we get emotionally attached to characters in stories and not to the words themselves. The broad psychological field that studies this is called attachment theory and one of the most important studies conducted was done by Harry Harlow. Harlow took eight monkeys and put them in a cage with two “surrogate mothers.” One of the mothers was wrapped in a warm cloth and made to look and feel like a monkey. The other was made out of hard wire and piping. Even though the hard mother was the one with food, all of the monkeys would stay with the soft mother until they absolutely needed to eat. After they ate, they would return back to the comfort of the soft mother. A basic summary of the conclusion of his experiment is that creatures are drawn to things that look like them and act like them over things that look mechanical and foreign. Why am I explaining this you may ask? This theory holds true with words as well as with physical things.

The writing that comes out of the science side of basketball is hard and mechanical. One of the main rules for this type of writing is to remove the human element out of the study in order to reduce error. On the other hand, reporting and journalism does the opposite. It works hard to keep the human element and focus the story on the people inside the situation, not just the situation itself. Because of this, people are more drawn towards the reporting rather than the scientific articles. It is a psychological fact that the press side of basketball ought to have a broader audience just due to the fact that it is more human and less machine.

In conclusion, there are three main factors that contribute to the greater accessibility of basketball reporting in comparison to basketball science writing. Everything in our life has to do with our brains. As the Buddha says, “what you think, you are.” Because of this, reporters use psychology studies to alter the way they try and target a large audience. Study after study has shown the novelty preference to be supported throughout all of society. We like seeing new things, it hold our attention longer than the normal 8 seconds. This fact is the reason you see shows like SportsCenter that have constantly changing information in order to keep viewers engaged. The second facet of our minds which dictates what we pay attention to and what we do not is how well we can comprehend what is being said. If I tied to read Skinner’s article on shot clock timing and its correlation to field goal percentages I would get confused then frustrated and then I would stop reading the article. Conversely, because the reading level of most sports articles tend to be around a 5th to 6th grade reading level, I can easily understand what is trying to be communicated without difficulty and therefore am much more likely to continue reading. Last but certainly not least, basketball reporting is a human centric way of looking at the sport. We as human beings are biologically more inclined to identify and pay attention to things that appear humanlike. Because of this, the general populous is much more inclined to read an article about a player’s struggle with PEDs rather than a quantitative analysis of the cardiovascular effects of PEDs. We can identify with the player, put ourselves in his position and therefore we want to continue reading. All of these factors add up to one logical conclusion, the press side of basketball writing is much more effective at drawing in and retaining consumers of their media due to their flawless integration of rhetoric strategies based on psychology.

If you want to further research this topic for yourself, here is a list of sources you should be looking into:

Press Side:

  • ESPN
  • Fox Sports
  • CBS Sports
  • TIME
  • NY Times
  • Any major newspaper has a sports section

Science Side:

  • Handbook of Sports Medicine and Science
  • Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport
  • Journal of Sports Science and Medicine
  • American Journal of Physic
  • Journal of Sports Sciences

Works Cited

Gilovich, Thomas, Robert Vallone, and Amos Tversky. “The Hot Hand in Basketball: On the Misperception of Random Sequences.” Cognitive Psychology 17.3 (1985): 295–314. Web.

Keyes, Alexa. “Infographic: The Shrinking Attention Span.” NBC News. N.p., 21 May 2014. Web. 06 May 2015.

“Lexis Ratio.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 06 May 2015.

SportsCenter. “TSN Top 10 March Madness Plays.” YouTube. YouTube, 27 Apr. 2013. Web. 07 May 2015.

Tang, Julia. “The Physics of Basketball.” YouTube. YouTube, 7 Mar. 2013. Web. 07 May 2015.

United States. U.S. Census Bureau. Educational Attainment. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 2014. Print.

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