Thursday, August 02, 2007

Tangible Intangibles

ESPN.com's fluff piece of the day is a prediction on which 50 active NFL players will eventually go on to the Hall of Fame.

As you can see by the rankings, Tom Brady beats out Peyton Manning despite Manning's complete dominance in every stat except Super Bowl rings. I've been out of school for a couple years, but I'm pretty sure three and one are still just numbers. If we ignore every statistic that says Manning is better--in other words, every statistic ever--why can't we ignore that one?

The most common excuse is that Manning has a better supporting cast, so his numbers should be better. Pop quiz: Which of the following tasks is more dependent on having a good team around you?

- Winning two additional Super Bowls
- Averaging more yards per pass attempt

By my count, the former requires 52 good players to back up the QB, and the latter maybe 10-12.

Brady vs. Manning isn't really the focus of this entry, but it does illustrate my real beef with the article. The players are ranked by several criteria, one of which is:

"Intangibles -- Anything not covered by the other four categories, for instance: leadership, reputation, team success potential, superstar potential and positional representation in the Hall of Fame."

Apparently the player's positional representation in the Hall of Fame is now an intangible, even though it took me literally fifteen seconds to find this list via Google.

Anyway, if you're really new here, you may not know that I hate the word Intangibles with a passion matched only by the guys at FJM. Here's what intangibles actually are, courtesy of Dictionary.com:

in·tan·gi·ble [in-tan-juh-buhl] –adjective
1.not tangible; incapable of being perceived by the sense of touch, as incorporeal or immaterial things; impalpable.
2.not definite or clear to the mind: intangible arguments.
3.(of an asset) existing only in connection with something else, as the goodwill of a business.
–noun
4.something intangible, esp. an intangible asset: Intangibles are hard to value.

Read number 4 again. "Intangibles are hard to value." Why are they hard to value? Because, per number 2, they are not definite or clear to the mind.

So, let's recap. Why do we label things as intangibles? Because we can't measure them, which means we can't tell if one player has better intangibles than another. Great, we're all caught up. Now, think back to the last ten times you've heard the term "intangibles" used on a sports broadcast. Which of these sounds like a more accurate representation?

A) "David Eckstein may not have size, but he has great intangibles, which caused Curtis Granderson to slip and fall while chasing the World Series MVP's fly ball."
B) "Well, character is an intangible, so we don't really know if Tom Brady has 'it'. But his numbers do point to him as one of the top 5 or 6 active QBs in the NFL."

Take your time, this one was tough even for me.

This butchering is an insult to the English language. I wonder just how long an English major can put up with ESPN before the misuse of 'intangibles' and 'momentum' causes his brain to explode.

By the way, check out that scoring system. If these guys worked for a college, their admissions criteria would look like this:

20%: Mortality -- Estimated years left to live
20%: Statistics -- Grades, SAT/ACT scores, awards
20%: Upside -- IQ, bench press, height, good looks
20%: Team performance -- Colleges your friends are attending, test scores of your classmates, and whether your football team (with you as waterboy) won any playoff games
20%: Intangibles -- Anything not covered by the other four categories, for instance: leadership, reputation, earnings potential, and gender/racial representation in your field of study

(By the way, how great is it that ESPN thinks Upside is a tangible thing but positional representation in the HoF is not? I guess it's easier to clock a 40 time than actually look something up.)

How can we put an end to this? Here's my idea: ESPN should force Lon McEachern and Norman Chad to work intangibles into their poker broadcasts. Example:

Lon: "Well, Phil Ivey may have had only a 5% chance to win that pot, but his intangibles willed that Ace of Spades to hit on the river."
Norman: "The prettiest card in the deck saves Phil Ivey from getting WHAMBOOZLED!"

I think at this point, even the average viewer might begin to understand the Fundamental Theorem of Sports Analysis:

All variance can be explained by intangibles.

Damn, that's good. I need to get a copyright.

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