If you’re sick of me talking about Jimmy Dykes and his feelings about the Southeastern Conference, I understand. Feel free to go do something else – explore my blogroll, make yourself a sandwich, or whatever makes you happy. I have a hard time apologizing for revisiting this subject, however, because I think it exemplifies some important shortcomings in the sports media’s treatment of its subjects. Specifically, Dykes’ comments about the SEC highlight a lack of accountability and analysis from which sports journalism far too often considers itself exempt.
As fate would have it (and by “fate,” I mean “ESPN’s regional broadcasting assignments”), Dykes and his partner Brad Nessler did the Alabama-Vanderbilt game last night. I greeted Dykes’ amiable visage not with loathing, but with bemusement, as I wondered to myself if the night held yet another impassioned endorsement of the SEC. I expected that Dykes would not oblige, because surely he would not risk becoming a caricature of himself; surely, he would not want to become known as “the paranoid guy who can be counted upon to defend the SEC during every one of his broadcasts.” I was wrong.
Mid-way through the first half, Dykes said:
“I firmly believe that the SEC East will get three teams into the tournament, and that the West will get one. A fifth team will sneak in there too, watch.”
By itself, this comment is awfully fair. It is conceivable that three out of Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina and Kentucky will earn bids. It is equally conceivable that LSU will get a spot out of the SEC West. A fifth team making it seems like a stretch, but I will allow it. What is important about this comment is not the accuracy, but the subtle change from previous editions. The last two times Dykes has defended the SEC, he has done so by expressing outrage at the conference’s lack of ranked teams. He specifically talked about this during the Tennessee-Vanderbilt game on January 20th, and the Kentucky-Ole Miss game on January 27th. Tonight, Dykes softened his criteria. Now he is using NCAA tournament bids as the measurement for conference strength. He made this quite clear in the second half of the game:
“Everyone keeps ragging on [the SEC], but we’ll see how many teams make the tournament. And we’ll see how many teams make it past that first weekend – because that’s how you really tell what the good teams are.”
Dykes either has no idea what he’s doing, or knows exactly what he’s doing. He either realized that the SEC is going to have a tough time earning rankings, and chose to switch the criteria by which one judges a team in order to support his argument. Or – and I can’t rule this out – he has no idea that his argument has always revolved around national rankings and not around NCAA tournament bids. Either way, there is a problem.
If the former is the case, Dykes is being disingenuous and avoiding accountability. Instead of acknowledging the shakiness of his argument, he opted to subtly change its terms while hoping that no one would notice. His argument stays on life support, and only the most careful of listeners notice the difference. If the latter is the case, then Dykes needs to do a better job of, well, remembering what on earth he said. That doesn’t seem too demanding. The issue of accountability persists in either case. It is someone’s responsibility – the producer, a writer, Nessler – to have Dykes explain the reasoning behind his changed thinking. It’s negligent and irresponsible to allow a subtle change in tone but dramatic change in opinion go unexamined. Ultimately, an analyst is not restricted to one static opinion about one particular subject. That, too, is a brand of irresponsibility. But as the economist John Maynard Keynes said, “when the facts change, I change my mind.” If Dykes changed his mind – and it certainly appears that he did – he owes us an explanation of his thinking.
This brings me to my final point and biggest gripe about contemporary sports analysis – the idea that it’s okay not to explain yourself. Broadcasters can provide their take on a situation and expect no further questioning. They reveal the result of their work, but none of the process. This happens all the time. Because of this, analysis has become a luxury instead of the common good that it should be. Dykes’ entire pro-SEC campaign has exemplified this well. Each and every argument he has made was greeted with either silence or an “I agree with you there, partner” instead of a “why do you think that, Jimmy?” It has reached the point where I am pleasantly surprised when a broadcaster asks for clarification or elaboration, and this bothers me.
In this instance, if Dykes is right about the SEC’s latent potency, then very well. But at this very moment, there are no SEC teams ranked in either major poll, and the highest an SEC team is ranked in the Pomeroy Ratings is #31. I know these are imperfect measurements, but they do agree that the SEC is not particularly good. Dykes is quite sure that the SEC is good. As a result, Dykes owes us his reasoning. He owes it to us because he is an analyst. If he – or any other analyst – does not provide a reason for his thinking, he is no different than a guy spouting off his opinions on a barstool somewhere (nothing against that guy, for I am that guy frequently). If no explanation is offered, all we are left with is an empty prediction and no progress. That’s a shame.
I mean, at least Dick Vitale screams some names at me.
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Three noteworthy utterances from the Alabama-Vanderbilt game, from bronze to gold:
- Dykes (scolding): “[Jermaine] Beal does something funny with his eyes while shooting a free-throw. He watches the ball after he shoots. I don’t like that. See? I always tell kids at my basketball camps, ‘there’s nothing you can do after you release the ball, so just watch the target.'” If there’s nothing you can do once you release the ball, why does this matter?
- Dykes: “AJ [Ogilvy]’s legs, from the waist down, looked like a guard’s on that shot.” From the waist down, huh?
- Nessler (earnestly): “What a great accomplishment by Pat Summitt. Say, how many wins a season would you have to average over 100 years to win 1,000 games?” Dykes: “Uh…” Nessler: “Well, I don’t know either, but it’s a lot.” Ten, guys. The answer to your ridiculous hypothetical is 10. And no, that’s not “a lot” of wins. If anything is “a lot,” it’s 100 years of coaching.
One noteworthy mishap:
- For about five minutes, Nessler and Dykes had Vanderbilt players Festus Ezeli and Steve Tchiengang confused with one another. It began when Tchiengang took a three-pointer. Nessler rhetorically asked why Ezeli was shooting threes, and said that this probably irks coach Kevin Stallings. After an Alabama turnover, Tchiengang shot another three, which Dykes greeted with a flustered “I don’t know, but he’s gonna take another one!” Nessler then pointed out that while Ezeli can’t shoot threes, Tchiengang is “the one” who can. I don’t really know what Nessler meant by “the one,” but I’m going to pretend it doesn’t mean “big African guy.” Finally, later in the game Ezeli shot and made two free-throws. The still-unaware Nessler (accountability, anyone?) wondered if Ezeli’s free-throw touch gave him confidence in his three-point shooting. From the gaffe itself to the total lack of correction, it was generally embarrassing. The real victim here, however, is Festus Ezeli. This was his second identity crisis in almost as many weeks. Poor guy.