Football talk, bias and objectivity

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

That saying came from the late, great City News Bureau, a Chicago institution that churned out excellent reporters by the dozens. What it meant, obviously, is no fact goes unchecked. But more than that, it implied a rigor, a process that ensured objectivity.

On football Twitter, people get called “biased” a lot. My reaction to such a label is invariably strong, because of my more than 30 years as a journalist, and thinking constantly about bias and objectivity, vs having an opinion.

A bias predisposes you to a certain way of thinking, which can often rule out objectivity. An opinion is just that. “I love chocolate ice cream” is an opinion. “People who love chocolate ice cream are sociopaths” is a bias. And when you’re writing about people who love chocolate ice cream, the challenge would be crafting an objective piece, despite what you think about chocolate ice cream lovers.

There are people who assert that people can’t be unbiased. One of the questions worth ascertaining is whether opinion and bias are conflated, and what is the effect on a person’s objectivity.

Journalism is wrestling with notions of objectivity right now, in the wake of the Trump presidency. Objectivity is, at its essence, reporting out both sides of a story. But the here and now, “both sidesing” has become a derisive term as journalism struggles with what to do with people who have stories that aren’t credible. When a political candidate talks about cannibalism, and space rays, it becomes a challenge to notions of tradiional journalism. Young journalists especially are asking questions about their profession, objectivity in that classic sense and how it relates to them. Especially young journalists of color.

Logging onto Twitter and having opinions is, for me, no less rigorous than anything else I do. Talking out of your ass should only be reserved for the gaseous aftermath of a bean burrito. It doesn’t mean rightness, only that before expressing something, there,s some rigor put in. So last week, my Tweets about Luis Suarez being the difference between Atleti being top vs second wasn’t just “Well, he’s pichici.” I went back to see what goals he scored for them and the effect they had on the match. So that became an informed, objective opinion. Why would you not do that?

Over the years, in a lot of writing, there have been a great many opinions, and people have come at me, which is cool. I wrote for The Athletic that Barça’s pursuit of De Ligt and De Jong was misguided, and would be expensive, too expensive, and have an effect on paths for Masia players. That assessment is immaterial to De Jong’s quality on the pitch. Do we see Araujo or Mingueza if De Ligt comes? Is Alenya at Betis and Puig a cause celebre if De Jong doesn’t come? De Jong was signed, strung some passes together and people were quote Tweeting the Athletic piece, talking about how full of it I was. Okay. But that misses the point, which is does reality bear out an assessment?

It’s liberating to not really like players, or to be a fan of them, instead treating them as a collection of skill sets. Dembele is a set of strengths and weaknesses, actions that help or hurt the club I love. Same with Messi, De Jong, Busquets, all of them. Players come and go, and my interest in them is what can they do for my team?

Today someone reminded me of an old Tweet, where the question of three midfielders came up. One was Thiago, another was N’Zonzi, and the question was who would you sign. My pick was N’Zonzi. He had a skill set that Barça lacked. The person who brought up the Tweet, used the fact that I didn’t agree with everyone else in signing Thiago as a sign that I have the worst football opinions on Twitter. And that is certainly their opinion. Or presumably, since the next action was to block them — not for the disagreement, but for lacking the kind of curiosity and courtesy that is important. “Hey, just curious about why you picked N’Zonzi,” instaed of “You picked N’Zonzi. You suck.” That fails as an assessment in every way.

When players are things, it’s easy to say, “Someone does this, and that aspect is missing.” Three years ago, when Alba was already showing signs, my view was that Barça should have been thinking about replacing him. If you watched him in matches, closely, you could see it. Closing with less alacrity, being caught up pitch more and not being able to get back. He wasn’t any farther up the pitch. He just couldn’t get back any longer. Today, people say, “Oh, you just hate Alba.” No. It’s just a skill set and how it relates to results.

People have bias. People also have to work their asses off to not have bias affect their objectivity. Back in the say, a concert review assignment was Kid Rock, whose music is, for me, unlistenable. The concert review was glowing because objectively, it was a great show. It’s easy to not like an artist’s music, then crap on them in a review because you think their music sucks. Young critics do that with regularity. But the job isn’t to assess your taste. It’s to assess how the artist performed.

When I defend negative perceptions of Dembele, it isn’t because of any particular fondness. It’s just craving for objectivity and fairness. Vet an opinion. Take whatever stand you want, but apply a standard to it. When the Messi salary story broke, a lot of people called bullshit because of how they felt about Messi. But there are objective assessments of his economic effect, above and beyond value to the enterprise, defined as where would the entity be without him, and can you put a price on that? The Chicago Bulls didn’t have enough money to pay Michael Jordan what he was worth to that franchise. Neither does FC Barcelona when it decides how much to pay Messi. It’s objective. Wins and losses, championships, sponsorships, the data is all there.

You can have bias and still be objective, as long as you work to understand what that bias is, and not let it affect objectivity. In journalism, an objective story can still contain bias. What are the sources used, and why? If you’re writing a story about why squirrels are the best pets, and you talk to the president of Squirrels Are Great, then a couple of people who have squirrels as pets, that isn’t an objective story. Apply some rigor.

Accusations of bias usually have root in a disagreement. “You don’t have my view, therefore … ” Or “You haven’t defended your view that is different from mine in a way that I find acceptable, therefore … ” “X player sucks,” is an opinion. “I just don’t think a short fullback can be good,” is a bias. When you’re writing or opining about short fullbacks, what’s happening with that bias?

Objectivity is the goal. Bias can be an impediment only if you let it. As we sit around and talk crap about matches, teams and players, it’s a lot more fun if we presume that nobody is talking out of their ass, even if we don’t agree with them.

Categorized as Thoughts

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.