MICHAEL MOYNIHAN: Michael Moynihan column: The truth behind the numbers in American Football 

A piece by Daniel Engber on slate.com struck me recently, as the saying goes, as deserving of a wider audience, writes Michael Moynihan.

Engber pointed out that there’s a numbers problem in American football, and gave evidence to support his view — oft-repeated statistics about spousal abuse among former NFL players, the high rates of Alzheimer’s among former players, as well as other dementia-related illnesses, and the players’ general propensity to be broke within a couple of years of retirement, no matter how much they earn.

To be more specific, though, Engber gave his view that there was a numbers problem because he was able to show just how inaccurate those figures were.

For instance, he established the widely accepted notion that professional football players tend to die earlier than their peers, between 55 and 60, has no basis in scientific fact, but can actually be traced to a couple of guesses in a newspaper article almost 30 years ago rather than to peer-reviewed statistical reports.

Where there was hard evidence, Engber actually considered it and used his common sense to evaluate it.

The suggestion that former players are more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s, for instance, is based on a study showing that 0.17% of former NFL players die from the disease, compared to a rate of 0.04% among control groups.

That study, with its widely circulated four-times-the-average conclusion, means in absolute terms, as Engber points out, that the risk associated with pro football amounts to 0.13%.

It’s a terrific piece in its own right — check it out here http://exa.mn/atc– but it also has a lesson for those who are keen to lean on data.

To use just the Alzheimer’s example cited by Engber, while it might be technically correct to say that rates are four times higher among former pros, even that higher rate is still less than one fifth of a per cent in reality.

It shows the danger of jumping to a conclusion based on a snap reading — and, as Engber points out, the longevity that such mistaken readings can attain, getting recycled without question in publications over years.

For this observer it shows the dangers in people using numbers when they’re more used to deploying words. It’s not a case of sticking to what you know, more knowing what you’re sticking to.

Oliver move the dream for every journalist

The points made by Daniel Engber about statistics, as noted elsewhere on this page, need to be taken on board by anyone who relies on figures, and who extrapolates from those figures (and who among us doesn’t do that, no matter what the day job?).

The keenness among journalists in particular to deal in statistics is easily explained. You need only come to one dead-eyed, soul-crushing press conference and experience the contempt oozing from the participants, rolling down on to your good shoes, in order to see the attraction in neutral, empirical numbers.

As mentioned elsewhere, though, that doesn’t mean everyone is suddenly numerate.

However, if you want another possible reason — something else that explains the journalist’s sudden love for numbers — consider the news filtering across the pond recently from California.

It turns out that NBA side the Sacramento Kings made an interesting hire last week, picking up Dean Oliver to work with their team.

Oliver is the author of Basketball On Paper and has introduced new concepts to the game like offensive and defensive rating, four factor analysis and points produced. The Kings won’t be his first stop in the NBA, as Oliver has worked for the Sonics and the Nuggets in the past.

But Oliver has been working in the media recently, leading the development of sports analytics for ESPN.

Can you see where this is going? This Oliver move is the dream for every journalist — to have his or her insights suddenly recognised and valued, and to be brought behind the velvet rope, there to help make the decisions, to help win the games, to be... involved.

CVs to be dusted off in press boxes soon?

Well done Cork City, it’s up to others to measure up now

Denis Hurley of this parish covered the Cork City game the other evening and mentioned City had the winning Cork ladies football team as guests, introducing them at half-time.

Their previous home game had featured the Cork camogie team, also All-Ireland champions, as guests and, again, they were also introduced to the crowd.

Hats off to Cork City for the gesture. It’s probably a little sad that kind of neighbourliness is still newsworthy, but still: they deserve the kudos for celebrating another sport.

It would be refreshing if that kind of openness existed across the board, with team willing to extend the hand of friendship across codes as a general rule rather than as the exception (we’ll leave to one side the little bounce City probably got from having the support whipped up in a slightly more frenzied state).

Factor in the ongoing debate about the focus, or lack of same, on women’s sport, and the gesture is even more laudable. A lot of lip service and hot air is being expended to pat women’s sport on the head – forgive the mixed metaphor – but Cork City have actually done something about it. Those who operate in Turner’s Cross are entitled to the kudos; it’s up to others to measure up.

Pollock’s story of indomitable spirit hits the big screen

Tonight in Cork, a sports documentary screens at The Gate cineplex in the city which promises to have plenty of high achievers in the audience — professional rugby stars, inter-county players, All-Ireland medallists.

They’re all attending to pay tribute to the subject of the documentary, Mark Pollock, a fair achiever himself.

Most people have some kind of handle on Mark’s story, but the bare facts are worth a recap. Stricken with blindness at 22, Mark shrugged off a blow that would have sunk another man and was a Commonwealth Games medal winner, competing in ultra-endurance races across deserts, mountains, and the polar ice caps; just 10 years after losing his sight, he became the first blind person to race to the South Pole.

Life had another bum hand to deal to Pollock, however — just four weeks from the day of his wedding to Simone, he fell 25 feet from a second-floor window and was left paralysed from the waist down.

He and filmmaker Ross Whitaker have spent six years making the documentary which airs tonight, and it promises an insight into the future of medicine and robotics, but it also shows something far more precious — Pollock’s extraordinary courage and determination in the face of challenges that would crush a lesser spirit.

Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story can be seen tomorrow night at Garter Lane in Waterford and screenings are also scheduled for Thurles, Birr, Galway, UCD in Dublin, Portlaoise, Naul, Donegal, Belfast, Bray and Naas, with Q&A sessions after a lot of those screenings. For more information, see www.markpollockfilm.com/contact/


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