PARTING SHOTS: Telling the Whole Sports Story, Statistics and All

If there’s one thing sportswriters love more than statistics, it’s proclaiming that statistics don’t tell the whole story.

This makes for an easy article, by the way, especially when it’s on a topic you’ve covered to death. For a player profile, it’s practically foolproof. You rattle off the player’s statistics, catalog all their accomplishments, and then, with your reader blinded by the brilliance, denounce it all as mere numbers. You say digits can’t convey true grit, or heart, or the journey taken to the top. You declare that you have to know the person, have to talk to their teammates, coach, family, have to know things numbers can’t convey. Records are all well and good, but they don’t tell the whole story.

And then you, the writer, can conclude, ducking out without telling the whole story either.

I’m absolutely guilty of writing this kind of article. Sure, it’s a bit of a cop-out, but if done right it achieves its purpose. I like to think I can do it right. I’ve probably written this article for the same athlete on several occasions (if you know what I cover, you know what I’m talking about). I can write this kind of article in my sleep.

I wanted to write it right now. For some reason, it’s a lot harder than I expected.

I wanted to catalog all of my statistics over four years writing sports for The Crimson. I was going to give myself a career line, something I could fit on the back of a trading card, something to show my by-the-numbers accomplishments.

It started off straightforward enough.

Football games covered: 24, plus I was in attendance for all but seven out of the 40.

Ivy League championships covered: three, the undefeated 2004 football team and the 2003 and 2006 women’s squash teams.

But then I struggled. I could calculate the cumulative number of miles traveled covering Harvard sports, but that seems like a lot of work. Number of states visited in the name of The Crimson? It’s only five, not including Massachusetts, but that doesn’t convey the difference between driving to New York City (manageable) and Ithaca (excruciating).

The numbers game begins to break down. The latest time I left The Crimson after producing the Monday sports section? 7:30 a.m.—I think, because I wasn’t really thinking coherently at that point. Consecutive hours spent toiling in the windowless, air-conditioned basement? Probably upwards of 17, and if it’s more I don’t want to know. And the math gets fuzzier. How many times have I changed “Harvard” or “Crimson” to singular? How many page-alls over the intercom? How many times did I scream at someone for using the word “plethora”? How many episodes of Family Guy?

I could tally up stories written, but how about laughs, tears, screams, sweat, words typed, pages designed, headlines punned, photos photoshopped, drinks chugged, cold Chinese food eaten, homework undone, hours unslept?

It seems I’ve outplayed my own game. To prove that statistics don’t matter, I have to first make it seem like they do.

And since I know that in the end, numbers are irrelevant, I can’t be comfortable with including them even as the buildup to that conclusion. The number of stories I’ve written in the past four years won’t be recorded in Elias Sports Bureau. No one cares about the latest time I ever got out of the Crimson, or how many football games I covered, or how many serial commas I deleted. No one will ever fact-check the date of the first sports section I produced.

I don’t even care. It’s not the numbers that matter, it’s what they represent. It’s not how many championships you win, it’s that you won at all.

So why do I want to catalog them, despite it all? For myself? To prove that my grade point average isn’t the only number with which I’ll leave college? To prove to my parents the value of my time spent devoted to touchdowns rather than term papers? To prove to my roommates it was worth missing the hours I could have spent with them? To brag? To bookend? To get some kind of closure?

Or just to remember?

The sports section I produced for Commencement last year—the predecessor of the one you’re reading now—had 32 pages, but what I remember most is how I hid the Nintendo games so my writers would get back to work, how we went to IHOP at 8 a.m after working all night, how I ended up answering to “Mom” by the end of it, how we lost all track of night and day putting together a behemoth of a section that remains one of my proudest achievements.

The score of the first football game I ever covered was Northeastern 17, Harvard 14, and I had to look that up to make sure it was right. But I remember clearly that it was the first home loss for Harvard in almost two years, that I wore a Crimson Crazies t-shirt because I didn’t know any better, that I was gently but firmly informed that cheering in the press box was discouraged, that I had the time of my life covering that game and never looked back. In the end, the numbers are the trigger. They point the way to the human interest behind the name on a jersey or in a byline. Statistics don’t tell the whole story, but you wouldn’t have a whole story without them.

I can’t boil it down to fit on the back of a trading card, but I can tell you that I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

—Staff writer Lisa J. Kennelly can be reached at lisa.kennelly@post.harvard.edu.

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