Since I can remember I’ve argued with my friends about sports.
I grew up in the ‘Golden Age’ of English national football (the sport you play with your feet and a ball, not your hands and an egg) and I can still rattle off the players at every major tournament from 2002-2010. The inability of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard to figure out how to play together in central midfield is one of the tragedies of my lifetime.
The 2002 World Cup Quarterfinal in retrospect was the best chance our team got. Playing the almighty Brazil, the playground was furious with chatter. Just how insanely good was Ronaldinho? Was Rivaldo a straight up cheat? Would Michael Owen step up, and more fundamentally, how could we survive with Joe Cole at left mid?
For days I remember discussing the various sides of these debates with my friends, and then playing each other in the style of the players to help us figure it out, as if nine-year-olds had that kind of technical ability.
The game, with the infamous Ronaldinho goal and subsequent image of David Seaman crying, was an instant classic, and on some level, I don’t think I’ve ever stopped thinking about it. What were the chances England won if they played again? What if Ryan Giggs had declared as English rather than the Joe Cole fiasco? How often could one of the best goalies in the world get beaten from a free kick over 40 yards out?
Throughout my time growing up, I spent thousands of futile hours arguing over these type of questions. Football, rugby, cricket, tennis—you name it, I spent way too long discussing it. There were never any conclusions, only differing levels of disagreement. Everything was assessed by the ‘eye test,’ and everyone’s eyes are simply different.
On Tuesday evenings at 7:30 each week, in the Owen Room in the Winthrop G entryway, there exist a group of people dedicated to going beyond the ‘eye test.’
HSAC is one of the worst acronyms ever, but I am indebted to the group of students who started the club some 10 years ago, and to [Harvard professor] Carl Morris, whose returning presence is an inspiration to all that encounter him. The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective is about going beyond the ‘eye test’. Trying to put some numbers, some objective analysis, behind the arguments I’ve been having since I could articulate my thoughts is a waste of time—if you want to convince people you’re right. But it’s a waste of time I’ve been more than proud to spend my time on.
HSAC has been where I’ve borne my frustrations with the world of sports. Why do teams kick 19 yard field goals? HSAC has given me the confidence to know they are wrong. Down three with five seconds to go we should foul right? Well maybe—probably not (see John Ezekowitz ’13 for details).
In general though, it was an outlet, an oasis, for one hour a week, where I could spout opinions, mostly random and nonsensical, which would be debated in a meaningful fashion. Russell Westbrook shoots too much I screamed (last season before his MVP explosion), and the room screamed back: Well what does too much mean? Rather than attacking Russell, the debate became about the allocation of scarce resources (shots) amongst efficient actors (Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka on a good day).
This is what I’d always wanted. Most people disagreed with me. But their attack on my position was not based in rhetoric and hyperbole as most sports argument is, but rather in the correct approach to addressing the question of how many shots Westbrook should take. I will be forever grateful for having such an alternative for my arguments in college. My roommate still thinks Allen Iverson deserved to be MVP.
Ultimately for me though, these arguments really matter. I remember where I was and my state of mind when Henman lost to Ivanisevic in three days; when Jonny Wilkinson drop-goaled England to champions of the world; when Warne hit his wicket in the Edgbaston test; when John Terry missed that penalty; when Diego Forlan stuck a knife in my beloved Fulham’s heart.
Heck as I write this list, I just want it to go on. Nothing has played an emotional role in my life to the extent sports has. I can’t remember where I was or what I was doing when I got into Harvard, but Clint Dempsey’s goal against Juventus will always hold a place in my heart and I know exactly where I was when it happened.
On Tuesday evenings, in Winthrop’s Owen Room, undergraduates will meet and talk about events that matter to them, and about how to analytically think about them. And I am honored to have once been a part of that conversation.
—Staff writer Julian Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.