Over the past decade, the ESPN host Bomani Jones has become an increasingly visible and popular commentator on sports—and on the commentary surrounding them. Jones, who is thirty-eight, received two master’s degrees in economics, from Claremont Graduate University and the University of North Carolina, and then began writing about popular culture and athletics. He joined ESPN in 2010, and today hosts the podcast “The Right Time with Bomani Jones” and co-hosts the TV show “High Noon,” which is known for broadening sports discussions to social issues that extend beyond the court or the field.
Last week on “High Noon,” Jones and his co-host, Pablo Torre, had a discussion about the increasing use of analytics in sports, particularly basketball, and its effect on the game, hiring practices, and racial dynamics in the N.B.A. The segment was a response, in part, to an interview I had conducted about these topics with the former N.B.A. and college-hoops star Jalen Rose, who is also a host at ESPN. Rose worried that advanced statistics were being overused in the N.B.A., in a way that diminished the status of former players and had an element of racial bias. Jones, similarly, said that N.B.A. front offices were trying to tell former players that “your knowledge is not good enough, because it has to be something that is quantifiable.” He also noted that, despite his economics training, the famed M.I.T. Sloan Sports Analytics Conference had asked him to be on a panel about activism.
I spoke by phone with Jones on Thursday evening, before Game 6 of the N.B.A. Finals. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed his experiences in sports media, whether advanced statistics are making sports more efficient and less fun, and racism around high-level math.
What, exactly, happened with the Sloan conference invitation? Can you expand on that?
I had figured that, given some of the diversity issues surrounding this analytics debate, and, whether it’s true or not, the reputation that I have for being fairly bright, at some point I would be a person who would wind up getting a call about going to Sloan. And so [the co-chair] Daryl Morey reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in coming to the conference, and I certainly was. They asked me if I wanted to be on this panel on activism. This was two years ago. I admit, I was a little bit offended by that.
On one hand, I did understand why someone would call me to talk about that topic. But, on the other hand, I really thought that they would be calling me about this other stuff. Not that I was really excited about the idea of hanging out with basketball nerds, but it stood to reason that would be a reason that you would call me. And they did not. And so I let them know that I would like to be on something else. They did put me on different panel. I had a death in the family; I was not able to make it there. But I just couldn’t figure out logically how you decided that you were going to call some of these other people to be on these panels but you wouldn’t call me to be on this. Like, let’s forget about the fact that I got the degrees, right? And, not that I demanded an explanation for it, but no one ever explained that to me. [Morey did not respond to a request for comment.]
Is this something that you have generally felt, either from people in the media or from people who consume your work?
There are always people who see me as just the guy who talks about race. Within the industry, nobody’s really said anything like that to my face. But I do notice that people are very specific about my expertise on talking about matters of race. I don’t think that is an insult by definition, because I do think I’m pretty good at it and I think I serve a particular value in that role.
But, yeah, there’s always some people who just think I’m the race guy.
That fits into something larger that we’ve seen in the last couple years, which is that there are some ways of commenting on sports that are inherently seen as political, such as kneeling. And they are political. But there are other ways of commenting about sports that I also think are political, which we just kind of accept—or the commentators who comment about sports just accept—as the status quo.
You nailed what I was going to say in response, which is, the status quo is political. It’s just not seen as such, right? So the issue really isn’t so much the idea that you are being political as much as it is that you’re being disruptive, or subversive. Like televising the national anthem is political. Just sitting down during the national anthem is seen as a political act.
But standing with your hand over your heart—
Right, right. How could those not be political acts, if acting in defiance of them is, by definition, a political act? People use the term “politics” as an escape route. It’s just an excuse to get out of whatever discussion it is. I don’t even know what politics means in most of those contexts, because the things that are actually political, I don’t really think I spend a lot of time talking about them. But I think that there are matters of intellectual sincerity and human decency that I am going to talk about. No one ever accuses you of talking about politics if they like what you say. How about that?
I want to take a step back to talk about analytics and race. It seems to me that they are two somewhat separate issues, and I am curious if you think of them as somewhat separate. The first is what the increasing reliance on analytics will mean for a sport, or for the people who work in a sport. And the second is whether the analytics are telling us something valuable about whether your team, or my team, or someone else’s team, can actually win at the sport.
I think that what you say is correct. Now, I do think that the analytics serve a great value, if for no other reason than the statistics that we most commonly use cannot serve nearly as much value as people think they do. What they are, however, is simple. And they are easy for people to understand.
We are a society that is generally afraid of math, and we’re particularly afraid of math at high levels. If you’ve ever had to try to teach anybody anything related to math and that person thought they weren’t good at it, they just shut down on it. If someone isn’t good at English, they don’t stop speaking English. And so, as a result, I do feel like there are people—some of them are former players, some of them are just observers of the game—who reject some of these statistics when, in reality, most of the stuff we’re talking about isn’t really that complex. Like, at least in terms of what the public gets with analytics. A lot of that stuff is just changing the denominator, using rates instead of using raw numbers.
And so I’m with you there. Like Jalen, I’m, like, Hey, it is a tool, it is something that can be used, but you can’t just strictly live in the numbers when you make these decisions because, in the end, basketball is a people business. And, see, that’s where the race part comes up. A lot of the reason why people of color get hired is because these teams feel like you need somebody of color to be able to talk to these dudes who are also of color, right? And it manifests itself in some really interesting ways.
For example, Red McCombs famously got in trouble for saying that he thought that Charlie Strong, when he was the head coach at Texas, was maybe a defensive coördinator, but he did not see him as being a head coach. Well, Red McCombs owned the San Antonio Spurs, and he absolutely had John Lucas [a former N.B.A. player, who is African-American] as the head coach there. And there are quotes, you find them on the Internet, where he basically was, like, “You need somebody that can talk to these players.”
This is before we even get to the idea of people thinking black folks can’t do math. And women, I should be clear, they’ll be fighting the same biases. Once they decide they don’t need to worry about these folks as people, then they’re also going to decide that they don’t need to hire the people that they hired in the first place because of their ability to relate to people. And so where this gets tricky is the concept of analytics, or the concept of using quantitative data, is a race-neutral sort of thing, but the way that stuff has typically and historically been applied is rarely, if ever, race-neutral.
You got into a debate with Michael Wilbon several years ago because he said, “advanced analytics and black folks hardly ever mix.”
The idea that somehow black people can’t use these numbers, that’s the thing that I would fight against more than anything else. We certainly can. And I’d also make the point that there’s been a great push really over the last, I guess, thirty years or so to increase black participation in stuff that involves high-level math. I went to school on a scholarship with the Navy that was tasked with trying to increase the numbers of black Ph.D.s in math and science. And I’ve seen the numbers, man.
And that’s the problem that these sports leagues are going to inherit. They’re going to inherit all the things that society has done that has affected these participation rates. Where I look at the league, and I’m, like, Hey, I wonder what you guys are ultimately going to do. They’ll go set up a camp somewhere in Africa or somewhere in China in order to go find basketball players. You don’t have to go that far in order to find people of color who can more readily participate in the change of paradigm of what a front office is.
What the league and other people need to understand is it doesn’t matter if it’s your fault. You did not create this problem. So what? I didn’t create it, either. Now what?
People will always want to use the fact that it is a systemic problem to say, “Well, what can I do?”
Yeah. And that’s a lazy play that happens, and it’s a justification for why you just decided to go and call and hire your friend. And, to be honest, most people call and hire their friends. Because, look, it’s not as though when former players were a little bit more in the pool they were hiring them left and right, either. It’s not like we’ve had fifty per cent of the general managers in the league be black before. This is a thing that’s been happening in the league. It seems to be continuing to happen in the league, because before it was that you needed to have that certain level of experience in order to get there. And now they’re telling them, “Oh, that experience we told you you need to have? It don’t matter.” What?
Do you think there should be more former players involved in the league, or do you think that it’s sort of irrelevant whether there are more former players involved if there are people of diverse backgrounds to a sufficient degree involved?
I think that it would be wise for the league to have an available pathway for players who go from being on the court to being in the front office in ways that are meaningful. And I think that part of why that is important is it is not good for the league to have a chasm between ownership and players. You don’t want the front office to be seen as the guys with the brains and the athletes simply seen as the guys who perform on the court, because I think the best way that this league is going to show that it respects the minds of its players is if those players’ minds still have value after they are done playing.
And I think that it is important for specifically former players to have places in front offices, if for no other reason than they have a wealth of experience that the people otherwise in the front office simply haven’t been in positions to gain. They have something that these other guys can’t get in school. And so to dismiss that was to dismiss the entire idea of the player as an intellectual being. And that’s what I think the N.B.A. needs to be very careful about, is making sure that, when players are on the court, that they can look at the front office and see something that indicates the respect for their brains.
It does seem to me, as a viewer, that a lot of ex-players, and we’re talking about white players, certainly, as much as black players, just seem like they’re a little bit out of it. When I hear Kevin McHale, God bless him, say things about the N.B.A., I just wonder what generation he is living in. Outdated conventional wisdom is a huge part of sports commentary and sports analysis. And it’s frustrating as a fan.
Yeah, and I agree with that also. I bristle at the widespread dismissal of the idea that this increased data is helpful. It bothers me because I feel like those people are not giving it a try. If I were to explain to somebody: turnovers matter, but turnover rate tells you a little bit more about what we’re looking for. It’s all there. It’s all helpful. And it’s not a deviation from the things that people already do. And so when a lot of former athletes push back on this, I don’t think they’re pushing back on the idea of the numbers as much as they’re pushing back on the idea that somebody who does not play this game “knows more than they do.”
And I think a part of that is a defensiveness from the former athletes, but I also think part of that is a pushback against some of the resentment that they think they feel from these people who are telling them, “We know more than you do” or “You just need to go out there and play basketball.” That is where I think we wind up with a split that seems like it could be pretty easily taken care of with some level of conversation—except I don’t know what it is that we would need to do to get the people at large to fully respect the intelligence of former athletes.
Older generations have been saying that younger generations are not tough enough for forever. And I think a lot of the new analytics stuff, specifically about shooting threes rather than posting up big men, plays into those very human debates or annoyances that every generation has.
It’s interesting when you mention that, because something happened in the N.B.A. that I don’t think gets discussed enough, which is the change to the illegal-defense rules [which made defending big men easier]. So now the notion of what the center was is kind of obsolete, because that just doesn’t provide enough bang for the buck. But, if you’re a person who grew up watching great centers, there’s a very particular style of play that comes from having a great center, and if you like the footwork, you like the hook shot, if you like those things, they’re gone. Basketball as you knew it is gone. And I don’t blame people if they don’t enjoy just watching people stand around and shoot a bunch of three-pointers. I’m not sold that this revolution of knowledge has made basketball more fun. Just like the [infield] shift. It’s a great idea in baseball. You can’t tell me it’s made baseball more fun to watch. [In the infield shift, defenders on the pitching team move to one side of the field to prevent hits.]
Sometimes something could be true, but also it might not be for the best. I totally get it when people say that if Giannis [Antetokounmpo] wants to be the best player ever, he has to develop a three-point shot. That could very well be true, but in some ways it’s kind of sad.
Yeah, well, I look at a guy like Russell Westbrook, and there have been ups and downs in Russ’s career. You could make the argument that, say, the [earlier] version of Russell Westbrook was kind of inefficient. But, man, that Westbrook was so much fun to watch. And so one thing about our increased reliance on the numbers is we kind of miss out on the fun. So, Carmelo Anthony, for a lot of people, his legacy is going to go down that he was this guy that took too many mid-range shots and did not play in line with the efficiency of what basketball was. Maybe. But, man, do you remember watching ’Melo?
It’s one thing about how a team is run, and a team should be run to try to win. There’s no question about that. But, as a fan, as an observer, don’t you want this to be fun? Don’t you want this to be enjoyable? And I would get on Pablo [Torre] all the time about him rooting for the Sixers because of the general manager. But for me that is kind of a deeper thing that’s, like, wow, you’re watching a basketball game and what you’re relating to is the guy in the suit? Who does that? But a lot of people do that now.
Pablo may be beyond saving. We may have to face up to that.
He’s long gone on this one, right? But to me that is interesting to look at because, yeah, we’ve all got who we think are the best and who we want to win. But I do not like the idea that we’re going to reduce the way that we watch basketball to something cold and just strictly about ideas of efficiency. There is nothing that we do in our lives for fun where the No. 1 variable that we point to is efficiency.
After Trump’s election, a lot of sports commentators were being told to “stick to sports,” and there was a lot of resentment about talking “politics” on the air. And there was some sense that ESPN wanted to become less political. Where do you think the conversation about talking about larger issues within sports is now, and how has it changed, or not changed, from a couple years ago?
Kaepernick took us into a place that we really hadn’t been in as it related to sports. Because the only way to talk about Kaepernick was to talk about him in what people would call political terms. Otherwise, why were we here in the first place? But there was no way that ESPN, or any other sporting outlet, once they got that story, was not going to report it. So, if something like that happened in 2019, or 2020, I don’t have any evidence to indicate that the way we would go about it would necessarily be any different.
The question people need to ask themselves is why Kaepernick is the one that set them off. What was the discussion around Penn State and Joe Paterno if not a political discussion in the way that people use the term “politics”? Ray Rice, that is another one. Now, what I don’t know at this point is what kind of flash-point thing would have to happen to generate that same level of discussion.
What I think wound up happening for people was that Trump’s election is a momentous event in the history of the United States. And for a lot of people, on both sides of it, this thing was huge. And it was something that, when you came to work the day after the election, that’s what everybody on my radio show that day was talking about. I stayed away from anything explicitly political. I remember the main point that I said was “Hey, man. They don’t want me to talk about politics here, but this is what’s happened, and you just got to decide if this is the country that you want to live in.”
It’s pretty benign. It’s pretty nonpartisan, or whatever it is. But, yo, we live in this world. We talk about this stuff. And, especially if you’re doing radio, people view you as being part of their lives. And this is what the topic of discussion was in their lives. If you had something that was similar to 9/11, and it happened today, you think we’re not going to talk about it at work tomorrow? You think we’re about to stick with sports? Now, if the day comes and this stuff matters within the news cycle and somebody says, “Hey, you can’t talk about it,” now we’ve got to have a much different discussion than the one we’re having now.
Meaning that, if you cannot talk about what the actual story is, then why do we talk about stories? I want to be clear about this. I don’t blame my employer or anybody else if I come in and we’re, like, “Hey, that was a great game at the N.B.A. Finals last night. Anyway, let’s talk about the impeachment debate.” Nope, that’s not what we’re here for. No, no, no. That’s not the same. They’re totally right about that if it happens as such. But if there were some major scene that took place regarding a political figure and it happened at a sporting event and it affected the sporting event, then, yeah, we’re going to talk about those things.
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