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‘Cause I Got The Evidence RIGHT THERE: The pre-season psychology of educated trash talk

Get ready to win a Walk-Man, Auburn fans.

Each football team is either more than or less than the sum of its parts. What it can or cannot do as a team is not straightforwardly inferable from what its players can or cannot do. Hence, much of the fascination with football teams: each team is a Leviathan that cannot be divided without remainder into its members. Each team becomes a kind of person, with its own traits, its own virtues and vices. Like a person, while it exhibits a reasonably constant character over time, it also changes over time–sometimes so dramatically that, were we talking about a single person (and not a team), we would employ the language of conversion. Football teams, like persons, are free; and free creatures are (by definition, we might say) unpredictable.

This is one reason why preseason analysis is really largely guesswork. I do not deny that it is sometimes educated guesswork. I do not deny that some do it better than others. But do not be deceived: no one knows how a team will do. Even those who get it right, and who say, after the fact, “I knew how the team would do”, are wrong. They did not know. They guessed correctly. Maybe their guesses were not purely guesses, shots in the dark. But they were at best shots in the twilight. (Except of course, for the shots of our own Jerry Hinnen, who has clambered from the Cave of guesswork to take his shots beneath the sunny Form of the Good!)

What I find most interesting about preseason analysis is that everyone knows that. Not everyone has said it to himself in so many words, but we all know it. And, oddly enough, that we know it is part of the reason we care about preseason analysis. If it were more than guesswork, it would harshly curb our fanaticism, instead of stoking it.

For the average fan, preseason analysis is a kind of long-winded trash talk. Troll the comments section beneath any preseason analysis and count the number of responses that either explicitly or implicitly complain that a team is being given no “respect” or getting too much “respect”. Sometimes the commenter, like the analyst, will wind out his trash talk, but it remains trash talk.

But, you may say, some of the analysts are so dispassionate, so logical. Their analysis comes so slowly, after so many numbers. Well, sure. But take a few such analyses and track their results across time. More often than not, they will turn out to do no better in predicting than you would have done flipping a coin.

That’s another thing: although some analysts will actually recap their analysis after the season, looking to see what they got right and what they got wrong, no one really cares much about such columns. They tend to be filler, something to write, when they are written, to fill the vacuum of the off-season. But if preseason analysis were more than guesswork, I think we would treat these recaps differently.

No, we care about preseason analyses mainly because they help us get our gamefaces on. They get us pumped up (my team is gonna be great!) or they fill us with righteous indignation (my team is being disrespected!) or they make us wary of showing our colors (my team is gonna suck…) Sometimes we learn things from preseason analysis, sometimes points are made that are genuinely interesting or insightful—but none of that changes analysis from guesswork to science. It only makes the guesswork educated, instead of ignorant.

Dr. Jolley is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University. He works in the theory of judgment, the history of 20th-century philosophy, metaphilosophy and philosophical psychology. He also likes football and was recently profiled by The New York Times. His book “The Concept ‘Horse’ Paradox and Wittgensteinian Conceptual Investigations” was published in 2007.  His TWER column Leisure with Dignity runs bi-monthly to monthly to whenever. Write to him at [email protected].

About Dean Jolley

Dr. Jolley is currently Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University. He works in the theory of judgment, the history of 20th-century philosophy, metaphilosophy and philosophical psychology. He also likes football. His book, "The Concept 'Horse' Paradox and Wittgensteinian Conceptual Investigations" was recently published in Ashgate's Wittgensteinian Studies Series. "Leisure with Dignity," his column for TWER, will run bimonthly to monthly. Write to him at [email protected]

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