At this blog, I often link to and use statistics and statistical analysis to understand and argue about football. I do certainly believe that we should look to what objective data we can find to understand sporting events. But I am also frustrated with how statistics can be used, as totalizing explanations of reality (this frustration likely springs from my literary tastes and religious sensibilities). I want argument to be based on objective evidence, on factual data--but that doesn't mean I don't believe in "intangibles," in the existence of things that cannot be proven with numbers.
At Football Outsiders, Mike Tanier mentions
"'intangibles,' like home-field advantage and playoff experience. Flacco's remarkable implacability notwithstanding, he's playing in his 19th NFL game, completing a whirlwind of a year that took him from obscurity to the center of the sports universe. He has completed just 44 percent of his postseason attempts, and he'll attempt to make history on Sunday in one of the most hostile stadiums in the sports world. You can't put a DVOA number on the pressures he's facing, nor can you shrug them off as immeasurable, and therefore nonexistent." (emphasis mine)
I find Tanier's statement to be a clear and nuanced expression of my thoughts, primarily that "immeasurable" does not mean "nonexistent." I remember in a high school Economics class when I balked at some of the basic tenets (to the claim that there is a limited supply of all things, with value placed as such, an adolescent PV raised his hand and said "What about love?" I blush at the expression, but the belief is still sincere: much of what drives human existence--love, faith, fear, etc.--is "intangible," immeasurable, unlimited, but quite real (it's not exactly a surprise that my academic pursuits ran toward literature and language over math and science). I continue to find this belief supported in my literary studies (such as the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, explicitly in Notes from the Underground where the narrator talks about the irrational motivations of human beings).
I certainly believe those intangibles are relevant to the world of sports. But Tanier makes a further point:
"It's the nature of intangibles that they can go either way."
The "intangibles," by their very nature, are immeasurable, unpredictable, erratic and unclear. They do, indeed, impact the events of the world, including sports, but we don't usually know how they will influence the world. And that's why when talking about sports, I again and again turn to the objective data of statistics. The numbers do not always give us a whole picture, but the numbers are facts, grounded in a firmer reality than our subjective interpretations of the intangibles. I think good writing about sports can feature the tangible or the intangible (or both), but a sound argument requires supportive evidence to be convincing.