The Commentator's Fallacy, or The Sports Fan's Lament

The foibles of sports commentators are especially obvious to me during the annual 6 Nations rugby tournament, one of those all too rare confluences of a sport that interests me appearing on a TV channel to which I have access. There is one particular logical fallacy that is voiced time and again, to the extent that it has slowly dawned on me that, rather than just bemoaning the poor luck of their team, people actually believe it. The scenario is as follows: In the 3rd minute of the crunch game between, say, England and Wales, the Welsh kicker misses an easy 3 point penalty. At the end of the 80 minute game, Wales have lost by 2 points (a far fetched scenario, I know, for the Welsh to have got so close). Post-match, pundits will say something along the lines of, “If only Jones had kicked that early penalty, Wales would have won by a point”.

More generally, the total value of the missed kicks / disallowed goals / dropped catches / etc. will be added on to a team’s score, and the ‘result’ changed accordingly in the commentators’ minds.

I had always assumed that this argument was more subtle, along the lines of, “If we’d got those early points, the whole tenor of the game would perhaps have changed.” But I’m increasingly, incredulously aware that a large number of people actually seem to hold by the “add missed opportunities to final score, voila” school of post-match assessment.

Essentially, this sees all events within a match as simply additive and strictly linear, rather than interacting in multiply complex ways (see, there is a sciency bit!) So, in the rugby example, the restart following a missed penalty kick takes place in an entirely different part of the pitch than the restart after a successful kick – everything that follows is on a new, unique course as a result. Of course, this is hardly an insightful observation. But it is an example of the corruption of the word ‘analysis’ that occurs in a sporting context (‘statistics’ is another that suffers…)

That said, if you add 7 points for Mark Cueto’s disallowed try (assuming, of course, that St Jonny would have converted it), the 2007 World Cup Final becomes a whole new ballgame…