“Rebounds, with their reliable uncertainty, are part of what makes basketball beautiful. There are general rules that dictate the nature of missed shots. But thanks to the perfect design of the basketball hoop, there will always be randomness.”
This quote — at the end of a Kirk Goldsberry article on rebounding data from new tracking technology — quietly makes a bold statement that has little to do with the rest of the article. The article is on stats. What percentage of missed shots end up where. Cold hard facts. The quote is about beauty.
People who cover sports love to talk about athletes and plays as if they were artistic achievements. A particularly difficult catch by a wide receiver is “beautiful.” A crossover is “a work of art.” And then there’s the way soccer announcers talk about football, where an effective offense becomes “a cultured attack.”
Sportswriters certainly aren’t alone in making the link between results-driven fields and art. I’m reading a book right now called Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty in which Vikram Chandra, your typical novelist-computer programmer, explores whether code can be beautiful in the way a poem is beautiful. It might sound ridiculous, but programmers often use words like elegance and yes, beauty, to describe the series of workmanlike instructions they write for the computer.
I’ve always thought comparisons like this were a stretch. A bit of hyperbole on the part of the offender to make the game feel more meaningful, to elevate an ordinary physical competition to the infinite mysteries of art. I mean, really, what could a Chargers-Raiders game have in common with The Graduate?
But I was struck by that quote. It framed beauty in a completely different way. It said sports are beautiful, because sports are random.
Think about that for a second. It’s completely opposite the way I normally think about beauty in art.
When I think of movies, I think of a director who through careful shots makes some sort of statement — creates some sort of effect. When I think of television, I think of a showrunner crafting a story to impact his viewers. In books, the connection between author and audience is even more direct — every word on the page is a choice made by one person to communicate something.
Of course, this is part myth. Movies aren’t just one director’s vision. They’re the result of a sea of exchanges between directors, editors, writers, actors, and executives. The same is true of television, and even of books, where editors and publishers put their stamp on the final product. And even if the final product were one person’s vision, it’s not always a series of deliberate choices. There are mistakes. Unintended implications. These become part of the art.
But the point remains. Art is crafted. Sports are not. Art is deliberate. Sports are random. Art says something. Sports are something.
Maybe this is all a little far-fetched, but bear with me. Nothing in sports is predetermined. The media grooms its own storylines, but that’s all they are. Stories. An attempt to create order where there is none. What happens on the field is its own world. In a way, that other tired sportswriter cliché is true — anything can happen.
And maybe that’s where the beauty comes from. When something special happens, it’s real. Not real in the way that great art feels real; real in the way that it is actually real.
A stunning catch is beautiful because it shouldn’t have been caught. It defied probability. A nasty crossover is a work of art not because of the mechanics of the crossover, but because it’s too smooth, too devastating to be real. But there it is.
I don’t mean to imply that this is the reason we watch sports. Actually, I think it’s a very small part of it. More of a nice side effect than anything else. People root for teams because they want to feel a part of something. They read box scores and look at highlights because they want to know what happened. They watch games because they want excitement and diversion.
It’s there, though. Somewhere in the violent ocean of testosterone and repetition, it’s there. Sportswriters might reference it lazily. Fans might cringe at it. After all, who wants to hear about beauty in a culture that often seems to stand for a time when the whole world was just for men? Still, it’s there.