An Interview with L. Jon Wertheim

 

A Interview with L. Jon Wertheim

L. Jon Wertheim: Interviewed on February 8, 2011

Position: Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated.

Born: 1970, Indianapolis

Education: Bloomington (IN) High School North, 1989 – “had to get that in”; BA Yale, 1993; Penn Law, 1997

Career: “My first job out of college was working for mighty Rip City Magazine, the Portland Trail Blazers fan publication. I started working for SI when I was still in law school and have been here ever since.”

Personal: Wife, Ellie, a divorce mediator. Ben (9), Allegra (7)

Favorite restaurant (home): “Honestly, I’m over pricey, strenuously trendy food. With any luck I’ve eaten my last $40 piece of fish. Give me a burrito from my neighborhood joint
and I’m thrilled.”

Favorite restaurant (away): “One of the great perks of this job is finding obscure joints on the road. Grant Wahl and I once met halfway between Tulsa and Oklahoma City and had sensationally good bbq. The slogan was: “Don’t need no teeth to eat Lou’s meats.” I used to write to a “Road Eats” column for si.com. This sandwich shack
in South Philly is a personal favorite. More upscale, I like Wild Ginger in Seattle.”

Favorite hotel: The Heathman, Portland, Oregon. “Just a classically grand hotel, downtown with a great bar. Also, I’ve gotten into those Kimpton hotels.”

Author of: Scorecasting: The Hidden Influence Behind How Sports are Played and Games Are Won, with Tobias J. Moskowitz, Crown Archetype, 2011

L. Jon Wertheim, from Sports Illustrated, Jan. 25, 2011:

The full moon rose steadily like movie credits and then hovered on the other side of the Missouri River, backlighting downtown Omaha. It was Homecoming Night at Central High. The Eagles hosted Millard South at their new football stadium, built largely from donations from the city’s first family, the Buffetts. Over the din of cheering parents, the strains of the pep band and the refs’ whistles, a distinct voice, deep and firm, pierced the autumn air. C’mon Jemal, remember your stance!

Seated on the bleachers, eight rows back, Terry Harrington wore loafers, low-slung jeans, a denim jacket, a neatly trimmed beard and a white Kangol cap covering his bald head. “Hey, it’s Samuel L. Jackson,” an old friend yelled. Harrington, 51, caught hugs, winks and slaps on the shoulder. Behind his back, he was the object of you-know-who-that-is? looks. That’s the dude who spent 25 years in jail for a murder he didn’t commit. Harrington fixed his gaze on the game, though, tunneling in on the defensive backfield, alternately gripping a rolled-up program and then opening it to check names on the roster. That’s it Jack, get inside. Grab his pads and it ain’t holding!…

Q. As a storytelling device, why did you start and end “Wrongly Accused” at a football game at Omaha Central High?

A. Great question. I think it was important to establish that this was a bona fide sports story; not a “true crime” story that I was trying to shoehorn into SI. Also, attending that game with Terry, it was clear just how passionate, yes, but also how knowledgeable he is about football. I hoped to convey that. I also—and this is simply personal preference—lean toward starting pieces in the present, letting the reader know that this has currency. The movie screenplay likely begins on the night of the crime or graduation day in 1977. But, in my mind, the magazine piece doesn’t.

Q. What drew you to Terry Harrington’s story?

A. I’m a recovering lawyer so I try and keep tabs on the SCOTUS docket. I noticed this case and when I read about it, I learned that Terry was a former athlete. I did some digging and realized there was a potentially meaty story here. But it was the Supreme Court case—which was really about the issue of prosecutorial immunity and not about Terry’s back story—that got this on my radar.

Q. You have a law degree – how did your law background help in doing “Wrongly Accused”?

A. I think having that background helps with the research, the reporting, and “talking the talk” with lawyers and clerks. But I don’t want to overstate it. It’s amazing how quickly journalists become familiar with a subject matter. Alan Schwarz has no medical degree, but I suspect he now knows more about neurology than many doctors do.

Q. Which begs the question – why do you have a law degree and why aren’t you working as a lawyer?

A. That sound you just heard was my Jewish guilt revving up. I really enjoyed law school, but I hit this crossroads. I could take the path of least resistance and go work in a big, well-paying law firm. Or I could try and make it as a writer/media type. Follow your bliss and all. My bar membership is frozen (like in cryogenic storage) at the moment. But, who knows, maybe I’ll practice one day.

Q. Your new book, Scorecasting, is out. What was its genesis and how did you get together with co-author Tobias Moskowitz?

A. Toby is an old friend of mine from Indiana. We went to camp together in the 80s and formed a less-than-formidable doubles team on the Indiana junior tennis circuit. He went on to become an economist and is now colleagues with Steve Levitt at the University of Chicago. We were talking a few years ago and hit on an idea: “Why don’t we try to mimic the Feakonomics model with sports topics?”

Q. So how did the collaboration work?

A. We kicked ideas back and forth. “Hey we should look at home field advantage. Hey I wonder if combine results are really predictive of NFL performance.” Toby and his genius research assistants did the heavy lifting on the data front.

I got to play devil’s advocate and challenge their findings: “Did you guys control for intentional walks?” “What if a game is played on a neutral site?”

Invariably, they had already anticipated my questions and objections. Then it was my job to take the findings and weave it into a story. As Toby once eloquently put it: “You gotta make all this regression shit readable.”

Writing can be a pretty solitary exercise, even non-fiction/journalism. It was great fun to have a partner. Particularly since we’re good friends and go way back.

Q. Scorecasting says punting on fourth down is bad strategy. But as one critic pointed out, your conclusion is based on a study that “uses third-down statistics to gauge the likelihood of fourth-down success – overlooking the fact that defenses will take more risks on fourth down”. Your response?

A. Fair warning: skip this if you’re not into analytics…with an assist from Toby here’s a longwinded answer:

The problem with quantifying the success of going for it on 4th down is
that hardly anyone does it. So, for that reason, Romer – the
Berkeley economist who conducted the study – uses 3rd down plays to
calculate the success rate of 4th down tries. This obviously introduces
some error. Critics will complain about a bias whereby defenses
will take more risks on 4th down and presumably make the
offense less successful – so going for it will actually be less
attractive than you think if you only look at third down to come up with
your statistics.

First, I’m not sure the critic is right in his
premise. Do we know defenses take more risks on 4th down? Do we know
defenses are more successful on 4th down? The same problem that plagues
calculating success rate of the offense on 4th down also hampers any
calculation of how the defense responds on 4th down—there are simply
too few 4th down attempts to measure anything accurately. Also, maybe
the offense also approaches 4th down differently than they do on 3rd
down, which might counteract the defenses reaction. Also, the offense,
knowing it may go for it on 4th down, may approach 3rd down differently,
which could also confer another advantage. The point is we don’t know
which way any bias could go, and in fact there could be no bias at all.

Does this mean we can’t say anything meaningful about 4th down? No. We
can look at the calculation this way: Given the numbers Romer uses from
third down to estimate the likelihood of success for going for it on 4th
down, we can ask how much lower would the success rate on 4th down have
to be relative to the success rate on third down he uses to invalidate
the conclusion that NFL coaches go for it too infrequently? The answer
is 4th down success would have to be A LOT – like 9 times – lower than the
3rd down numbers to overturn this conclusion.

Romer identifies about
1,000 situations where going for it on 4th down – based on 3rd down
numbers – would have been the best option and finds that NFL coaches
kicked over 96% of those times. For kicking to have been the correct
call for those 960+ situations, the success rate on 4th down would have
to be many, many times lower than the numbers he used from 3rd down
plays. This seems implausible. If true, then defenses should always
play as if it’s 4th down. I find it hard to believe that a defense can
summon 9 times more effort – without the offensive effort changing mind
you – when it’s 4th down as opposed to 3rd down.

Keep in mind, too, that
since no one goes for it very often on 4th down, essentially 3rd down is
treated like the final down. So, it’s hard for me to believe that
effort level, risk taking, or success on defense is that much worse on
3rd down than it would be on 4th down. The argument just doesn’t make
sense.

This is a problem people often have with statistics. They think “Well,
if I can’t measure it perfectly than I can’t say anything about it.”
Everything – even our height, weight, IQ, etc. – is measured with error.
But, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t also have information.

The critic is
pointing out one potential error in Romer’s 4th down calculations. We would argue that error is small and doesn’t invalidate his conclusions.
That’s the nature of statistics:
we can never says things perfectly without error, but that doesn’t mean
they don’t say something.

Q. What would a Scorecasting take on murder trials and wrongful convictions look like?

A. That’s a really interesting question. I suppose I’d start with basic data v/v false convictions, exonerations, and forced confessions. Actually now that I think about it, anyone at the Innocent Project or Rob Warden’s outfit at Northwestern care for a partner on a project?

I’m thinking out loud here… but I suspect you build a pretty good composite picture of someone falsely accused. “If you had a black male suspect between ages X and X+9, a white victim, an all-white jury, court-appointed counsel with a caseload exceeding Y, a judge who used the phrase “law and order” in his re-election campaign, the odds of false conviction are 1 in Z.” That kind of thing.

Q. Who do you read in sports media?

A. The usual. Tweetdeck is going all the time. Simmons, Joe Pos, Tommy Craggs. My guilty pleasure is MMA—unless my wife is reading this in which case I gave it up, honey—so I peek at those sites. And I would read a grocery list if Sam Sheridan wrote it. This will, of course, sound self-serving and I am admittedly compromised, but I also think Sports Illustrated still reads great. Scott Price’s piece on Pennsylvania or Chris Ballard’s opus on that Illinois baseball team or Phil Taylor’s deft columns—there’s just no digital equivalent.

 

I’m really conflicted about the state of sports media. There’s a lot about it I dislike—not least, the decline of newspapers and all the talented people struggling “to do more with less” or out of work entirely. On the other hand, I feel as though as though media itself has never had more currency.

Q. Your father was an English professor at Indiana University. Does that account for your flawless grammar?

A. I guess he had the affect on I.

Q. You’ve written six sports books – what is next?

A. Good question. Lately, I’ve been doing long pieces for SI—included the Terry Harrington story we discussed—that have been accompanied by video and I have enjoyed that immensely. You read a story and say, “Great, but I’d love to hear this guy’s voice or see this woman’s face.” You see a video and you say, “Great, but I’d love to read more detail about how the bank robbery went down.” This is a way to do both.

As for books, Toby and I are thinking seriously about a sequel. Even since the release of Scorecasting last month, people have bombarded us with some really intriguing ideas. Including this one guy who asked about false convictions….

(SMG thanks L. Jon Wertheim for his cooperation)

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