May 7, 2007

On Polls, Barry Bonds and Jayson Stark

To be completely upfront, we took high school statistics, so we probably understand how to read a poll a bit better than you do. That having been said, in the case of Barry Bonds, there are a few undeniable certainties. Barry is a jerk, Barry has been hitting home runs for a long time, and Barry's head has grown since joining the Giants.

There is also a heavy, unproven suspicion of serious steroid abuse by Bonds over the last decade or so. We believe that Bonds probably knowingly used steroids, but we admit that there is no direct proof at present. Aside from an admission from Bonds, it seems unlikely that direct proof of steroid abuse will be possible.

A recently released ABC News poll concluded that a majority of Americans don't want Barry Bonds to break the home run record. That doesn't surprise us in the least. The poll revealed that 52% of people identifying themselves as "baseball fans" are cheering against Bonds. Moreover, only 37% of baseball fans are cheering for Bonds to succeed.

The poll also examines the role of race on the Barry Bonds issue. According to the poll, 39% of white people and 26% of black people identify themselves as baseball fans.

Which brings us to Jayson Stark. We generally like reading Jayson Stark, but his recent piece attempting to dissect the meaning of this poll was lacking to say the least.

Stark starts off saying that "until now, we haven't spent much time talking about the racial issues that hover over this man and this event. But this poll tells us we need to do more of that, too." He asks "would you have known, from the way this issue has been portrayed by all of us in the media biz, that the percentage of fans who wish this moment wasn't happening would be only 52 percent? Would you have guessed that three fans out of every eight actually want Barry Bonds to break this record?"

On the racial issue, Stark writes that "nearly half of all black fans think Bonds has been given a raw deal. And a quarter of those fans think that raw deal is all about race -- not steroids or anything else."

The career home run record is arguably the biggest record in all of sports. Jayson Stark is questioning the media's portrayal of America being firmly anti-Bonds. Of course, Jayson doesn't mention that Hank Aaron had 77% of Americans cheering for him to break Babe Ruth's record in 1974. Is it not a pretty big story that 40% fewer Americans are cheering for Bonds to break the home run record than Aaron? Are a majority of Americans not openly rooting against this record to be broken whereas 30 years ago only a quarter of Americans opposed it?

Jayson mentions that many fans think Bonds has been treated unfairly, but he fails to mention that overall only 10% attribute this to race. While a quarter of black baseball fans who think Bonds has been treated unfairly believe it is because of race, 62% believe it is either because of the steroids or because Barry is a jerk. Overall, fans who don't believe Bonds took steroids are three times more likely to believe he has been treated unfairly, a figure which makes a lot of sense. If somehow it is proven that Bonds didn't take steroids, we would agree that he has probably been treated unfairly. It is no surprise that those who don't think he took steroids today feel like he is getting a raw deal.

Finally, there is the issue of the media's portrayal. Stark argues that ONLY 52% of America is openly against Bonds, and about 35% WANT Bonds to break the record. Is the media really portraying America v. Bonds inaccurately? Attaching no political subtext, we point to an April 22nd Pew poll relating to President Bush's approval rating. This poll suggests that Bush and Bonds share roughly the same approval ratings.

According to the Pew poll, 35% of Americans approve of the President and 57% of Americans disapprove of his job performance. Should the media focus on the fact that President Bush has a core group of supporters or that his disapproval rating is nearing dangerous levels? Should the media be portraying Americans as "conflicted" in their support for Bush? Would it be accurate to say that only 57% of Americans think Bush isn't doing a great job and almost two-fifths think the Prez is doing a good job? Is suggesting that at present most Americans disapprove of both Bonds and Bush an example of misreading the mood of the nation on this? We wouldn't argue that America is conflicted on either Bonds or Bush (again, no political agenda here, just using similar poll numbers).

Stark concludes that "we have a greater feel now for all of the powerful elements that will collide when that historic baseball takes its fateful ride through the sky. And they won't be colliding quite the way most of us suspected before these poll results knocked on the door to our brains." If that isn't a load of crap, we don't know what is. But, hey, only 94% of Americans believe we landed on the Moon. If we ever do land on the moon for real, knowing that 6% of Americans never believed the lies should give us a better feel for all of the powerful elements that will collide.


JBRATER said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JBRATER said...

I completely agree that the stark column was terrible, but I disagree with the notion that race plays no role in society and the media's scrutiny of the home run chase. I find it interesting that you neglected to include the statistic that 74% of black baseball fans are rooting for bonds to break the record, as opposed to only 37% of the total survey sample. Looking back, how much attention did lance armstrong's alleged steroid use and blood doping get? And is the story still in the news now? Was it partially because nobody gives a crap about cycling? Probably. Was it partially because lance armstrong is perceived as a nice, non-threatening, cancer-surviving all-american white boy? Possibly. Incidentally, it's also been reported (occasionally) that Lance Armstrong is kind of a tool as regards his personal life, heroic triumph over cancer notwithstanding (I don't know whether it's true or not, of course) but this doesn't seem to get much attention either.

In other news, one Jeff Asher nearly had a euporia-induced heart attack upon reading the following news.

JMA said...

I was thrilled by that news. I didn't include that stat but there are other statistics which I think go further than race to explaining that. The study showed that of race and suspected steroid use, suspicion of steroid use is the stronger predictor of a person's attitude towards Bonds. Additionally, 37% of black people and 76% of white people think Bonds used steroids. I think the fact that this issue is so sketchy, that there is no actual proof but seemingly tons of circumstantial evidence, contributes greatly to support/hatred of Bonds. Of course race plays a part in this issue as it does many parts of American society, but I think it's foolish to suggest that either a) baseball fans are not more or less rooting against Bonds (it's telling that 40% fewer people are rooting for Bonds than rooted for Aaron, a figure that we suspect may very well have had to do with race in 1974. He's going to have a sizable constituency one way or another) or b) the media has missed some wider story that race is the reason black people think people are rooting against Barry Bonds.
The issue is complex and there are few concrete details. Seems to me that the best way to get some certainty would be for us to figure out for sure whether or not he took steroids.

Peter Bean said...

You may have taken a statistics class, but you clearly skipped the afternoon lectures in philosophy.

Stark's column is a flawed one, but so so are the counter-arguments in this post. Fallacies abound.

Jonny O. said...

First of all, your entry was upsettingly objective. This is a blog, for Christ's sake. You don't just think he may have taken steroids; he took steroids. You don't have a sudden acne problem appear in your late thirties.
As to the topic at hand, my esteemed namesake and cousin makes a good point in stating that race remains an essential element in all walks of American life. However, we're getting turned around by using the broad term of "racial." In doing so, one immediately leaps to the conclusion that we're talking about a man being oppressed as a result of his racial make-up. I see no reasonable argument for that in this case. What I see is the perfectly reasonable inclination to stand up for someone of like ethnicity. I have little doubt that if it were Shawn Green facing these charges, many in the Jewish community would be less than vehement, and some downright defensive. As understandable as that instinct is, it would not point to widespread anti-Semitism, as this case does not point to racism.
Bonds is guilty and a dick, Lance Armstrong is innocent and considerably nicer, and while some may consider it important to protect racial solidarity, there's no reason for anyone to get up in arms about the racial aspects of the home run race.

LivestrongLover said...

I think the main reason the alleged Lance doping scandal is no longer in the news is that there is very little truth to it. It's not because people don't care about cycling or because Lance is white. There is very little evidence to suggest that Lance took steroids, and the rules are constantly being defined for EPO (erythropoitin for you purists out there)and other hormones that may or may not enhance athletic ability. (By the way, I am not acknowleding that Lance used EPO or any other substance.) I prefer to chalk up his feat to him being an incredible specimen--his lung capacity, heart rate, performance ability, and training regimen are like unto themselves. People don't want Bonds to succeed because he's a jerk. It's the same reason Maris has an asterisk next to his name in the 1961 record books.

WAO said...

I feel the need to make a couple of things clear on this one. First, while we do dislike Barry Bonds very much, that wasn't necessarily the main thrust of this post. Rather, the intention was to chide Jayson Stark for drawing conclusions that are suspect at best from a wide array of poll numbers.

With the number of poll questions and ensuing amount of data available here, a person can easily make the numbers say whatever he wants them to. We believe that it is more telling on the "race question" that Hank Aaron, in a time of far more overt racism in America than we have today, had 40% more people pulling for him than does Barry. You can argue very convincingly that race relations are really no better today than they were in the 70's, that they've just improved on the surface, etc. But it's pretty clear to any objective observer that relations are at least no worse; thus, Aaron's numbers bear particular significance and render the race point largely moot.

Or, if you want to read it a different way...they don't.

Anonymous said...

Maris wasn't a jerk. Maris was sweet.