The wind is always strongest in our face

One thing all sports fans know for a fact is that their team is the one that is the most hard-done by. Their team has the hardest schedule. Their team has the most biased press coverage. Their team gets the worst calls from the referees. Their team isn’t allowed to be as rough as others. Or their team is singled out for rough treatment. Or their team is punished against “bigger” teams. So on ad nauseum. In every aspect of the game, their team is the one with the most obstacles to success. It’s a fact. We all know it. No need to even discuss.

If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me to “prove” that the press was biased toward Arsenal, or to “prove” institutional bias against Arsenal by the referees, or to show how the schedule is harder for Arsenal because the FA place Arsenal’s toughest matches (away against top four opponents) on the week before/after internationals/Champions League (away) I would have a lot of dollars. I also suspect that I would not be able to prove, objectively, that Arsenal (my team) actually has it harder than other teams.

Proving press bias against Arsenal would be difficult and easy. Difficult because I’d have to design a test for bias. What makes an article biased? Just because I don’t like what the reporter is saying, or if the reports are negative, does that mean the article is biased? How can we objectively say that an article is biased against the team it’s being written about? Perhaps if I get 10 random articles from 10 different sources for all the 20 Premier League clubs and then have a 50 people who were not in on my experiment and who knew nothing about English football code them according to whether they were friendly/neutral/biased toward the team that they are writing about. I might be able to show some biases. My guess is that we wouldn’t see any more bias against any one club. I would also guess that there would be more negative articles about the big clubs because they have larger fanbases and that sells more clicks. But I have yet to find 50 people to read 200 articles on all 20 clubs.*

As for proving institutional bias of referees, we know statistically that Mike Dean has a highly unusual record against Arsenal but is there an institutional bias against Arsenal? Against any team? What are the biases and how do we even begin to design a test that a non-football fan can apply to a set of data, like, watching games?

The problem with refereeing is that no two fans can agree on what constitutes a foul. The problem is that the laws of the game are crazily subjective. Handball has to be “intentional”. A red card has to be “reckless”. An elbow to the face has to be intentional. Offside is only offside if the player makes an attempt to play the ball. So on and so forth, most of the laws of the game require the viewer to judge intent. And when it comes to objectively judging intent, the last people I trust are football fans. I’ve been talking to them now for nearly 20 years. I know you. You people are nuts.

The other problem with referees isn’t just that they make calls it’s also that they make non-calls or let certain players off with lighter punishment. In Granit Xhaka’s interview (available on Arseblog News) he even points out how ridiculous it was for him to get a red card for a tackle when Zlatan Ibrahimovic got away with an elbow to the face. Some of this could be measured (such as number of times a team has to be retroactively punished) but it would take a herculean effort to teach non-sports fans the laws of the game and then have them watch all of the calls and non-calls for a large sample of games.

But I think honest sports supporters know that they are biased. I’ll admit it. I see the obstacles more than the benefits. In other words, I feel like my team is subjected to harsher treatment than other teams, especially Manchester United. I mean, how many times is Rojo going to get away with two-footed, leg-breakers, this season? No, wait, not just Man U, Chelsea too. Oh and Liverpool. And all these clubs keep getting more penalties than Arsenal. Also, we get penalized for pens that we shouldn’t get!

I actually believe that stuff and I am also simultaneously blind to the benefits that Arsenal have as a club. And you know what? This is completely normal.

The Freakonomics episode Why is my Life so Hard explains why: it’s because people naturally feel headwinds more than tailwinds. The episode is actually an interview with Shai Davidai and Thomas Gilovich, the authors of an academic study titled The Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry: An Availability Bias in Assessment of Barriers and Blessings.

In 7 different studies Davidai and Gilovich show that human beings are naturally more attuned to the obstacles in front of them than they are to the things that are benefiting them. Whether this is in sports or politics it is the same story, people feel that they have more obstacles than others and that any benefits they received were less important than others. This belief system turns into resentment, envy, and at its worst.. entitlement.

So, for example, the recent election showed that America has a problem with angry white people. Not all Trump voters were angry white people and angry white people didn’t just support Trump but you’d have to have been living in a coma for the last 8 years to have missed out on the phenomenon which showed up at rallies across the country, punching people in the head, yelling “lock her up” and talking about Obama as if he were “Hitler.” Davidai and Gilovich mention this phenomenon in the podcast and explain it: there are real obstacles appearing in front of a large number of people across the country – manufacturing jobs have gone away, health care costs are rising, and Americans feel sicker and poorer than they were before Obama – and people feel those obstacles much more heavily then the overwhelming white privilege that they have benefited from. These people have lost some of their entitlements and they want them back!

I would also say that Arsenal supporters have a similar anger problem with Arsenal. Just watch Arsenal Fan TV and you will see the same kind of seething anger, resentment of other clubs, and sense of entitlement that Angry Americans have. For the record, I’m not saying that you’re a Trump supporter or a Brexiter if you’re angry about Arsenal. What I am saying is that the level of anger at the club, the manager, the players, and the owners, is heightened because Arsenal supporters are only seeing the headwinds right now and not feeling the tailwinds. And this is totally normal.

We are also, much like the Angry Americans, being forced to share some of our privilege; when I first started following Arsenal we were one of two clubs who perennially challenged for the League, then along came Chelsea, and then along came Man City, and now Arsenal have challenges to our dominance from Liverpool, Tottenham, Man City, Man U, and Chelsea. We are no longer one of the top two and this makes us angry, resentful, and fearful of the future.

Davidai and Gilovich have a recommendation to combat this phenomenon. First, you have to know that you’re doing it. But, second, to overcome that all you have to do is to actually appreciate the benefits that you have. To enumerate them and become appreciative of the tailwinds.

So, for example, one huge benefit Arsenal have is money. You’ve probably heard me say this before but the main reason why I’m sanguine about who the next manager is at Arsenal is because ultimately I don’t think it matters. We will win some, lose some, fire managers, and possibly even higher another brilliant young manager like we did back in 1996. But Arsenal has a giant, brand new stadium, and are always going to be a huge club in a big city in the most televised league in the world which can offer huge wages and attractive benefits (sponsorship deals, exposure, etc) to top players and managers. Maybe Arsenal will miss out on Champions League football for a few years. Yep. Could happen. Probably will happen. But the fundamental tailwind of Arsenal’s size, history, wealth, location, and the fact that we play in the Premier League will all still be there.

Look at Chelsea and Tottenham right now. They are trying to play catch-up to Arsenal in terms of their respective stadiums. Meanwhile, Arsenal have their stadium costs completely under control and the goose that laid the golden egg is laying fat eggs.

Of course fans could stop going to games, sponsorships could dry up, Arsenal could be shown less on TV, the money from Champions League could go away, and the flow of money into Arsenal could slow down. Again, all worries that I completely understand but not actual obstacles that we have in front of us right now. Right now, we have an offer on the table to pay Özil a million Pounds a month. That’s some tailwind.

I encourage you all to think of the tailwinds rather than the headwinds. Maybe not the ones for Arsenal right now – that might be too much to ask, maybe just the ones in your life. I think you will find your life more enjoyable and the obstacles less harrowing.

And one last piece of advice here from the study. We often attribute tailwinds to others people and by doing that we diminish the actual benefits that we might have. So, we tend to only appreciate the things others have done for us. For example, I was given a chance to write for Arseblog and I appreciate that. I’ve often said that ” I wouldn’t have the following I have if it wasn’t for Arseblog”. But it’s more important to recognize and appreciate the variables that are independent of other people. For example, I’m apparently a good writer. Right? HA HA! But seriously, Andrew wouldn’t have given me a writing gig if I sucked.

Andrew was there for me and I will forever be grateful but my skill as writer was my actual benefit and I should recognize and appreciate that.

Qq

*I’d probably even have to be careful in my article selection lest I inject my own biases into that component. Maybe just a random sampling from 2012 or something.

16 Comments on The wind is always strongest in our face

  1. Fair enough. But I still say 7amkickoff is the most underappreciated and overly trolled Arsenal blog out there. It’s so good, everyone hates it. But, yeah, I’m biased. 🙂

  2. Brilliant. Really enjoyed this article. So I guess the moral of the story is “count your blessings”. This is good. This gives me hope for the future. I have been drowning in red and white tears for a while now but you are right, if we look at the big picture we are in a good place to make the jump to the next level. It’s just that the skeptic in me makes me think we may f**k this up – and that’s mainly because of how dire the team is at the moment.

    In terms of bias against Arsenal, I have no doubt there is an inherent bias against us – both among the officials and media. How can there not be a bias against us in the media? Just look at who the pundits are – mostly all ex-Liverpool and Man U players. To expect them to be completely unbiased is just naïve. In the case of referees, these latest calls/ non calls on Alexis, Bellerin and Xhaka are just a few in a long history of calls against Arsenal. Mike Dean is just the one who stands out because he has been there a long time and he is so blatantly biased that even the stats support it. But you’re right, there is no real way of proving it –perhaps someday someone will inject Mike Dean with a high dose of LSD mixed with truth syrum and force him to confess.

      • Now that would be f-ing hilarious. If Tim were trolling us the entire time! Shard, say it isn’t so…

      • Nice try Shard, but I’m on to you.
        Listen up everyone. Shard is a Putin plant and part of the world-wide effort to influence the anti-Russia media.

        Tim’s blog has been monitored by Kremlin for some time now and his prominence into the blogosphere hasn’t gone unnoticed by FSB.

        Do you think it’s a coincidence that Shard, who’s real name is Shardovskey, has been railing against the FA , the PL officials, the corruption in the English game and England in general?
        It’s not.
        His anti- US feelings have been well documented as well.

        Now don’t ask me how I know this because I can not divulge this information. All I can tell you is that I’m hearing things, and I’m like a smart person , ok .

        • You forgot to say ‘allegedly’!! I’m going to sue you for all you’ve got!! But am willing to settle for a couple of beers.

          Or maybe that’s just how I’m going to find you and…nah. no good without the Liam Neeson voice.

          Wait.. Beers? Did I say beers? I meant vodka of course.

          • “Allegedly” isn’t in Trump’s vocabulary.
            And whatever you are going to sue me for, I’m going to counter sue you for that amount times the infinity. And whatever the outcome of the lawsuit might be, I’m gonna claim great victory. Huge!

      • yeah, bro. the cat’s out of the bag. you’re the only one i know who said out loud that they wanted trump to win the election.

  3. This may be the most sanguine blog you’ve ever written. Bravo, sir. The old adage about life being 90% about your reaction to things as opposed to the things that actually happen to you.. that’s real. It’s just putting it in practice that’s hard, especially consistently.

    I can tell you your brain is hardwired not to be rational. Your brain takes sensory inputs and immediately runs them through the limbic system in the mesencephalon, a primitive part of the brain which deals with emotions and basic functions. Only then does it allow information to percolate up to your cortex where higher cognitive processing happens. This makes sense. When a tiger attacks, you don’t want to be admiring the silky sheen of its fur, or contemplate the basic need to survive that’s driving its actions. Instead, your anus clenches, your pupils dilate, the blood flow to your muscles doubles and you run, screaming. This is an extreme example but similar emotional reactions can be elicited simply from seeing someone you don’t like unexpectedly, hearing bad news or perceiving someone else slighting you.

    However in our day and age, this basic evolutionary response to our sensorium, when applied unconsciously and accepted as truth, can be extremely harmful to ourselves and to others. When faced with adversity this initial “gut” response should be recognized for what it is and allowed time to be properly processed by the higher functioning levels of the brain. Understand this and allow yourself time to understand your emotions, recognizing them for the primitive impulses they are.

  4. nicely done, tim. i really enjoy questions like, “what makes an article biased?”

    i also appreciate the contributions of “david and goliath”. they boldly claim things that we all know but conveniently choose to “forget”. sometimes, people “forget” too much what they used to know and need to be re-taught; that’s from the bible (hebrews 5:12).

    i have a friend who has cancer in his common bile duct. it broke my heart when he told me that because i know it’s impossible for physicians to reach and operate there. while i empathize with his predicament, i also know that i have no idea how he’s feeling right now. as time points out, he has a different obstacle than i do. is it fair? i have bad knees that prevent me from piloting a plane, fighting, or playing soccer, which was life/career changing, but i don’t have terminal cancer.

    this situation is far more significant than football but it did cause me to contemplate my own mortality. one should really count their blessings and make the most of today while it’s called ‘today’.

  5. Great article.

    Untold Arsenal is probably the best/only site attempting to monitor referee performance/bias, which is pretty sad. People will say that they’re biassed (and they probably are) but at least they put up their match/referee reports for all to see and include references to the laws of the game where applicable.

    You can’t ask for much more than that even though, ideally, an independent party really should be doing that work.

    That a small blog is doing more than the league itself to monitor referee performance is SAD!

  6. Appreciating tailwinds…I try to do that but this reminder is a timely one for me personally. So thanks for the post. A special one all your regulars should always appreciate.

    Kierkegaard, one of the fathers of Existentialism said that “the most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have”.

    Focusing on the headwinds too much will make you that.

Comments are closed.