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.


*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.

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