Breaking Records or Breaking Rules? (Part I)

“The Look In”

Sport: A Case by Case Basis | February Edition | Part I – Part II – Part III

“Records are made to be broken.” -Unknown

As soon as the first person thought to start writing down sports achievements, “records” were born. Teams, fans, coaches, players all started keeping track of everything they did on the sports field from points and touchdowns to wild pitches, shots on goal or even “kills” (volleyball). In fact, “stats” are an ever-growing, ever-evolving ecosystem of quantitative measurements that, regardless of importance or connection to any outcome of a game, inherently generate new “records” as there has to be a “record” for each “stat.”

Then, when Hall of Fames and Retired Numbers and Guinness Books of World Records started being created, these records were lifted to an even higher pedestal. In every sport, these “records” stood as large, awe-inspiring flags in the ground that announced to fans and the media the real “truth” of who is the best and that beckoned athletes to reach (and surpass) their summits. Honestly, records are a beautiful and critical part of competition and of sports as they further stoke the passion, fire and drive of athletes to be better than those that came before, to bring their abilities, their teams and their sport to a new level of greatness. These athletes work harder, practice longer, eat healthier and learn faster. They find themselves ready to sacrificing anything to be the best, to be the “record-holder.” But where is the line? What if they were ready to sacrifice their dignity, their sportsmanship and their honor? What if these “records” became bigger than the rules of the game?

With the latest rash of stories about once-beloved athletes being marred and dogged by newly uncovered evidence of cheating and lying, I think we in the sports world are approaching a watershed moment in regards to “records” and “statistics.” Records seem to be broken at a rapid pace with every time we turn on SportsCenter, we’re hearing about another guy that “did something no one else has ever done.” Mathematically and on paper a record is a record. However, the black and the white becomes a lot more gray area when you start to introduce context to this record with questions like “how long has the statistic even been collected?” or “have there been rule changes that altered the nature of the game?” or “what if we think someone cheated to break it?” or even better “what if we know they cheated?”

The delineation between true records and recent records and records with asterisks gets to be a very murky science that not only sports historians have to wade through, but we as fans need to make sense of too. There have been various attempts, some catching more support than others, to try to categorize and caveat statistical records. There were those that tried to separate stats from certain “eras” of play (like we refer to different periods of dinosaurs), those that split records that occurred before or after major changes in the sport (sort of like B.C. and A.D.) or even those pesky asterisks. But these don’t quite do it. They need to be better structured logically, clearer in delineation and maybe even somehow inclusive of the contextual factors of the time. So where do we even start?

Well, as the field of sports analytics continues to explode, I believe we need to merge the evolution and refinement of statistical analysis in sports with a refined/revised method for tracking, recording and interpreting what a record really means. For figuring out how to reconcile the “real” records that have since been mathematically superseded. Maybe even helping us answer: is our childhood hero that we saw with our own eyes shatter the world record (at that time) actually the greatest of all time or just the greatest at that time?

Stay tuned next week for Part II where I take a closer 
look at what kind of records are being broken and how 
they're being broken to try to figure out if "records" 
are truly the same as they used to be.
Want more Cases? Well, check out January’s Case about Revising the College Rankings System

———————————

This article is part of the monthly three-part series entitled “Sport: A Case by Case Basis.”  Each monthly series features a condensed case study analysis that will be broken into three parts: “The Look In,” “The Sign” and “The Pitch.”  See the overview page in the About the Site section for more information.

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