Here's How Often ESPN Draft Analysts Use the Same Words Over and Over
A comprehensive, semi-rigorous analysis of the language used by NFL Draft analysts leaves us with one question: Why do we listen to these people?
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Whether by nature or design, ESPN analysts tend to use the same buzzwords repeatedly, as if they have been handed trigger words for debate. No ESPN programming exemplifies this tendency more than the NFL Draft, which is 15 hours of live television over the course of three days consisting of nothing but men talking.
In the interest of science, we at VICE Sports wanted to know precisely how many different descriptors ESPN's full-time draftniks used during their coverage of the 2015 NFL Draft. Because my boss hates me, and because I have masochistic tendencies that the VICE health insurance plan is kindly providing me the resources to deal with, I watched the entire 2015 NFL Draft on ESPN and charted every word each analyst used to describe the draftees.
Here's how it went down. I ignored objective measurements. Combine stats, college statistics, and the like were kosher. Instead, I was interested in the subjective words Mel Kiper Jr., Todd McShay, and the other various analysts used over the three days of coverage. So I wrote down every time they used a scouting-type word that cannot be quantified. I also drank a lot of beer, because fucking Christ, man, I had to watch the entire NFL Draft. I'm not doing that shit sober. Then, I sent the data to Eduardo Ariño de la Rubia, Data Scientist and good dog owner, to crunch the numbers for me and create the pretty graphics you see below.
We fully recognize that, as a quasi-rigorous analysis, there are many potential flaws with the data collection process, including but not limited to the BAC of the data gatherer. As such, the type of people who regularly upload code to GitHub and enjoy critiquing these "funalytics" projects more than reading them might get in a tizzy over this little experiment, which is fine! We all can and should enjoy life in our own ways. But do me a favor. Don't email me with your suggestions on what kind of regression I should have run. Please send those emails here. Someone will be along to respond to your inquiry as soon as the universe collapses on itself and the black hole of complaints is released in a reverse-gravitational process that even I don't fully understand but it's all in A Brief History of Time if you would give it a quick skim.
I know what you're thinking. "Aaro... I mean, Professor Gordon, this is the most insightful bit of data analysis I've ever seen." Well, slow down there, Dear Reader, for the insights are about to come so fast and furious you'll need a Hologram Paul Walker to cope with them.
Before you belittle my lifestyle choices, allow me to re-direct your attention to the words used by these happy few professional talkers. These men are paid hefty annual salaries to study athletes. Come the Big Day, the one they've been preparing for all year, the word they use most often is: athlete. ATHLETE! The second most-frequently said word? ATHLETIC. Those are your grand insights from NFL Draft coverage. The 256 players selected to play in the premier American sports league are athletic athletes.
Based on this data, I have constructed the modal scouting report:
He is a strong, talented, productive, athletic athlete. His speed and instincts are good, he's got natural size, and is big and strong. He works hard. I have some off-field concerns, but he is a good, athletic athlete.
This reads like a joke, but it's not. Those are the most frequently used words in NFL Draft coverage.
I also decided to break down the descriptors used by race of player. Here are the most common words used for black draftees:
And for white draftees:
You may notice "talent," "aggressive," "natural," and "physical" were used far more frequently for black players, whereas white players tended to be described more often with "effort," "leader," "captain," and "great." Feel free to scan around for differences in word frequencies. It's pretty interesting.
Here are words the ESPN analysts used ONLY for black athletes:
And words used only for white players:
Again, feel free to stare at this for as long as you want, but let's do a quick breakdown. Only black players were described as: gifted, aggressive, explosive, raw, and freak. Only white players were described as: intelligent, cerebral, fundamentally, overachiever, technician, workmanlike, desire, and brilliant.
For more on the subject of latent racism in sports broadcasting, check out our previous article, "Sports Media Is Still Racist Against Black Athletes," which has research and data and stuff, and Deadspin's "Which Words Are Used To Describe White And Black NFL Prospects?" from last year, which I shared a byline on, so feel free to dismiss all my findings as the workings of a shameless race-baiter.
The only two analysts who could tolerate the draft for more than one day were Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, so we created word clouds for each of them as well. Here's Kiper's:
Perhaps we could glean from this that McShay is biased towards analyzing players based on size and college production, while Kiper is more about the combine scores and such. But I don't think that's the takeaway here.
To me, the takeaway is that ESPN analysts use bland, basic, sweeping generalizations because they don't know what they're talking about beyond the very, very obvious. Their mock drafts are inaccurate, their scouting success rates are poor, and the best analysis they can muster can easily be replicated by someone watching football for the first time. Why do they even do this? Why do we even listen? Why is this a real thing? I'm going to sleep.
Note: this piece previously included a sentence indicating Marcus Mariota is white. He is Samoan. We have a category for Samoan athletes, but mischaracterized Mariota. The sample size of Samoan athletes was too small to include a graphic for. We apologize for the error.