On Human (Sports) Nature, and the Process of Letting Go

Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sport

Acceptance is the final stage of grief, dontcha know.

(Author's note: big thanks to @doogie2k for the heads up on the Iginla piece!)

This past weekend, a story broke that Nathan Horton wasn't happy with how Bruins management handled (or rather didn't handle) his contract negotiations over the course of the season last year. He also mentioned, as he had before, that Columbus appealed to him for his family's sake. Boston is a great sports town, but it can also be a bit tough in terms of media intensity and fan expectations. I can understand why Horton might want a different vibe.

Now, it certainly sounds as though Chiarelli et al were somewhat surprised that Horton didn't even considering Boston when he hit free agency. They moved some pieces to be able to resign Horton, after all. Chiarelli was visibly upset by Horton's decision, and that feeling of betrayal seemed to resonate with large portions of the Bruins fanbase, as well. Horton chose another city, wanted to play somewhere else that was specifically NOT Boston, and people took offense -- never mind that Columbus also offered him an slightly absurd deal given his injury/health issues over the years, which I imagine would have been tough to turn down.

At the same time, the Bruins traded away one of their core young players, one who had the stats -- both advanced and olde-tymey -- to suggest he will be a very productive player for some time. The reasons given were many, but the rumor mill and by rumor mill I mean Boston media spun a story about party-boy ways and needing to be locked in his hotel room during the playoffs: "off-ice issues," if you will.

Look, I'm not here to comment on the off-ice issues: as far as I'm concerned, it's all really vague rumors at this point. But in terms of what the team's official line was -- Seguin wasn't coming along at the pace they'd hoped, he didn't fit the Bruins' "style" -- a lot of fans seemed to swallow that reasoning hook, line, and sinker (which, in my mind, is why Chia keeps trotting it out). For many, being a "Bruins-style player" trumps being, you know, really good at hockey. Kid was one year out from being the team's leading scorer, not to mention a possession/shot-taking machine. Nonetheless, for the reasons stated above (along with others we will never be privy to -- if you think a TV show is going to give the whole story of why a dude gets traded, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you), Seguin was traded for a collection of pieces, none of which will likely match his future production.

(Side note: I, for one, hope that Tyler Seguin scores a billion goals this year. Not because I want Chiarelli and company to look dumb -- it'll be a bit before we know who "won" the trade, in my mind it's pointless to fight about it now -- but because the mainstream media in Boston has been the worst at letting go. I understand not wanting to jeopardize your access to the team, I guess, though that seems at odds with journalistic integrity, but whatevs. What I will *never* understand is the obsession almost every major reporter covering the Bruins seems to have with dragging Seguin through the mud now. You don't get to be nasty and gloat about what a bad dude a player was when you not ONCE reported on it when said dude was still in town.)

So: two productive players, both no longer with the team. The fanbase seems divided on the overall positive/negative nature of both situations. In both cases, people's understanding of the players playing for the Bruins now seems to be deeply colored by a set of tendencies that are very much a part of human nature, as any social psychologist worth their salt would tell you.

There's a term that gets used sometimes, especially in circles that traffic in advanced metrics: confirmation bias. Roughly, it means that you see what you expect to see, and you selectively choose facts to support your beliefs, regardless of hard evidence to the contrary. We all do it: it's human nature, and possible even more so in a sports context. Here's a good example: a bunch of media and fans have, in their evaluation of Jarome Iginla through the first 5 games, pointed out that he is traditionally a slow starter. He has yet to score a goal as a Bruin during the regular season (though he did score a few in the preseason). We take this assertion that he's a slow starter, look at the quite simplistic fact that he has yet to score and say yep! Our notion is confirmed.

The problem, of course, is that the premise is a false one. Iginla isn't actually a slow starter, as our friends over at Matchsticks and Gasoline proved a couple of years back. Over the course of his very long career, Iginla is actually not a slow starter at all, but he hasn't yet scored in Boston, so many people take this singular fact as confirmation that this baseless assertion much be true.

There's another, more recently studied phenomenon known colloquially as "haters gonna hate" syndrome. Essentially, studies have shown that some people are more naturally predisposed to dislike things, while others are more inclined to like things. That sounds reductionist, but it's true. So, for example, with the Seguin trade, some people were going to like it -- and produce evidence to back that pleasure up, be it anecdotal or otherwise. Others were going to dislike it, and point to fancy stats to show why. It's not that those people are wrong -- I am certainly one of them. But the point here is that it would take a great deal of effort to convince people on one side of the debate or the other that the opposite was true, because human nature generally dictates that some people really like things, and some people really dislike things.

In both cases, there's nothing wrong with being a human being and being affected by confirmation bias or acting according to one's nature to like/dislike something. As with all such things, however, the important thing here is to be *aware* of one's tendencies. Being aware of one's own predilections as a person can help one more accurately assess the state of a team, or a players performance, or who "won" a trade. I am certainly affected by confirmation bias, and I am to my *core* a person who wants to like things. It's a struggle for me to understand that about myself, and to bring an element of realism to my understanding of this team. It's been crazy rewarding, though, and like Ian pointed out a bit ago, has allowed me to remind myself of the importance of rationality and fun in sports fandom.

So. Eriksson (and Smith and Morrow) will never be Seguin: we shouldn't expect them to be. The Bruins may very well be worse off for the trade; at the same time, it's probably not the end of the world, and more than that, there is literally nothing anyone can do about it now. Iginla, a first ballot hall of famer, is for sure on the decline; at the same time, he is by no means a terrible player.

The moral of this story is, I suppose, one of acceptance. You and I have zero control over the moves the Bruins management makes. That is not to imply that we shouldn't analyze and criticize those moves -- again, I'll be the first to tell you that I think the Seguin trade was not a great one for the Bruins -- but to spend the rest of the season killing yourself/the team over what I hope are gaudy point totals on Seguin's part doesn't serve a real purpose. At the same time, to be unrealistic about one's expectations of Iginla and Eriksson is to equally do oneself a disservice. So does being mad at Nathan Horton, who made a decision that had little do with with me or you as fans, no matter how much it may feel like it did.

Anyway, I'm not here to convince you to be a different kind of fan than you are -- hate/love on, my friends. It is worth pointing out, however, that one can be realistic without being cynical, hopeful without being unrealistic. Neither of those two extremes -- undiluted cynicism and haterade or head-in-the-sand optimism -- lead to a good place, in my opinion. Don't go down the path of being a Leafs fan, guys. Don't do it.*

(*Note: obviously a generalization. Not all Leafs fans are like this. Don't hurt me, Leafs fans.)

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