Thursday, February 2, 2012

Glass Bangers, 2/2/12

HUMAN NATURE - From online and offline chatter, it's clear that the circumstances of this season have created a situation where the Columbus Blue Jackets fanbase is increasingly polarized on what I consider to be The Big Question about my favorite National Hockey League franchise and whether/how to address it.

Do you see "No" or "Yes"?  All depends on your bias.
Moving past the question itself, this polarization has resulted in a terrific case study in the application of confirmation bias by many - and I'll throw myself into the mix so as not to imply that I'm above the fray.  I've done a little bit of study in this area and find it to be fascinating.

What is confirmation bias?  The above Wikipedia link does a decent job of summarizing the premise:
Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias, myside bias or verification bias) is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.
Now that we understand on a basic level what confirmation bias is, I'll share that it is the lens through which I've been tracking pretty much all of the dialogue since the All-Star break started.  Those who were opposed to the notion of a CBJ fan protest were vocal in their opposition before and after the protest, pointing out what they consider to be inconsistencies and shortcomings of the protest - both in terms of form and substance.  Those (including me) who were in favor of the protest did pretty much the same thing, just from the other side of the coin.  And both sides actively seek out information which buttresses their opinion and/or tears the other opinion down.

Point being, we've dug into our respective frames.  Because we all know that the Columbus Blue Jackets would never be so naive as to tell us the unvarnished truth on how they perceived the protest, reacted to it and perhaps adjusted their business plan as a result, we're all left to speculation...and the search for confirmation bias.

Which brings me to today's discussions.  And I'll be the first to admit my bias, so bear with me if you don't share my opinion.  Or, if you're really threatened by opinions that run counter to yours, just move along.

IT'S ALL IN THE TIMING - Protest co-organizer Light The Lamp presented a theory on how the Blue Jackets management's knowledge (and perhaps fear) of the protest may have influenced the team's bid for the NHL All-Star Game.

(A quick digression: Much as I enjoy LTL, I don't track his work automatically. I use Twitter as my initial means to learn of new blog content, and LTL doesn't use Twitter to promote his latest like I and other bloggers do with ours.  So more often than not, I learn of LTL's blog posts by seeing the reaction...or reading Matt Wagner's masterful "Shrapnel" daily summaries of CBJ-related news and blogs.  Back to the story.)

This particular LTL post came to my attention this morning via the Twitter chatter post-"Shrapnel".  I tell you this because of how my confirmation bias was activated.  The same folks (which includes many of my Blue Jackets friends) who decried the protests all along were patting Matt on the back for his slap-down of LTL.  So, of course, I had to see what got everyone going.

In my opinion - and I am now deep into my personal bias at this point - LTL constructed a reasonable scenario as to how the team's knowledge of the forthcoming protest combined with a knowledge that Columbus was already a finalist for the 2013 All-Star game (The Columbus civic boosters had done their job, make no doubt about it!) provided sufficient stimulus for team ownership to finally agree to a few final capital investments in Nationwide Arena to seal the deal.  LTL then suggests that the timing of the McConnell letter to the ticket buyers and fans, the McConnell interview with the Dispatch and the 2013 All-Star Game announcement all may have been influenced by the protest.  I also note that LTL also admits his own bias, calling it "my 'conspiracy' opinion only".

So let's get to the meat of the issue:
  • Is it reasonable to think that, sans protest, McConnell would not have written a letter to the fans at the All-Star break essentially suggesting that the season is lost?  Yes.
  • Is it reasonable to think that the media-shy McConnell would not have spoken to the Dispatch last week had a public protest not been scheduled?  Yes.
  • Is it reasonable to think that the Blue Jackets, a team that surely isn't rolling in extra money considering the volume of team-issued free and discounted tickets on the street, would have preferred to avoid spending more money on infrastructure improvements at this point in time?  Yes.
  • Is it reasonable to think that the NHL would have preferred to let the Ottawa All-Star weekend actually take place before upstaging it by an announcement of the 2013 game had a protest not been scheduled...if only to allow for a bigger public relations bang when the 2013 announcement is made?  Yes.
  • Is it reasonable to think that the protest and the protest alone is responsible for all of these actions?  Probably not.
It's just as reasonable to suggest that team management, fresh off receiving their ticket holder online survey responses (and thank you for the free lower bowl tickets for completing the survey, CBJ), could have panicked, hired a Chicago public relations firm, implemented a rapid-fire plan to stem the now-anticipated hemorrhaging of ticket package holders that could have included the letter, interview and final push for the All-Star Game.  And I'm sure that other warning signs could have been interpreted in a way to make such a flurry of team ownership and management activity plausible.

I've said all along (here, here and here, to be specific) that protests work as far as making leaders uncomfortable and changing the public dialogue.  McConnell's own words in the Dispatch interview do not suggest that he was entirely comfortable with the idea of the protest.  Same goes for NHL commissioner Bettman.  And there is no question that the public dialogue was affected by the protest.

To wrap this section up, I'll also guess that the protest probably played at least a minor role in the discussions that led up to the flurry of public relations activity.  But that's my bias.

LOOK OVER THERE! - Then we have "clock-gate".  Oh, how I was hoping that this one would have gone quietly into the night because I really, really didn't want to spend the next few days discussing how clocks work.  As I watched the "Blue Jackets Live" postgame show, however, I knew it wasn't going to happen.  This is a league and a sport that will spend days wringing their hands over the relative severity of brain-crushing hits and whether common sense should prevail when it comes to wearing protective equipment.  The chance to talk about how an electronic clock works or doesn't work is like manna from heaven for NHL intelligentsia in a long, 82-game season.

What I didn't expect, however, was Scott Howson's engagement of the issue.

Howson posted perhaps his strongest-worded blog entry ever on the subject today.  [UPDATE: As of 3:30 PM today, Howson's blog post has been pulled off the Columbus Blue Jackets website.  Here's a screen capture of the post.]  In fact, in this "get along to get along" culture that is professional sports, it's genuinely surprising to see Howson put something in print like:
"...this was an unjust result. In reality, this game should have gone to overtime, and we will never know what the true result of the game should have been."
Comments like this get people fined in the NHL.  Coming from a guy like Howson, it's surprising.

Better yet - especially in light of LTL's "conspiracy" post mentioned above, was this gem from Howson:
"It is an amazing coincidence that with the Kings on a power play at STAPLES Center and with a mad scramble around our net in the dying seconds of the third period of a 2-2 hockey game that the clock stopped for at least one full second. I can only think of two ways in which this would have happened. Either there was a deliberate stopping of the clock or the clock malfunctioned."
I'm willing to grant Howson that either possibility could have occurred.  I'm also willing to grant that the CBJ fan protest influenced the actions of the Blue Jackets management over the past week.  Gotta keep an open mind, you know.

Honestly, I don't care about "clock-gate".  Not one iota.  And I didn't care about it before Howson blogged on the topic.  Regardless of how the NHL decides to handle their own little public relations nightmare, it doesn't change the Blue Jackets' season.  The CBJ started the night deep in last place and are so far behind 14th place that a "loser point" from getting to overtime just wasn't going to make a difference.

I know that it could have an effect on the outcome of the Western Conference playoff seedings.  I fully support every team challenging Los Angeles for the final Western Conference seeds to scream bloody murder and call for an investigation in the hopes of overturning the outcome.

I just find the Blue Jackets protesting it to be a distraction from the fact that the team - for a host of reasons - couldn't find a way to win the game in the other 59 minutes and 58.5 seconds of playing time.  Chief among those reasons is that the man carrying the flag on this acceptable protest put together a roster that wasn't playing .500 hockey (8-9-4) when its two prized acquisitions were in the lineup and the team was - more or less - healthy and not suspended.

And thus I will look at Blue Jackets involvement in "clock-gate" as a big distraction from the fact that Columbus couldn't beat a Los Angeles team that really didn't play that well last night.  I consider it a distraction much as I looked at the seemingly rushed All-Star Game announcement as a distraction from the CBJ fan protest...just another shiny bauble to take the fans' eyes off the fact that this team, as constructed, is plunging deeper into the NHL record books for all the wrong reasons.

RIGHT GUY, WRONG EMPLOYER - One last thought on Howson's blog, separated from the above argument so as to give everyone a chance to catch their breaths.

It's abundantly clear that Scott Howson loves professional hockey.  He is passionate about the sport and appears to have a vision for how he wants it played.

Scott Howson: Great for the NHL, but perhaps not
the right guy to manage a team's hockey operations?
Case in point, he worked tirelessly on the issue of eliminating the shootout, compromising with a new NHL rule making non-shootout wins the first tiebreaker for playoff eligibility.  Now, his team has been terrible in shootouts, granted, but it needs to threaten for a playoff berth before this rule is relevant to those of us in Columbus.  From my perspective it was a personal crusade by Howson to make the game that he appears to love even better.  And once you put the Columbus-centric lenses aside (because we would likely be saying, "Why the hell are you spending your time on that stuff?  How about the team you're supposed to manage?"), such a move is admirable.

Now, with the determined public stance on getting the "clock-gate" matter straightened out despite the fact that it just won't impact the CBJ season, we see Howson saddling up once again for the cause of better hockey.  From that perspective (and that alone), I say good for him.

If I may be so bold, I think Howson has found his calling...and it's in Toronto or New York, not Columbus.  I would love to see a deliberate, thoughtful, measured and - above all - bright man like Howson in a position with the National Hockey League where he could advance improvements in the game.  Perhaps he could work with the likes of Colin Campbell and Brendan Shanahan, bringing his legal acumen to bear on some of the hardest issues facing today's NHL.  He could manage the "clock-gate" investigations.  He could help broker profound improvements in the game by bringing owners, managers and players together.

Talk about a dream job for a man with his skills and outlook.  And please note that this theoretical job has absolutely nothing to do with constructing the roster and hockey operations staff for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

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