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Column: So what is ‘expertise’ anyway?

Hint: Let’s leave health decisions to the experts. But also let’s understand tradeoffs.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Ohio State vs Clemson Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten and Pac-12 have officially cancelled fall sports (not just football, remember). It stinks, and, to be explicitly clear, no one actually wanted it to happen. Cancelling sports benefits no one financially, but health and safety are binary concerns that cannot be compromised.

I’m not denying that folks can be feeling pretty crappy about this situation. When I saw the news of Ohio State football being cancelled, I sat on my bed and cried for 30 minutes, clutching a Brutus Buckeye doll my friend gave to me years ago. It was an irrational reaction, and as I went through the stages of grief as recommended by Tia Johnston, I recognized that we all have something we care about that COVID-19 has taken away, something that causes us to be hit irrationally hard. We are fortunate if that “something” is not the death or illness of a loved one, but, as we’ve seen, it doesn’t make the hurt any less acute.

When it comes to football, I also need to acknowledge that the Big Ten certainly didn’t execute the past couple weeks perfectly. Like many things in the world, this decision falls on a spectrum. It wasn’t just “to play or not to play.” Instead, there are factors like involving players in the decision, considerations of a spring season and the holistic communication plan which also played a part in the response, and which made the decision feel more harsh, perhaps, than it needed to even under these already harsh circumstances.

Even so, fans who are upset who seem to have trouble identifying the source of their emotions are instead lashing out at public figures who they perceive to have “slighted” them, personally on some occasions. Parents of athletes are speaking out. Athletes themselves - those who have literally the most right of anyone to be upset - are, in fact, upset. Go figure.

In that vein, it’s been interesting to watch fans latch on to individuals who really have no authority or expertise to make decisions relating to public health, but who just happen to have opinions and thoughts with which these fans align.

Hence, we get to the challenge of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is defined (by Wikipedia, obviously) as “the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs of theories.”

What this means in practice is that you’ll believe what you want to believe, and you’ll seek evidence to confirm your opinion. Tia and I touched on it briefly in last week’s Play Like a Girl podcast. Essentially it can result in you believing, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that your opinions are valid because you see new evidence, no matter how trite, as consequential.

Let’s take a few examples from major powers in the Big Ten. Ryan Day is an expert in football. He’s not a doctor or someone with any knowledge of public health or medicine. Jim Harbaugh, some might say, is also an expert in football, but he also is not a doctor. Scott Frost, if you can sense a theme here, is also not a doctor.

So why are we following the whims of these individuals at all when it comes to their opinions on the health and safety of playing a football season in the middle of a pandemic? In my opinion, Day fell squarely in the middle of Frost and Harbaugh when it came to his desire to have a football season. Perhaps he recognized that the Ohio State fan base would latch onto his words, pointing to him as a perceived expert and arguing in favor of a season because “Ryan Day said it was okay.”

Yes, we all love it when individuals with authority have opinions that align with our own. But there are different kinds of expertise. It’s always abundantly clear when we see athletic directors interfering with on-field football play, because we recognize that those decisions should be left to the coach. So why do we assume that football coaches are medical, financial, operations or public relations experts?

It’s been an issue we’ve faced throughout the pandemic. But for obvious reasons, we’re not getting into it now.

So let’s immediately jump back into football and the issue of people speaking on topics for which they’re not actually experts. Realistically, these situations expand to more than just questions of on-field activities for some coaches. Why was it okay that Jim Harbaugh sent out that letter about college football player eligibility? Well he actually was a college player and coach and NFL player and coach. He’s lived those experiences, so he has expertise that makes him an authority figure.

What that experience does not train him for are questions of public health. Harbaugh has a degree in communications, and experience coaching specifically football at the collegiate and professional levels (I say football, because the decision to move football was part of a larger decision to shift all fall sports).

The thing is that opinions, like Harbaugh’s, have some value - though not at the level of responsibility or even accountability. If you’re familiar with the RACI model, you might know where this is going.

Essentially, in decision making, there are individuals who are “responsible, accountable, consulted and informed.” The individuals in the former two categories have specific roles in effectuating and executing the decision, while the latter two are groups who have vested interests, though not the capacity or capability to make a credible decision. This model is used for determining roles and responsibilities for a project or process. It often supports cross-functional decision making, clarifying who needs to play what role or provide what information to accomplish a task. You can see why this type of model would be helpful in considering whether to have a college football season, allowing for individual states, colleges, health experts, coaches and others to play a part.

Which brings us to the situation the Big Ten finds itself in this week. Justin Fields’ petition is calling on the Big Ten to allow players and teams to make the decision to reinstate the season. While there are obviously factors Fields is not an expert on - once again, public health being top of mind - he has a natural and vested interest in having his voice heard. And given his status as a star player in a major conference, his voice, and those of his teammates, should be heard.

Yes, the conference made a grave error by not adding players to the “consulted” category. And in the end, the decision may not have changed at all if players were consulted. However, it would have made the public relations campaign significantly stronger. During a pandemic, those with public health backgrounds should be the authoritative source. But they’re not the only ones. There are tradeoffs, and experts must collaborate. Information must be credible and reliable.

So as challenge number one, take a look at where you get your information, and ask yourself where the people you trust get their information? Yes, right now, epidemiologists run the world. Because it’s a pandemic. And I’m okay with that. During wartime, no one questions the authority of generals to have control over their troops. We don’t challenge pilots on how they fly their planes. We don’t challenge doctors diagnosing patients.

For those people continuing to lash out at college presidents who are constantly collaborating with public health experts, trying to find a safe way to open their schools back up, I’d like to offer a second unsolicited challenge: Take a moment to examine why you’re actually mad. Remember that we’re all in this together, and the quicker we can come together (in spirit and certainly not physically in groups of greater than 10) to put an end to this pandemic, the sooner we will be able to get back to the sports we love.

In other words, wear a mask.

Byeeeeeeeeeeee for now.