Sports Media Groupthink: A Fan’s Perspective

As a long-time sports fan I’ve often marveled at sports coverage and the resulting groupthink that arises from the daily media, many times in spite of the facts. So what is group think? Groupthink is a psychological term for faulty mass opinion that is unreceptive to any views that fall outside the generally accepted belief. The groups that I refer to in this article are the sports media, sports teams, and by extension the sports fan whose opinions are impacted by the media. Examples of groupthink are plentiful, from can’t miss football draft picks Ryan Leaf, JaMarcus Russell, and Tony Mandarich to sports clichés such as “Defense Wins Championships”. Sports clichés are just repeated ad nauseam until they are accepted as fact while media coverage of a sport’s draft creates pressure on front offices to draft players at or near their projected draft ranking. If a player is drafted outside of media projections that team and general manager can expect plenty of criticism.

The current groupthink which I strongly disagree with occurs when a team has a less than stellar record, at or near .500, and qualifies for the playoffs. These teams are almost always identified as coming from a weak division. This observation is usually followed by the list of teams that didn’t qualify for the playoffs that would have if only they had the good fortune to play in the weak division. Recent examples of this type of occurrence are the 2006 and 2011 St. Louis Cardinals in MLB and the 2010 Seattle Seahawks, and 2011 New York Giants in the NFL. I’ve often thought that one of the harder aspects to overcome with groupthink is that anything that defeats the accepted belief is identified as an exception to the rule rather than evidence to the contrary.

In 2006, as the St. Louis Cardinals struggled with injuries and limped into the playoffs, the media identified the National League Central Division as the weakest in baseball, with several clubs at or near .500. The Cardinals’ victory in the playoffs was simply cast aside as a team getting hot at the right time, ignoring that team’s previous playoff experience. That team had been to the 2004 World Series and lost the NL Championship series in 2005 to the Houston Astros who were also in the same division. The 2010 Seattle Seahawks rose out of what was originally perceived to be the weakest division in football. The Seahawks were expected to be a walkover in the playoffs until they defeated the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. The 2011 New York Giants were described as a flawed team from a weak division before this season’s championship run.

In many instances I would argue that a team that comes out of a division filled with equally competitive clubs or from one with talented but underperforming squads is often the more battle tested team. Sometimes the team with an average regular season record that qualifies for the postseason improves the most from the challenging competition and is better equipped to overcome the challenges of the postseason. Many of you won’t agree with me and that is OK, or else this opinion risks becoming a groupthink all its own.

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