I Swear I Am Not A Robot

One of my enduring pleasures is sports. Perhaps that’s because I had the privilege of playing football when I was in college. Who can’t look back on the first time that a 300-pound man jumped on his back while questioning his parentage, and remember so without affection?

I especially enjoy reading about my favorite teams. Even if I go to the game, I still want to grab a newspaper the next day, online or in paper form, and see what great sportswriters think about the contest.

Luckily, I grew up reading some of the best. Mine was not the Golden Age of sportswriting –– television tarnished that. It certainly was gilded, however. Scattered among the dross of boiler room journalists, a few sportswriters glistened.

I marveled at the eloquence of Frank DeFord (Sports Illustrated), the passion of Bob Ryan (Boston Globe), and the blunt opinions of Bernie Lincicome (Chicago Tribune), who once described Arizona in a story as “the place where America sweeps its dust.”

My all-time favorite was Jim Murray (Los Angeles Times). Murray’s mordant humor and laser-like irradiance of sports opened our eyes, even as he was losing his. He spent the last years of a Hall of Fame career covering and commenting on sports while going blind.

I marveled at how great sportswriters were –– above all –– great writers. Not so, today. We have only a few talented people.

Oh, I’m not saying that today’s sportswriters aren’t talented. They are. My complaint is that they aren’t people!

In this age of self-driving and self-parking vehicles, where robots have human jobs, where you can ask Siri to turn down the thermostat, and man’s best friend might be an avatar –– Artificial Intelligence is now writing sports stories, too.

That’s right. Please check only the squares that have lampposts in them, AI is in the pressbox!

After attending a football game at my alma mater, Saturday, I made it a point on Monday to check in on the school’s web page to read the recap of the game. Immediately I was struck that the article was not up to normal standards.

The sentences were choppy and burdened by trite expressions, like “made his presence felt” and “got on the board”. It was loaded with predictable truisms: “After the loss, the team is 0-1.”

The story was as sterile as Dr. Oz’s Senate campaign.

I finished reading the 300 words feeling disappointed and hollow. It was like reading a story about poi, or watching the Daytona 500 with all the cars stripped down to their primer coat. The color was gone. The story was lifeless, odorless, motionless and had less flavor than tofu hotdogs at the concession stand.

Frank DeFord would be vorticulating in his grave. (Frank liked to introduce us to big words.)

Sure enough, at the bottom of the story was a sentence –– “This story created through content automation technology.” (Even the disclaimer feels stilted.)

I followed the link to the website, and in among jargon that only a 7-year-old Minecraft player understands, I discovered that the company boasts of creating millions of automatically written articles every year. Their clients include ESPN, Sports Illustrated and USA Today.

Their secret algorithm scans the statistical data, and weaves the numbers into a sports story by adding common phrases. Wanna try yourself? Take a statistic, and insert the phrase “answered the bell.” It works every time.

It’s cool technology, and I’m glad the founders are eating caviar on a beach somewhere. I can see AI being very helpful in manufacturing and with technical information. But using AI in sportswriting is shortsighted.

Sports –– even the hi-tech sports –– are human. We need to know that the quarterback has an ice pack on his shoulder between drives. It’s important to understand the sun was in the outfielder’s eyes, or the bowler’s grandmother passed away recently.

The pomp, the smells, the noise aren’t an “extra” part of the story to be weeded out of the spreadsheet. They ARE sport. How else can you explain why we don’t cram 80,000 people in to watch an algebra class every weekend?

Unlike pure data, sportswriting illuminates human failings. If both teams on the football played perfectly every down, the ball would never leave the 50-yard line. As humans, we need to know that we screw up.

AI proponents likely will claim that their technology will get better. I’m sure it will. However, some of us can’t wait. Who wants to watch Rembrandt paint by numbers? The folks hoping Artificial Intelligence will replace great writing just need to get real.

John O. Marlowe is an award-winning columnist for Sagamore News Media