Bill James in 2010. Bill James in 2010. (@dishfunctional on Flickr.)

Across much of history, ideas or accomplishments are often closely linked to those who originated or popularized them early on.

This is true in sports as well, and we’ve seen it around prominent writers from Bill James to Michael Lewis to Malcolm Gladwell to Bill Simmons to Nate Silver. It’s easy to name several stats, approaches, players, and concepts that have been highly linked to those figures and their writing.

But, as in non-sports history, there often have been other figures working along similar lines at similar times. Those figures didn’t draw as much recognition early on for one reason or another, but that doesn’t diminish their own accomplishments. And attributing any particular move to one figure comes with flaws on that front.

However, what’s perhaps even more notable with sports figures today is the controversies many of them have become embroiled in well after their initial prominence. The latest there comes from noted early sabermetrics figure Bill James, but it comes with wider implications. First, though, let’s discuss James, who took a lot of criticism Tuesday and Wednesday for his takes on pitcher Trevor Bauer.

Bauer saw his MLB suspension following accusations of intimate partner violence (which led to several defamation lawsuits from Bauer against an accuser and multiple media outlets, all eventually dropped or settled) end last January. But he’s currently pitching in Mexico after MLB teams declined to sign him for the second-straight year (despite an offseason media tour).

There are some who appear strongly against Bauer not currently playing in MLB, including James. And that led to quite the commentary from him on Twitter/X Tuesday and Wednesday. Some of James’ tweets and retweets on the subject have been deleted, but some were screenshots, and others remain up. Here’s a small sampling of those:

There could certainly be plenty of pieces written solely on the merits or the lack thereof of James’ takes on Bauer. And there probably will be. But that’s not the larger point we’re discussing here. The wider issue comes up in that last tweet from @Razzball, on James’ current opinions versus the much-admired early sabermetric work he’s known for.

This is not the first time James has come under fire. In 2018, his take that “If the players all retired tomorrow, we would replace them, the game would go on; in three years it would make no difference whatsoever” drew a lot of criticism, especially considering that he was then a senior advisor to the Boston Red Sox (who had to try to distance themselves from his comments). He retired from the Red Sox in 2019 but has still drawn plenty of attention for his baseball opinions. And outside baseball, he’s drawn backlash for takes on everything from accusations of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh to his book on popular crime and his takes on that front.

The key discussion here isn’t really about James, though, but about the perils of overlinking an idea or an invention to a specific person. And another example comes from a writer closely linked to James, Michael Lewis. While James’ writings laid much of the groundwork for different “sabermetric” approaches to baseball statistics (as noted at the top, though, very few things have a singular inventor, and others were doing important work along similar lines during that era), Lewis’ 2003 Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game (and the 2011 Brad Pitt-starring movie adaptation) took advanced statistics discussion to a whole new level.

The book Moneyball took some criticism right from the start, particularly for its lack of focus on more conventional aspects of the success the Oakland A’s found (especially top young starting pitching). The movie took its own criticism, including for “composite character” Peter Brand.

But maybe the bigger backlash still for Lewis came from his other largest sports project, the 2006 book The Blind Side: The Evolution of a Game, and its 2009 Sandra Bullock-starring film adaptation (which, amongst many other liberties it took with the book, largely ignored the half of it on the evolution of the left tackle position in favor of focusing on the half on the specific upbringing of Michael Oher). There’s still a lot of drama there around Oher’s claims the Tuohy family made millions off him (heavily disputed on both sides) and Lewis’ pushback on the proceeds and (since-recanted) suggestion head injuries might be behind the lawsuit Oher filed.

But James and Lewis are far from the only prominent sports figures once (and still, in some cases) admired and maybe even beloved for particular sports works who then found themselves facing subsequent controversy. That’s a tale as old as time, with everyone from Grantland Rice to Hunter S. Thompson (two very, very different sportswriters) taking flak for their approaches.

Some other recent sports figures who have hit issues along those fronts include Gladwell, Simmons, and Silver. Gladwell has been admired for birthdate research and more but criticized for takes on everything from Nigerian basketball to wildly inaccurate World War II histories. Simmons (a large Gladwell proponent at several of his stops) has been admired for The Pyramid, his early blogging and podcasting, his role in the 30 for 30 series, Grantland, The Ringer, and more, but criticized for…too many things to count. Silver has been admired for some electoral and sports data-based research and for helping to promote that approach with a specific site, criticized for inaccuracies, a pivot to vibes, and more.

None of those people are certainly “canceled,” as that’s a concept that isn’t really a thing in general (despite prominent figures claiming they have faced or will face cancellation). And even their criticized takes have plenty of supporters. But it’s fair to say that, as seen with some of the tweets above, there are many who once particularly admired these figures or at least their works or concepts, and now have some mixed feelings on that due to these figures’ subsequent stances. However, that’s a case where sports history perhaps should take a lesson from the general academic field of history.

It’s often problematic to draw too broad conclusions on anything, and that can be specifically challenging in addressing a field like history that has its own subspeciality (historiography) covering analysis of how we write and talk about history. But it’s fair to say that there have been notable changes in widely acceptable historical approaches over time.

The most notable for our purposes here is the rise and fall of the “Great Man Theory.” That started with the 1840s Thomas Carlyle lectures that are often attributed to (although, as discussed at the top, as with everything, there were others advocating similar things before that and during that time). It was popularized and defended by the likes of Søren Kierkegaard, Oswald Spengler, and William James. But it drew criticisms from the likes of Herbert Spencer, Leo Tolstoy, and more, and particularly fell out of favor around the 1960s rise of social history. Thus, the idea of singular leaders as the most crucial factor in many historical events was in wide favor for a long time, then was not. (A related idea here is “feet of clay,” which can sometimes tie into an overlarge focus on the flaws of a particular leader in some biographical treatments.)

The key point here where sports discussions could potentially benefit from general history discussions is in a shift away from “Great Man Theory,” at least to a point where particular figures’ contributions or popularizations can be treated at least somewhat separately from all their other work and views. This shouldn’t necessarily be the case in every single situation; as with historical figures, flaws or later divergences can sometimes be illuminating on the specific person involved, and if the focus is on that person, that’s relevant context. But there is absolutely some merit to being able to have a simple sports discussion about a concept like The Pyramid of Greatness without bringing up everything else Bill Simmons has said and done over a decades-long career, or to being able to talk about Bill James’ contributions to sabermetrics without fully diving into all his other views.

Interestingly enough, bringing this back to sabermetrics, one of the major flaws with early popular discussion of advanced baseball statistics was how much that keyed in on personalities on both sides. On the pro side, that led to a lot of absurd takes on the likes of James and Lewis, with Lewis even getting regularly roasted on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball and given far too much ownership in the overall approach.

On the con side, that led to perhaps too much identification of anti-stats takes with specific people. That was especially true with ESPN’s Joe Morgan and the TV showrunner-spawning Fire Joe Morgan blog. It wound up covering far more than him, and key blog figure Mike Schur later said he regretted the name. (However, inaccurate site names are hard to criticize in a piece that is not about announcing for a site called Awful Announcing).

The larger takeaway is that a lot of these concepts are worth discussing beyond their creators or popularizers. And that’s true in general history as well; there can be a lot to be learned from strategic or tactical studies of bad people fighting for bad causes. But it’s particularly notable in sports at the moment, and it’s particularly notable with James.

James can absolutely be criticized for his takes on Bauer and other matters. And his current takes should certainly be factored into anything looking into his overall history. And they should maybe even be considered in an analysis of his early sabermetric work; motivations and biases can always have an impact.

But the field of history as a whole has largely moved on from “Great Man Theory,” and from the idea that remarkable individual figures were the key to many historic developments. That allows for a better analysis of crucial people as significant, but flawed.

And sports could see a similar movement. Sports has seen a lot of valuable perspectives floated by controversial people. In at least some cases, at least partial decoupling of the author and idea might have some benefits. That would mean that no one has to completely write off the past contributions from someone like James simply because of a current take they’ve floated on a wildly different subject.

Of course, not everyone is doing that in any case. But there might be some merit to a further separation of art and artist in sports, similar to what we’ve seen elsewhere. James’ 2024 takes on Trevor Bauer don’t really have a lot to do with his role in the early research into and popularization of sabermetrics. And while he can absolutely be criticized for what he says now, that doesn’t have to spark a wholesale repudiation of everything he’s ever said. The “Never meet your heroes” idea (from Proust, Carr, May Alcott, or others) can be taken forward to “Never follow your heroes on Twitter,” but there’s still merit to considering their past works.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.