Get with The Program

Dec. 20, 2010
Dec. 20, 2010

Table of Contents
Dec. 20, 2010

The Phillips Family
  • His death was the fine print in an August plane crash that killed a former U.S. senator, but Bill Phillips left behind a legacy as massive as the man himself, including three Division I-A football-playing sons—brothers who banded together to honor a life lived in full


Get with The Program

Will sportswriting software lead to a robotic Red Smith?

My father was a pin monkey. He set bowling pins by hand in Fort Wayne, Ind., until a diabolical genius named Gottfried Schmidt invented the automatic pinsetter, which swept away pins—and pin monkeys—with ruthless efficiency.

This is an article from the Dec. 20, 2010 issue

Robots have always been out to get us, especially in sports. In the 1890s Princeton math instructor Charles Hinton's pitching machine—basically, a baseball-firing musket—terrified the batters who faced it. Modern umpires dread the Zone Evaluation system that peers over their shoulders, measuring balls and strikes to within a fraction of an inch. When the IBM computer Deep Blue beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, it was both a watershed and a Waterloo, machines putting man into checkmate.

And now the robots have come for me. A new media company called StatSheet operates 345 college basketball websites, one for every Division I team. Each site—they're all accessible through—is chockablock with game stories. And every one of those stories is written not by a human being, but by a malevolent piece of software intent on killing sportswriters.

"No, no, no," says company founder and CEO Robbie Allen. "I love sportswriters. I don't see us as replacing anybody." So why do I feel like a pin monkey getting strangled by a code monkey?

In writing its stories, StatSheet's robot draws on a stockpile of thousands of stock phrases, exactly as I do. But the RoboWriter has a greater capacity for growth than the human writer. "All of us learn to write in the second grade," Bob Knight famously said of sportswriters. "Most of us go on to other things." Or as Allen puts it, "At this stage I'm not going to improve much as a writer. But our [software] can grow by leaps and bounds."

If that's true, we could well be at the dawn of a Golden Age of Sportswriting, albeit one without sportswriters. In sports, replacing peripheral professionals with automated equivalents can have an invigorating effect. It wasn't until Owen P. Smith subbed mechanical rabbits for real ones that greyhound racing took off. If the writerless story sounds absurd, so did the horseless carriage.

Like Schmidt's automatic pinsetter, StatSheet's ghostwriter is both pitiless and proficient. Game stories are filed as soon as the box score is entered into the company's statistical database. Those stat-heavy stories are brief and bland—more Minute Rice than Grantland Rice—and sometimes sound as if they're translated from the Japanese. ("Providence fan sentiment has accelerated over the last two games," began a recent recap of a Friars win.)

But the stories are also clean and competently composed. The robot is not yet funny like Jim Murray or lyrical like Red Smith, but it does make—like Oscar Madison—a convincing nonexistent sportswriter.

Its bottomless workload, performed entirely pro bono, is terrifying to professional scribes, whose job description has always been a strange one. As my colleague Leigh Montville once said of sportswriting, "It's not really sports, and it's not really writing." This genre of not-really-writing is perfect, then, for the not-quite-human hand. It's as if the autopen—anticipated by John Isaac Hawkins's letter-copying Polygraph of 1803—has come to write our game stories and also to sign our death warrants.

Does anyone care? When man becomes inured to automation will it matter that the human voice is missing from our sports pages, which have gone increasingly missing themselves? Allen thinks 80% to 90% of his websites' readers will give no thought to who, or what, is writing the stories put in front of them. The company plans eventually to report on all major sports and on financial news and weather as well. "Anything that relies on statistics," says the CEO, who knows that numbers have become the lifeblood of fantasy leaguers, who need daily infusions to survive. Give 'em stats—STAT!

To technophobes it sounds as though StatSheet, from its headquarters in Durham, N.C., is plotting to take over the world. The robots are coming—slowly, inexorably, with a mechanical thrum, like the automated tarp that once ate the leg of Cardinals outfielder Vince Coleman.

There are two ways sportswriters can respond. We can do nothing and hope that our human prose is seen as a quaint, retro piece of ballpark embroidery, like the Wrigley Field scoreboard or the NFL chain gang, both of which are kept around to humor nostalgia buffs.

Or we can try to vanquish our robot doppelgänger. Allen says the robot is doing us a service, "writing the kind of stories you probably don't like writing anyway." I asked if his company was really the Tyrell Corp., that sinister conglomerate in Blade Runner that built human "replicants" to do mankind's menial tasks, androids that eventually had to be hunted down by Harrison Ford. "No," he said, laughing. "Not yet."

In the 19th century the British textile workers known as Luddites sought to destroy mechanical looms before mechanical looms destroyed them. But fighting back didn't work for the Luddites, and it is unlikely to work for sportswriters. As Robbie Allen's robot-alien might put it, citing decades of sci-fi cyborgs, "Resistance is futile."

Now on

Read Steve Rushin's column, Rushin Lit, every Wednesday at

Robots have always been out to get us, especially in sports. Now THE ROBOTS HAVE COME FOR ME.