The Impact of First Impressions in Sports

One night last week, I was in the car with my Dad and we had the radio on, listening to some guys call-in show on the New York ESPN radio affiliate. The first couple of hours we had to listen to this guy talk about his New York Jets, and I was performing my usual routine of making snide comments between his points to make my Dad laugh. Eventually, for the last thirty minutes, he got to talking about the New York Giants, who, as you probably know, my family has had season tickets with for 50 years (that’s not even an exaggeration: my Grandfather’s first year as a season ticket holder was in 1963, back when the Giants played in Yankee Stadium). The host stated his belief that the main obstacle standing between the Giants and a playoff appearance was the running backs, and asked his callers a simple question: “Do you think that Andre Brown and David Wilson would be good enough to carry the load for the Giants for an entire season?”

Just so we’re clear, my answer to that question is a resounding YES, but I have doubts about the offensive line. But that’s not the reason why I bring this up. The callers all started calling in and talking about how they thought Wilson was an explosive running back, but the main concern is his fumbling problem. The host, after hearing around five callers bring up David Wilson’s “fumbling problem,” asked one of the callers how many fumbles he thought David Wilson had last season. I immediately yelled out “ONE” while listening in the car, fully aware of his stats from the previous season. The caller thought about it for five seconds, and then said “seven to ten.” The answer? One.

That begged me to ask myself the question: Why do Giants fans believe that David Wilson has a fumbling problem? After thinking about it for a minute, the answer is really simple: the only fumble that he’s lost all season took place on his debut against the Dallas Cowboys, and it left a lasting impression on the minds of Giants fans. The fumble turned the tide of the game (which the Giants lost), and has not been forgotten since. He got 70 carries last season, averaged 5 yards per carry, scored 7 TDs and returned kickoffs better than any Giant I’ve ever seen (except maybe Ron Dixon), but has been unable to shake off that label that he can’t hold on to the ball.

Flash forward to last weekend, as I’m up early watching Liverpool-Stoke City in the opening English Premier League match of the season. Liverpool are 1-0 up in the closing minutes of the game, when Daniel Agger conceded a very stupid penalty, putting his arm up in the box when he had no need to and making contact with the ball. Jonathan Walters stepped up to take the penalty for Stoke City, facing the newly-bought Belgian keeper Simon Mignolet, who was making his competitive debut for Liverpool. Walters shot it to the Mignolet’s right hand side… and Simon saved it! The ball was loose, Kenwyne Jones ran up and fired another shot at the net, which Mignolet also saved, as it scrambled out for a corner, with the Anfield faithful going absolutely ballistic. The players all jumped on Mignolet to congratulate/thank him, before he pushed them off and made them get in position as Stoke were trying to take the corner quickly. Liverpool held on for a 1-0 win, and Mignolet made a really tremendous first impression on the Liverpool fans watching, not only in the ground, but on TV sets all over the world.

Online afterward, I noticed that many, many fans were praising Mignolet for his penalty save, and seemingly were willing to forget all of the rage they felt after the club loaned out Pepe Reina (remember him?!) in order for Mignolet to start. I remembered how David Wilson’s fumble in his first game forever imprinted negative thoughts on the minds of Giants fans, and really do wonder how Mignolet’s crucial penalty save on his debut will be felt by fans in the long term. This also made me ask myself a deeper question: how much stock do we, as sports fans, put on a first impression we get from a player? In addition, how much should we get out of our first impressions of a player?

I’ve been watching sports for as long as I can remember. I’ve honestly lost count on the number of games I’ve attended, and to remember every debut I’ve seen both in person and on TV would be rather ridiculous. But there are some first impressions I’ve gotten from watching games that do stand out in my mind.

I remember watching Hideki Matsui’s Yankee Stadium debut back on Opening Day in 2003, when he hit a Grand Slam against Minnesota into right field. He ended up being a mainstay in the Yankee lineup for around seven years. On the contrary, I remember Kazuo Matsui’s MLB debut (not related to the aforementioned Hideki), where he hit the first pitch he’d ever seen out of the park in Atlanta. Kazuo ended up hitting .256 as a Met over the next two years before he was traded to Colorado, never truly living up to the hype the Mets had set for him, and that he had set for himself with that first pitch homer.

And with that, we find one of the factors that goes into a first impression: the hype beforehand. In American sports, when a player is selected as a first round pick, there is a certain amount of hype that goes with that player. He’s tabbed as a future starter, an impact player, someone who can improve the team in the short term and be the answer to a problem for the long term. David Wilson was a first round pick, and that’s another reason why his first impression was so damning. The Giants felt confident enough to select him in the opening round as a replacement for Brandon Jacobs, the franchise’s all-time leader in rushing TDs.

In the modern age, YouTube has helped fans come up with first impressions without even seeing a player come on the pitch for their side yet. The problem with YouTube, however, is that the video creators can really edit any film enough to make you think that someone is a star if they have enough footage. Milan Jovanovic looked like a star on YouTube, as did Christian Poulsen—neither one lasted more than a season at Liverpool. College football fans remember all too well about Sam McGuffie’s YouTube video, which was 10 minutes of him running around and jumping over high school players like he was in a video game on cheat mode, only to discover that his athleticism didn’t transfer to the college level when he played at Michigan under Rich Rodriguez (McGuffie is currently in training camp with the Oakland Raiders, but I highly doubt he’ll make the team after the preseason is over).

While I remembered Luis Suarez making a splash onto the scene in South Africa in 2010 with his handball against Ghana, I’d honestly forgotten about him until Liverpool started chasing him six months later during the January 2011 window. I remembered watching his YouTube compilations, in addition to his not-so-endearing highlights, such as the handball in South Africa and his celebrating after Asamoah Gyan missed, his diving, and his biting of PSV player Otman Bakkal on the shoulder. I put all of the negative stuff to the side and focused on the fact that he was a good striker who could answer a problem that Liverpool needed to address, and really didn’t think too much about the fact that he was clearly a troubled player.

From this, we do find the answer to the first question: “What do we get out of a first impression as sports fans?” The answer? Whatever we’re willing to get out of it. Honestly, if you don’t try to get much out of watching something, you won’t, and if you are trying to get something out of it, you will. It’s a ridiculously simple answer, but it is true. The only real exception is when something so extraordinary happens that you can’t help but ignore it, such as when Suarez cheats on Global TV in a World Cup Quarterfinal. If you were a cynic, you’d say he was a cheat, but you could also view it as somebody willing to do whatever it takes to win. As sports fans, we’re willing and able to take any sporting moment, view it in a vacuum, and assign it to whatever agenda we’re pushing, even if it’s just a call-in to ESPN radio.

Follow Greg Visone on Twitter @njny

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