Friends, can we talk about causal reasoning—and causation, more generally?
This isn’t what we usually turn to tennis to do, I realize, but some of the arguments circulating in the wake of the Adria Tour, especially after four participants (plus team and family members) tested positive for covid-19 early last week, have hurt my brain. More than giving me a headache, though, this stuff isn’t good for our understanding of the event and its consequences—or of the figure at the center of the controversy. Odd a response though this may be, reading some of the initial analysis sent me scrambling for a textbook I used to assign in a course at the University of Richmond.* After refreshing my memory on the topic of rival causes, a term for “a plausible alternative explanation [for] why a certain outcome occurred,” I decided to identify a couple of patterns I’ve observed in the assessments of what went wrong with the Adria Tour.
Diction like this is a sign that causal thinking is afoot.
A Tennis Channel segment reacting to the news of Novak Djoković’s covid-19 diagnosis provides us with a convenient starting point for discussion.
During the exchange, Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim asked Paul Annacone how he thinks the developments from the truncated Balkan tennis tour will play in the locker-room. The coach and commentator replied, “I think there’s a lot of [Novak’s] peer group that are scratching their heads.” “If I were on the [ATP Player] Council,” Annacone added, “I would be asking a lot of difficult questions to understand how he got to where he was.” Even before the ATP #1 reunites with his colleagues, we’ve had plenty of tennis media attempting to answer these very questions—some, like Annacone, with the benefit of having interviewed the Serbian player recently, and others by putting at least a few puzzle pieces together on their own.
Not only because I could use some exercise after being stuck at home for months, I think it’s worth walking through what we know about the Adria Tour and what we don’t. Given journalism’s primary function, some combination of these two categories forms the basis of the descriptive claims we see in virtually any media response, whether it’s straightforward reporting, a column offering an interpretation of events, or a debate about how professional tennis should proceed as it returns (spoiler: not like this). So, let’s start with the basics. Journalism 101 tells us there are five questions news stories need to answer: who, what, when, where, and why. With regard to this event, the first four are easy to answer—and they’re not up for much, if any, debate.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things we know about the Adria Tour (“AT”):
- The traveling tournament was conceived by Novak Djoković and designed to bring tennis to several ex-Yugoslav countries over four weeks. In addition to being the one with the money & influence to make it happen, the host was responsible for inviting the featured players—most notably, the top-20 talent.
- It occurred during what I’ll call “phase 2” of a global pandemic: i.e., when most countries have lifted restrictions on public movement and activities (to differing degrees & with varying levels of success).
- The AT ended up taking place over two consecutive June weekends in Serbia and Croatia.
- It was planned & run by an organizing committee led, at least nominally, by director Djordje Djoković. Each stage of the event had a separate tournament director & sub-committee: for example, Goran Ivanišević was TD and Neven Nakić, VP of the Croatian tennis federation, was the president of the organizing committee for the Croatian stop.
- Round-robin, short-format matches were broadcast on regional network Sport Klub, as well as internationally on Eurosport, Tennis Channel, and beIN Sports.
- The Serbian and Croatian tennis federations, who helped organize the first two stages of the AT, also held tournaments for regional players in the weeks leading up to the main events in Belgrade and Zadar, respectively.
- Subsequent stops were being planned in the two biggest Bosnian cities: Banja Luka & Sarajevo. Particularly after an anticipated third leg in Montenegro had to be scrapped (because the government couldn’t guarantee entry from Serbia in time), organizers scouted other possible locations in the former Yugoslavia.
- While the marquee players traveled from abroad to participate, most others hail from, and were already in, the region. (Djoković and his family, who had spent several months isolating in Marbella, Spain, arrived in Serbia three weeks before the official tournament start.)
- In addition to the on-court action, there were press conferences, kids days, concerts, fireworks, & other affiliated group activities, at which neither mask wearing nor social distancing was widely observed.
- Thus far, some 8 Adria Tour participants (& at least two of their spouses) have tested positive for covid-19.
Turning to “why,” answering questions gets more complicated. Why did Djoković want to host this tournament? Why now? Why in Serbia and the neighboring countries? (The first part is easy, obviously; the second part is more complicated, as this article suggests. I’ll have more to say about Novak’s motivations in a separate post.) Why did he invite players from Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, and Russia (several of whom had been staying in the US since Indian Wells was canceled in early March &/or made other stops en route to Belgrade), instead of sticking with an all-Serbian or even all-Balkan contingent? Why did the event have a) live spectators, b) so many of them, &/or c) so close together? Why, despite having masks (and gloves!) available at entrances, wasn’t more done to encourage or enforce use of them among event staff, volunteers, spectators, or participants? And the question everyone’s been asking: why all the hugging?!
I could go on, but you get the point. The overarching question that emerges is: why, given what is common knowledge about how the coronavirus spreads, did this event take the particular shape it did—on court, in the stands, across the tournament grounds, and after hours? For what it’s worth, I don’t think “Because it was allowed by the local authorities” is a sufficient answer. That the tournament was given a green light by the powers that be is clear—and that Belgrade nightclubs weren’t specially opened for the player party should be evident to anyone looking at photos. But those facts don’t really help us understand why so many people—and not, by the way, just a dozen or so players—were acting like they’d found a time-traveling portal to the pre-covid era.
Although it’s not an official, alliterative part of journalism’s “5 Ws,” the question “how” is, of course, also relevant. For instance: how did this happen? By that, I mean both “What went into planning the Adria Tour?” and “How did an event like this, with few to no precautionary measures in place, occur in June 2020?” How were all the organizational and logistical tasks divided and decided? For that matter, how many and which regional tennis figures were on the organizing committee? With whom from the Serbian and Croatian governments did organizers coordinate? What shared attitudes or beliefs contributed to thousands of people, seemingly without concern, going along with it all—not once, either, but in ten separate sessions in two different (albeit culturally quite similar) countries? One of the things a lot of the international coverage has missed, or perhaps ignored, is just how many people were involved in this event. While it’s understandable that the focus would be on Djoković and his high-profile ATP guests, there were also hundreds of people behind the scenes helping the show go on and a whole crew of regional broadcasters and print journalists on hand to capture the scene, not to mention all the people in the stands, whose main expression of disappointment in all of this was to boo when local sports hero Ivanišević took to the court to announce the Zadar final between Djoković and Rublev had to be called off. Were people in Serbia and Croatia—whether press or public—also shocked and outraged by what they observed of the Adria Tour? Are folks in Bosnia breathing a collective sigh of relief that their leg of the event won’t happen? If not, why not?
Without having access to sources on the ground (or being able to read BCS), it’s tough to answer most of these “how” questions. In spite of this obstacle, I’ve seen a lot of people trying to explain what happened, often by making descriptive claims based on assumptions and deductions based on limited information.
Sidebar: I’ll take advantage of this moment to ride a hobby-horse of mine. A serious shortcoming I see in tennis journalism and the online tennis community’s discourse isn’t that most of it happens in English, though that’s true of the latter. Rather, it’s that there is not nearly as much cross-cultural collaboration and exchange as this uniquely international sport demands. Read more…
On some level, all the questions above are secondary: it’s not hard to imagine readers who’ve gotten this far wondering, “Who cares about this minutiae? The only thing that matters about the Adria Tour is that it was a mistake!” Well, yes. That’s certainly true if all we’re interested in doing is making a judgment, which I think virtually everyone has already done (isn’t Twitter grand?). Me? I also like to try to understand things—including the reactions to them, by media in particular. And I get more than a little uncomfortable when I see analysis that seems to skip the asking questions stage (call it “curiosity”) and go directly to reaching conclusions, not least if the outcome suggests logical short-cuts along the way. By now, you may have gathered that this is not a complaint unique to the treatment of a single event: the general terms I use below can be applied to virtually any piece of writing that makes an argument, from tweet to thesis.
Without further ado (there’s been plenty of ado already, I know), here are three patterns I’ve observed in coverage of the Adria Tour aftermath: causal oversimplification, post hoc fallacy, and fundamental attribution error.
Since all three have to do with causal reasoning, let’s establish some common ground. When we think about causation, it takes this basic form: this because that.
To give a generic example: effect B was brought about, at least in part, by cause A.
Broadly speaking, we can say that the Adria Tour (A) caused participants (and perhaps others) to become infected with covid-19 (B).
The main deduction that people have made on the basis of photographic evidence of participant activity at A is that a key factor, C—the lack of precautionary measures like mask wearing and social distancing—caused the spread of the virus within the group. Though this seems like an uncontroversial conclusion to me, it’s also the case that we have very little idea of these individuals’ activities either in the days before June 11 (the first day all the participants were together in Belgrade) or when they were not in front of tv or other kinds of cameras. With that qualification, let’s move on to examples of where some, perhaps required by the nature of the profession to publish quick takes, got tripped up by gnarly causal reasoning.#
So, what caused factor C? Almost in unison, the international media answered: Novak Djoković, of course! From there, we’ve gotten different explanations for how and why Novak ended up where he did on June 23rd: covid-positive, isolating at home in Belgrade, and in the sports section of every major media outlet in the world.
Exhibit A comes courtesy of Racquet magazine.
Unlike surreal fanless exhibitions conducted elsewhere on earth, the Adria Tour looked like it was held in the peaceful obliviousness of some other planet. Djokovic maintained that the event fell in line with Serbian guidelines, a claim that has come under fire, and that also makes you wonder bleakly about his sheer force of personality back home.
The “sheer force” of Novak’s personality caused the Serbian health authorities to adjust their guidelines for public gatherings in May and June? His influence is what led thousands of spectators to decline to wear masks that the tournament itself provided? Is that what this line is suggesting? As long as we’re speculating, did the pied piper of Serbia also compel some 25 thousand people to pack Belgrade’s “Marakana” for the soccer grudge match between Partizan and Red Star a few days before the Adria Tour started? Might there be any other viable explanations for these deeds? Out of curiosity, what else has Aleksandar Vučić’s government been up to over the past few months—that is, other than granting Djoković last-minute permission to sell more than a thousand tickets to each session of the Belgrade stop? And let’s not forget about Croatia. Has the pandemic forced them to abandon all hope for the summer tourist season, which brings in some 20% of the country’s GDP? (To get a sense of how things were looking in Zadar in the weeks before the Adria Tour came to town, see the second half of this article.)
In lieu of spending more time unpacking this piece, I’ll just leave the above explanations here.
Exhibit B is from a Twitter thread by a tennis journalist especially influential on social media.
This one-two punch—bad news followed by a tidy explanation for it—implies “after this, therefore because of this.” Though the causal connection isn’t made explicit, it is nevertheless unmistakable: fringe scientific beliefs resulted in Novak and Jelena’s being at increased risk for catching covid-19.
So there’s no misunderstanding, I’ll say this as clearly as I can: personal opinions are certainly relevant in shaping the behavior of those who have them. But unless every other person associated with the Adria Tour is also pals with a bearded wellness guru from California, this account only gets us so far. Also, however “alternative” some of the Djoković views on health, they didn’t stop the pair from urging people in Serbia to stay home during the quarantine so healthcare providers wouldn’t be overburdened with patients or from using their foundation money to purchase ventilators for Serbian hospitals. These are things they likely wouldn’t do if they don’t think the coronavirus is a serious threat or believe that positive thinking, room-temperature water, and a teaspoon of manuka honey to start the day is enough to ward it off. Also: crystals. Don’t forget the crystals.
Exhibit C is a column by Jon Wertheim. Reacting to the announcement of Djoković’s positive covid-19 test, the SI senior writer and Tennis Channel studio analyst crafted a cautionary tale modeled on Greek mythology, in which the ATP #1 serves as a sort of modern-day Icarus. Unlike the tragic finality of the classics, however, this story remains open-ended: “there are chapters left to be authored,” Wertheim notes before suggesting a few ways Novak might “make amends” for his recent lapses and “win back” whatever—or whomever—he’s lost thus far this season. Instead of quoting at length, I encourage you to read it, as it’s a much more creative piece of writing than we generally get from tennis journalists. (You can find the less-creative version of Wertheim’s thoughts on the Adria Tour fallout in his weekly podcast.)
I have no quarrel with the poetic license Wertheim takes and think his narrative gets its message across in an entertaining, self-consciously dramatic manner. (It’s a tragedy, after all.) Having said that, the emphasis on the explanatory power of the contents of Novak Djoković’s head strikes me as an example of a what psychologists call fundamental attribution error: a cognitive bias “in which we typically overestimate the importance of personal tendencies relative to situational factors in interpreting the behavior of others. That is, we tend to see the cause of others’ behavior as coming from within (their personal characteristics) rather than from without (situational forces)” (126*). Abundant in the short tale are terms like “hubris,” “self-belief,” “narcissism,” and “self-importance”—as much the language of personality science (if not psychopathology) as mythology. Given not only the humanitarian nature of the venture (with the winner’s prize money going to a charity of his choice) but also Djoković’s desire to both provide lower-ranked regional players an opportunity to compete and earn some much-needed cash and bring top-tier tennis to a part of the world that doesn’t normally get it, it’s tough to accept the notion that the event aimed for self-glorification. Not least, the Balkans is the last place on earth where Novak would need to do anything to be greeted with immense affection, admiration, even gratitude. There are much easier ways for him to get showered with praise: for instance, he could stand in Trg Republike, Belgrade’s central square.
A common thread linking these three cases is that the explanations they provide for why the Adria Tour took the form it did and ended, perhaps inevitably, with a health crisis rely almost entirely on surmises about the goings on in the mind of an individual human being. This would be one thing if Djoković were the king of not just Serbia but the former Yugoslavia, and all subjects faced a choice between doing his bidding and being punished. (Representatives of four countries were involved in the planning! The prime minister of Croatia attended one of the Zadar sessions—likely coming from Zagreb to do so.) Closer to reality, I’d have an easier time understanding such causal oversimplification if Novak had simply invited a bunch of top-ranked tennis bros to a holiday weekend in his hometown, with practice matches on his backyard court followed by nights out on the town. But the Adria Tour isn’t a morality play with a single protagonist, nor did it take place on a billionaire’s private island. Perhaps it’d be better if it had.
Essentially, all of this boils down to one question: are Djoković’s personal views—about himself, about “science”—the cause or a cause leading to the questionable decisions on display during the Adria Tour? Granting the latter, which I hope you do, are we quite sure those beliefs were the most significant causal factor in shaping the risky behavior at the event? It’s certainly possible, perhaps even probable, that they played a part—in the players’ off-court activities, particularly. Still, even there, I suspect it was Novak’s pride not in himself but in his country that was among the strongest influences in his decision to perform as a tour-guide for his guests from abroad. Despite the circumstances that had brought them there, it seems he wanted to give his rivals, colleagues, and friends a weekend to remember: showing them the sights, making sure they tasted a bit of Balkan hospitality, and, yes, giving them a sense of why Belgrade’s nightlife has the reputation it does. (My guess: they’ll remember.)
Given that the event itself wasn’t merely a debauched weekend among members of the men’s tennis elite, and that thousands of people attended, staffed, or helped organize the event, we have to consider what other factors may have contributed to the outcomes observed on screens both large and small across the globe. I’ve hinted at a few possibilities from the spheres of politics and economics above (in links under Exhibit A). Here are some others that aren’t unique to the Balkans: skepticism about expertise; the politicization of science; a less-than-healthy media ecosystem (including sensationalism, propaganda, and misinformation); lack of trust in leadership; public frustration with, even resentment about, months under lockdown; and lovely spring weather. Though the increasingly rare opportunity to watch live tennis featuring both local favorites and international stars surely drew the crowd, many other factors likely determined the incautious behavior in the stands and on the grounds in Belgrade and Zadar. To be fair, tennis journalism isn’t suited to explore all of the potential causes of multifaceted occurrences like this: sports reporters are generally on site or watching from home, not embedded as foreign correspondents. Normally, we talk about what happens between the lines on court, in the media center, at the gym, and in the board rooms of the ITF, ATP, and WTA. For good measure, we check players’ Twitter and Instagram feeds. The coronavirus pandemic has not only deprived us all of the sport we love but also given us a whole new set of concerns to ponder—separate from the ways in which it’s turned the rest of our lives upside down. Still, wouldn’t it be something if we could take a bit of the extra time many of us, unable to pursue our professions or pastimes as before, now have to seek out and consider a few more causes?
* All textbook citations are from chapter 9 of Browne & Keeley, Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking (12th edition).
# I hope it goes without saying that I selected these three examples not out of any personal animus for the authors but because they come from widely-read sources and help make my point. Although its length suggests otherwise, this is not an exhaustive survey of English-language coverage of the Adria Tour. A little scary, I know.