If at first you don't perceive, try, try again
For the past forever weeks -- actually seven, this is week eight -- NFL fantasy pundits have been parroting the same two lines:
"Thielen is great, man. His work ethic is amazing -- I just love the guy. He's such an overachiever, and an inspiration to all football players that you don't have to be a great athlete to be a great player in the NFL."
"Stefon Diggs is great, man. He is so athletic that nobody can cover him. He's inconsistent, but this is the week to get him. This is the week that he beats Thielen; he's just so athletic, man, so fast ... nobody can cover him."
Thielen is on his way to historic numbers, setting records every week. He outdid Diggs last year, and for the last few games of 2016. Thielen is two inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than Diggs. Thielen averaged 14 yards per catch in 2016 and 2017, while Diggs averaged 10.8 and 13.3.
There is zero evidence that Stefon Diggs is more athletic than Adam Thielen, or more talented. If he's uncoverable, the evidence doesn't show it; in fact, if anyone is uncoverable, it's Thielen, who has caught 67 passes on 89 targets to Diggs' 48 of 74 in 2018.
Thielen isn't the first, of course, just the latest in the line. Wes Welker, Julian Edelman ... they went through the same process, taking three years to get a chance. When they finally got a chance, the perception was that they worked themselves into greatness, when the truth was that they were always that good.
Diggs is a terrific player, only inconsistent because he's never played with a quarterback who is suited to his skill set. He needs a gunner, a Cutler or a Daryl Lamonica, but those guys are rare. Sammy Watkins has had the same problem until this year (Mahomes), plus he's been injured a lot. Diggs isn't tall enough to fight for jump balls, so he has to win downfield. Thus far in his career, he hasn't had a quarterback who could get the ball to him consistently.
So why, every week, do the pundits -- I'm talking literally dozens of them, I watch and listen to them all week long -- swear that this is the week to go get Diggs? Why do they insist that Thielen is an inspirational overachiever while Diggs is just a freak athlete?
They can't get past the color.
If you asked these guys which one is faster, they'll all yell "DIGGS!" in concert, so loud and emphatic that you'll find yourself embarassed that you even asked. If you ask them who's bigger, they'll yell just as loud. They think Thielen is 5-8, 170 while Diggs is 6-2, 220. In fact, it's nearly the other way around. Thielen is 6-2, 210 and Diggs is 6 foot, 190.
Is it racist? Not really. It's cultural, so I suppose it comes from the same place, but they aren't saying Diggs is inferior. They are saying what coaches have said since forever. Black guys are faster, stronger, more athletic and just better suited for football. White guys are smarter, less tempermental and all that ...
I guess it is a little racist. It's a cotton fields mentality. Centuries of slavery ingrained the idea that blacks were physically gifted and mentally challenged. Slave owners bred for physically gifted cotton field workers, while trying to breed out the sorts of intellects that fought the yoke.
It's actionable, too, I guess. White players are far more likely to get coaching jobs, and head coaching jobs, while black players are more likely to wind up unable to walk and living in dark rooms, trying to fade the constant, excruciating headaches and depression.
Benny Blades is the latest black athlete to come out and share his story, and I assume there will be more. The most recent CTE settlement from the NFL was laughably inadequate. Diggs v. Thielen isn't sinister -- the guys who see them in this false light aren't trying to be racist -- but it points out that there is work left to do.
Perception begets reality; if Trump has taught us anything, it's that we hold onto first impressions like cement shoes hold onto greedy mobsters. What's it going to take to free us from this perceptional anchor?
I can't say. I have had Adam Thielen on my fantasy team for three years, but every week I struggle to use him on Draft Kings because I perceive that his ceiling isn't high enough to justify his big price tag. Yet every week he pays off, and I donate my money to the guys who use him.
Maybe that's how we'll learn. It'll simply get too expensive to hold onto old stereotypes.
Curmudgeon would be a great name for a newly discovered species of crab.