“That’s why they play the game!” My brother’s voice crackles in my Xbox LIVE headset as Wayne Rooney drills another ball past my keeper, and big bro is up 2–0. While I remind him that there’s still time left, and 2–0 is the most dangerous lead in soccer, my heart sinks, and I know that he has just beaten me in his first-ever game of FIFA 2011.
“That’s why they play the game, fool,” he repeats. His taunts are well-deserved, having spent the entire first half listening to my own heckles and condescension, but they still sting. How could he have beaten me in his first game?
Well, I guess that’s why they play the game. In sports, as much as we have become dependent on rankings and standings to provide some rationality or predictability to matchups, there is always that element of surprise that allows a FIFA newbie to topple a goliath of the game, or Rex Ryan’s unlikely New York Jet’s to take down Tom Brady, Bill Belichik and the supposedly unstoppable New England Patriots this past Sunday.
There could have scarcely been more drama leading up to the match. Tom Brady had thrown 339 passes without an interception as New England won 11 of its last 12 games of the regular season. Meanwhile, the Jets had exhibited offensive struggles a number of times during the regular season, but the offseason acquisition of last year’s Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes proved to be invaluable as the wideout continued to make improbable game-winning catches in the second half of games to propel New York to dramatic wins.
These chinks in the Jets’ armor were most exposed during a snowy 45–3 romp by none other than Brady and Co. in Foxborough, removing any doubt that New England was far and away the better squad, and the likely candidate to emerge from the AFC for the Super Bowl. Rex Ryan, a notorious smack talker, had hit the press hard that week before the game as he often does, only to emerge speechless after the embarrassing loss.
It seems that the egg on his face dried up. That’s why they play the game.
Apparently, Sexy Rexy didn’t learn his lesson the first time. The pregame comments came again, and we — the rational, statistics-minded, predictability-seeking sports community — blew them off, and gave the Patriots the better end of a nine-point spread. Well now he’s got us staring abashedly at our feet, as the Jets head into the AFC championship game to take on another “better” team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It’s not like upsets don’t happen all the time in sports, and there’s no doubt that I could easily dig up hundreds more that dwarf the drama of the Jets-Patriots upset this past weekend. The fact that we call the outcome of this game an “upset,” however, buys into the script of how we expect things happen should happen.
The origins of this script obviously trace to gambling. The odds reflect bets being placed in Las Vegas which are in turn aggregated to create the sacred spread. This makes sense in the gambling world, but in sports, the tendency to use a metric means ignoring the blatant subjectivity of matchups.
That’s why they play the game.
So what about all those people who knew it was going to be a Patriots blowout? Was the knowledge that informed such a prediction misguided? Are they wrong for insisting upon Brady’s infallibility or Belichik’s incomparable preparation as major Patriot advantages? In the end, are they even really wrong for saying the Patriots were the better team?
We can’t answer these questions. We can only answer, “Who won the game?”
In this modern sports news era characterized by 24/7 television coverage and instant updates all across the Internet, predictions and speculation have come to constitute far too large a share. Given the tendency of sports analysis to inevitably predict outcomes, writers are constantly eating their words.
To make the argument for the removal of predictions and rankings would be both pointless and lame — I admit, I love making predictions and I was one of the obnoxious many who was already talking about the Patriots playing the Eagles in the Superbowl (derp …) weeks ago.
My only goal in raising this perhaps pointless discussion is to call attention to the outcomes of falling into the predictions pit. That’s not to say that one should always root for the underdog to avoid the embarrassment of eating your words, but at some point it just gets obnoxious.
I won’t go as far as to say that making fun of my brother cost me that embarrassing loss, but there’s a reason they play the game.
Sam Goldsmith is a junior in Branford College.