In line with the rest of the world’s infatuation with one-stop shopping, the sports industry has turned to single metrics to quantify success. In baseball, there has been the rise of OPS in evaluating a batter; in football, there’s passer rating. Despite these efforts, there is still a struggle to quantify the success of an individual player or team so simply. However, one word has emerged to classify whether a league is a success or not — parity.
But it is difficult to boil anything down to a given, finite term. Yes, the NFL has emerged over the past decade as the country’s No. 1 professional sports league. And, yes, it does credit its success to basically two things, a salary cap and this so-called flawless standard of competition, parity. Apparently baseball doesn’t have it, nor do hockey or basketball.
So, what is parity? Officially defined, it is “functional equivalence; equality.” Applied to sports and competition, the term remains fairly ambivalent. Is the No. 1 goal of a league to marshal its teams so as to make them as equal as possible? That seems almost communist: Big Brother should not have his hand in who wins and who loses.
Furthermore, how could you measure this equivalence to determine if indeed the NFL is the only league that possesses its magical traits? Well, for one, you’d expect that a league with “functional equivalence” would have a frequent turnover in champions. In a vacuum, each cookie-cutter team would have the same probability of winning as any other. Therefore, the likelihood of having repeat champions would be far smaller than in a league without parity.
With this definition, one would have to suggest that baseball has as much parity as any other sport. The World Series has seen 10 different teams in the past five years. As is so well documented, Major League Baseball is a game of streaks and spells, ebbs and flows. Winning 100 games, an achievement that nearly guarantees a team a division title, still means losing 62.
Therefore, the NFL does not hold a monopoly on parity, at least according to the above definition. What makes regular-season NFL games more exciting is that each team only plays 16 of them. In contrast to the seemingly unending baseball season, where one loss means very little, a loss in the NFL, much less three in a row, can be devastating to a team’s chances of making the playoffs. That makes every game a must-win and, more importantly, a must-watch. That is not parity; that’s just scheduling.
One could even say that the Ivy League has parity. In fact, the term is more aptly applied here than to a professional sports league. It makes sense that the Ivy League would have a certain level of equality, because theoretically each school is drawing from a very similar talent pool without anything particularly special to offer to a prospective student-athlete.
For example, the Yale men’s hockey team now stands in first place in the Ivy League, despite trailing Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard and Princeton in the ECACHL standings. The Bulldogs, with an overall 9-11-3 record, have already defeated three of those schools and will need to do so again in order to finish the season as Ancient Eight champions. It seems the Elis have picked the right teams to beat.
The men’s basketball team is in a similar situation. After this weekend’s sweep of Penn and Princeton, its overall record — counting both conference and non-conference play — stands at 9-10, good enough for first place in the Ivy standings.
Thus, according to the definition above, the Ivy League’s competition seems to be quite healthy: Teams are beating other teams that their overall records suggest they shouldn’t.
If we then compare the parity of the NFL with that of the Ivy League, can we determine whether parity is a term worthy of any attention whatsoever?
I’d say that parity in sports is a bogus idea — one made up by the NFL in a campaign to oust baseball from the hearts of Americans and install itself instead. I have no problem with that, but let’s not pretend that the competition in professional football is somehow more virtuous than in other sports.
The Winter 2007 parity in the Ivy League is not the product of healthy competition but rather of a very odd series of events. That two Yale teams under .500 still stand to win the Ancient Eight doesn’t really make sense.
Don’t get me wrong: Winning is winning. If you beat the teams you need to beat to win a league title, than no one can tell you that you don’t deserve it. We should just be careful not to try to quantify the nature of that competition as particularly healthy or noteworthy. So to you, pushers of parity, stop with the sanctimoniousness.
Nicholas Thorne is a junior in Pierson College. His column usually appears on Wednesdays.