Thursday, March 28, 2013

Today, the Cat Just Wanted It More: Certainty & Ambiguity in Sports

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Every sporting event is a Schrodinger’s box. At the beginning of the game, there are two possible outcomes; Team X wins or Team Y wins. (A third in sports that allow for ties, and obviously, in sports that have more than one competing entity, say a track meet or a car race, there are as many possible outcomes as there are competitors but the relationships holds.) Just like in Schrodinger's thought experiment, where the cat is both alive and dead until the box is opened, during a sporting event both possible outcomes exist; Team X wins and Team Y wins, until the box is opened at the end of the game. Then the cat is either dead or alive; either Team X wins or Team Y wins.

Actually, a sporting event is an infinite series of Schrodinger's boxes, as every action or occurrence is in itself a Schrodinger's box; either it leads to Team X winning or Team Y winning, and until the box is opened, every action or occurrence does both. Once the game is over, logically, every action or occurrence lead to either Team X or Team Y winning.

Because sports have final scores, there is a level of certainty in sports you can't find in really anything else. Unlike much of life, in sports, we always open the box. At the end of every game (except when there's a tie) we are certain who won. At the end of every season we are certain who the best team is because that team won the championship. We are certain who the best goal-scorer was because that person scored the most goals. You are certain who the best fantasy baseball manager in your league was this year because that person won the title. Sports all come down to points, all points are rational numbers, and so, ultimately, unless something really weird happens, all outcomes in sports are certain.
What monster invented "Reply All" anyway?

Given all the ambiguity we struggle through in our daily lives; did I word that email the best way, what do they actually think of me, who should I vote for, should I just get off at Park Street and walk, etc, etc, etc, I've always believed part of the appeal of sport is its certainty. We can actually know something for real. But then, when we think and talk about sports, we tend to add all the ambiguity of life back in, even when the outcome is established.

So you find analysts talking about “turning points,” or “big plays,” in a game, where logically, there is no distinction amongst contributors to the outcome of a game. Because Team X won the game, every aspect of the game that preceded contributed to Team X winning the game. We can talk about how athletically difficult a particular play was, how statistically unlikely it was, or how a player performed compared to said player's pattern of performance, but all of those events are inextricable parts of one certain fact: Team X won.

This insertion of ambiguity into certainty can lead to some pretty logically bizarre statements, like this one you'll hear every now and then, “If the Bruins go on to win this game, remember that save.” Sure some saves in hockey are more difficult than others, requiring more technical skill and/or athleticism, and some saves happen in the context of dramatic action, but a save is a save; or to put this differently, the other team scores every time a goalie doesn't make a save, and so, logically, every save is vital to the win (or at least as many saves as is necessary to preserve the point differential, meaning if you win by six, technically, five of your goalie's saves are redundant).

It goes further than that, though, as the insertion of ambiguity is the essential action of all sports discourse. Before the game, it is ambiguity all the time as fans and analysts use preceding patterns to predict future events. (Meteorologists, Bankers, and Sports Analysts: What is three jobs you can be wrong all the time and still get paid?) Then Team X wins, and we spend an obscene amount of time debating, discussing, and arguing about how this incontrovertible fact came to be. We analyze the quality of particular players, we scrutinize the calls of the officials, we isolate certain strings of occurrence and apply qualitative judgments to them, and (because this idea isn't already weird enough) we use statistics—the intended antithesis of ambiguity—as one of our primary tools of ambiguity creation, all the while, completely ignoring the truly ambiguous moments of chaos that also contribute to the outcome, for example, to pick at a fresh wound, the Canadiens scoring a goal after a puck bounced off of Dennis Seidenberg's face and landed right in front of Gallagher, or when the tying goal was scored after a totally ambiguous totally unlucky penalty, off Chara's stick. “Experts” in the field can observe the exact same phenomena and from the exact same certainty (man, Team X is killin' it.) come to entirely different and often passionately held conclusions.

If you're following the logic, you can see a paradox growing. The definitive fact that separates sport from just about everything else in daily experience, is certainty, and yet nearly all of the emotional engagement of sport is through the creation of ambiguity. And, since we're on the topic of the absolute madness of human emotions, the point of that created ambiguity is almost always conflict; induced ambiguity for the expressed goal of disagreeing with each other. Essentially, we take an absolute certainty, inject every single identifiable aspect of it with ambiguity for the expressed purpose of having one (or four) too many drinks and shouting at each other about it. Sport provides us with a perfect balance between certainty and ambiguity; an inarguable fact as a base for damn near endless and often passionate debate.

There are many different layers to the powerful emotional appeal of sports on people. There's the sense of community and identity, there's the camaraderie among athletes and the vicarious camaraderie fans can feel, and there's the visual physical beauty; but there's also the consequence free conflict engendered by the balance of certainty and ambiguity. No amount of debate will change the outcome of the game, and with a few rare exceptions, you won't lose your job or get killed in the context of a sports argument. The result is an experience that reasonably approximates the thrill of combat with no personal risk. Those of us not lucky enough to play sports for our whole lives, still get to compete in them, and even if the box of our debates is never opened, (except, of course, for all the times I am clearly right) we can get, at the very least, a taste of sinking the shot, scoring the goal, making the catch. (In a bar. After all of our other friends stopped caring. But still. It counts.)

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