Friday, June 6, 2014

Luck Denial in Sport and Society

I don't know exactly when the tide turned for my assessment of the series, probably game three or four, but the phenomenon was distinctive and persistent enough that coverage of game seven between the Bruins and the Candiens featured a highlight reel of Bruins hitting the post. Though you won't hear it from any players or coaches, and now that the series is over, any mainstream journalist, or even most fans who want to put a good sportsmanship face forward, the Bruins lost to the Canadiens because of bad luck. Frankly, the fact that they took the series to a game seven while hitting the post 13 (13!) times shows just how much better, overall, the Bruins are. And the posts weren't the only bad luck. There were another half dozen times the puck ended up on edge or slightly offline and a Bruin ended up missing an easy goal. And the luck didn't just prevent the Bruins from scoring. A blocked shot lead to a breakaway and a Canadiens goal. A puck flipped into the neutral zone made through gloves and legs to land for a breakaway and another goal. The third goal in game seven really encapsulated the entire series for the Bruins. Chara was perfectly positioned in the two-on-one. He forced Pachiaretti to the side of the net and Pachiaretti just kinda flipped the puck towards the front of the net (probably the best play he had) and, of course it bounced off Chara and in, stretching the lead back to two goals. Chara did everything right and the Canadians just happened to score. Story of the fucking series. As much as it sounds good to say there's no such thing as “puck luck,” that's all it does, “sound good.”

Beyond public perception, there are very practical reasons for luck denial, for coaches and athletes. You can't practice for it. You can't train for it. You can't trade or draft for it. You can't strategize for it. By definition, there is nothing a coach or athlete can do about luck and so any attention paid to it distracts from the aspects of their craft they can actually do something about. For professional athletes, not mentioning, discussing, or complaining about the role of luck in an outcome isn't just about sportsmanship; it's a professional performance strategy.

But luck doesn't just affect sports. It also, affects, well, everything. Anything that involves a convergence of phenomena beyond your control is luck. To provide a personal example, there is a long list of decisions other people made and events I had no control over (some of which weren't so positive), that culminated in me being able to pitch my novel directly to Denis Johnson at Melville House. At any point in that chain of events, something could have happened to prevent me from that moment. That doesn't remove the work I put into the novel and the preparation I put into the pitch, but it does mean I can't, logically, claim 100% of the credit for whatever happens with my book.

As in sports, with luck in the rest of life, comes luck denial. In fact, one could argue our economic system, restrained-profitism operating within a democratically administered meritocracy, is built on the denial of luck. To put it simply, acknowledging luck means super-rich assholes have no justification for being super-rich. The base of profitism and the justification for the unequal wealth it creates is that through hard work and talent the super-rich, deserve their wealth. If you acknowledge that maybe some of their wealth was the result of phenomena beyond their control that ended up benefiting them, then the entire structure of contemporary capitalism comes crashing down.

Of course, it's never ONLY luck. Marchand dragged the entire team down. Not only could he not hit the net from two feet away, his absolutely inane snow shower penalty disrupted the Bruins momentum right when it seemed like they were going to start dominating play (again) in Game 7. Barkowski played like a rookie and for the first time all season, looked out of place in the NHL. Subban and Price carried the team on their backs until Pacioretti and Vanek got it going late in the series. But just because it's not ONLY luck, doesn't mean we should ignore the influence of luck in society. By far, the best metaphor for the general role of luck in our society is John Scalzi's essay on “Easy Mode.”  To summarize, those of us lucky enough to be born straight, white, American men (last I checked we didn't pass some pre-birth test that allowed us to choose our parents) play the video game of life on the easy mode. You still need to work hard to succeed, of course, and if you do, you will deserve much of whatever reward comes your way, but the undeniable fact of life is that at some point you will benefit from good luck.

Good luck and bad luck tend to even out you say? Over the course of time, you'll have just as much of one as the other, you say? Two things. One, not really an argument a Bruins fan is willing to hear at the moment. From Game 4 on, I just kept assuming there was no way the Bruins' luck could stay that bad. It did. One might argue that the Canadiens had their own bit of bad luck with Price's injury, but that really doesn't balance anything out, as it does nothing to benefit the Bruins. Two, if you flip a coin and it comes up heads, what are the odds the next flip will come up tails? 50%. How about if you flip it again and it comes up heads again? 50%. What if you flip it a million times and each time it comes up heads? 50%. Luck is like a flipped coin. Yeah, a lot of the time it “evens” out and most of us probably experience just about as much good luck as bad luck, but there is just no reason to believe the effects of good and bad luck will even out, or that there will be a zero sum gain, or that your bad luck now will somehow compensate whoever lost out because of your good luck in the past. I mean, Donald Trump has filed for bankruptcy four times (FOUR TIMES!!!) and yet, his array of good and back luck have allowed him to still be insanely wealthy, despite, four (FOUR!!) bankruptcies.

Even though it is an illusion, and there is no real way to ensure the most talented and hardest working are always rewarded, I think the meritocracy can be a net gain illusion. I believe society has a whole benefits when talent and hard work are rewarded in some way. But that's not what we have now. How do we solve luck denial in society? It starts with raising the minimum wage. The best way to acknowledge that shit beyond our control happens, while also rewarding hard work and talent, is to ensure the lowest members of society, still live safe, physically comfortable, lives of dignity no matter what mistakes they've made or how flawed they appear. The point is not that everyone is equal in terms of wealth, but that no one in the world's richest country, for whatever reason, is forced to live in or near squalor. Once the floor is raised, acknowledging that nobody is 100% responsible for where they end up in life, the negative repercussions of our illusion of meritocracy are essentially eliminated without meaningfully affecting the positive elements of the delusion. Talent will still be rewarded. Mistakes and failures punished. There will be rich and poor. All it would mean is the people at the top wouldn't be quite so astronomically rich, which is fine by me, since they don't really deserve it anyway.

Since I started with hockey, I might as well end with hockey.

On Brad Marchand: I can't think of a worse performance by a professional athlete that I've ever seen. Not only could he not hit the net, he consistently turned the puck over at the offensive blue line, and took stupid penalties, and did not, get in any opponents heads. He made bad decision after bad decision and played so poorly, not even Bergeron and Smith could hoist him to some level of competence. Along with “Another fucking post!” I think “Just dump the fucking puck in!” was my most frequent furious exclamation. There were other players who underperformed, but I don't think you could look at how Lucic (who had a wrist injury), Iginla, & Kreijci were as actively detrimental to the team. They were points when they were dumping the puck in, forechecking for a bit and then losing the puck. It would have been wonderful if Marchand's play lead to that. Yes, Rask needed to make a couple more big saves, and yes, Barkowski was generally out of sorts, but when you look beyond the posts for reasons why such a good team could lose, it's hard to look anywhere else but Marchand.

That said, I'm not sure trading him this off-season would make sense, if for no other reason than I can't imagine his trade value being very high. If the Bruins don't think he'll help them win another Cup, they would probably get the most value for their trade by giving him a chance to score some goals in the regular season before trying to move him. Then again, if the right deal comes around, as it did with Sequin, I wouldn't be surprised if Chereli made the move.

On PK Subban: I have never had a high opinion of Subban. He is unbelievably talented, but, in recent years, even in his, ugh, Norris winning year, I believe he has diluted his talent through diving, cheap shots, reckless hits, and whining to the official. As good a skater as he was, he never seemed to have his head enough in the game itself to truly be a great player. Shockingly, he cut out a lot (but not all) of those shenanigans in this series and was a force of fucking nature. The Canadiens would have lost four in a row if Subban hadn't played at the level he played. I mean, he looked ridiculous calling for the puck by jumping up and down on the ice, or rather, he would have looked ridiculous if he wasn't 100% right and 100% scored on the hockey equivalent of calling your shot. He still didn't deserve the Norris when he won it and he can still be a reckless, dangerous (ask Vanek about that), and cowardly player, but he showed some actual growth and actual maturity in this series and if he continues to mature this way, he will be an exciting player to watch.

On The Bruins Next Year: There's a reason why they won the President's Trophy and there is every reason to believe they will be an elite team next year. Of their core, only Chara is really aging out, and he had another Norris Finalist caliber season, and even if he loses another step Denis Siedenberg could easily become the Bruins' top shut down defenseman. Rask will still be Rask, Bergeron will still be Bergeron, and Kreijci will still be Kreijci, while we expect to see continued improvement from Krug, Bartkowski, Smith, and, pleasant surprise of the playoffs, Soderberg. And Cherelli proved he will make big moves (Sequin last year) if they make sense, and simpler, safer, prudent moves, (Meszaros at the trade deadline) if those are what's available. Logically, there is just no way to argue against the Bruins being Stanley Cup contenders again next year. Unfortunately, logic is one thing and luck is another.

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