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The Concept of Winning (Championships) in Sports
Rick Garlikov

The 2018 NCAA football championship final game, between the University of Alabama and the University of Georgia was one of those epic battles between two very strong teams who both played hard and reasonably well (which at that level of experience and age of the participants, and with that amount of pressure, does not mean playing perfectly or free of errors), and which was in the usual sense of the phrase in games of this sort ‘regrettable or a shame that one team had to lose.’

The game helped me crystallize my views I will be writing here about the concept of winning in sports, particularly championships.  There are some problems and anomalies that have long been recognized in some way or other, and I will try here to bring them out with perhaps a different perspective.

In that football game, although Georgia outscored Alabama 13-0 in the first half, and even though they ran something like twice as many offensive plays, it was not that they were dominating the game in the sense of being able to score at will or building up a large lead in the score.  Until the last few seconds of that half, they had only managed two field goals, and Alabama had a good chance of kicking one, but their kicker missed it.  With the same level of play that had occurred, the score could have easily been just 6-3 at the half.  The Georgia kicker was clearly better, that night, and during the season, than the Alabama one, but the Alabama kicker had a really bad kick in the first half and then also later at the end of the game, though he also did make some field goals during the game.

In Georgia’s semi-final game against Oklahoma, although Georgia won the game in double overtime, Oklahoma did in fact dominate the first half, but Georgia dominated the third quarter so that, again, neither team dominated the whole game.  Neither of these games was a rout.

In essence, in sports, the winner is the person or team ahead when the game ends.  While that sounds odd to say or totally obvious, it has important implications, particularly for championships, and is different in different sports.  

In football and basketball, the game ends (in regulation) when time runs out and one team is ahead.  In baseball, it ends when innings (i.e., team turns at bat) run out with one team ahead, but innings can be of any length of time and only end when three players are out on each side (or ‘half inning’ -- the part of the inning that is one team’s turn to bat).  In golf tournaments, it ends (in regulation) when the total number of holes have been played by everyone still playing.  But in golf, the player with the lowest score wins, not the highest.  In ping pong (table tennis) and volleyball, a game ends when the first player or team gets to a certain number of points or more and is ahead by at least 2.  In tennis, the criteria is less straightforward; a tennis match ends when one player has won more than half the sets to be played the whole match, but sets end when one player has won six or more games and at that point has won at least two more games than the other player.  And games end when one player has won at least four points with the other player at least two points behind.  In tennis, the player with the most total points during the match does not necessarily win the match.  If the set scores are, say, 6-4, 6-4 in a best two out of three sets match, the winner could have won all his/her games by 2 points, giving him/her 24 points more than his/her opponent in those 12 games s/he won.  But the opponent may have won all his/her games 4-0, thus giving him or her 32 more points in those games. Thus, the losing player may have had 8 more total points than the winning one for the match. An old joke is that to win a tennis match or tournament you simply need to win the last point of it.  That is not true in most or all other sports that I know of, other than in sudden death overtimes.  In football, you can score the last points and still lose 6-3 or 60-3.  In baseball you can score the last run of the game and still lose 2-1 or 18-1.  In basketball or hockey you can score the last points or goal and still lose by one or, in basketball, by dozens.  In some sports one cannot score on what might be considered defense; e.g., in baseball the team in the field cannot score runs; only the team at bat can.  In volleyball the rule used to be that only the team serving could score that point; if the other team won the rally, no points were awarded but they then became the serving team.

In overtimes in some sports there is ‘sudden death’ or ‘sudden victory’, meaning that the game ends as soon as one team scores.  At present in college football overtime involves each team getting an equal chance to score, and the game only ends when one team scores more points during their opportunity (or turn at offense -- making it like playing innings in baseball) than the other team did during theirs.  Apparently each pair of opportunities is also referred to as one overtime, rather than calling them turns during ‘the’ one overtime of the game.  E.g., a team will be said to have won a double overtime game instead of saying that it won an overtime game on its second possession.

The important point I want to make here is that in a game dominated by one player or team throughout its entirety, that is a decisive or conclusive victory.  But when there is no such domination, and when the final score is relatively close or even if not relatively close, could have been except for special, seemingly fluke, circumstances or very unusual and unlucky (for one team, but lucky for the other) plays (as in the 1972 Iron Bowl game which Auburn won 17-16 because of two Alabama punts in the fourth quarter each blocked by Auburn’s Bill Newton and each run back by David Langner for Auburn touchdowns, both after Auburn had kicked a fourth quarter field goal while behind 16-0, which seemed pointless at the time except to ruin the 14 point gambling spread for the game, or in many of the 50 games listed by ESPN as the 50 most painful losses in college football which turned on improbable plays), or when the score ‘seesaws’ back and forth with the lead frequently changing hands, victory than “only” means not that one team is better, but that they were simply ahead when the game ended, when time or turns ran out.  In the Alabama-Georgia game, Alabama was only ahead once ever during the entire game, and that was at the very end.  In a sense they were ahead during the game only for a nano-second, but that was sufficient to make them the winner and national champion.  

Unfortunately in our society the psychological, social, and/or economic differences between winning and losing is far different, and profoundly different in many cases, than the difference in play or player’s/team’s abilities.  A loss or victory is taken to be definitive in a way not necessarily reflective of the play during the contest at all.  If you, healthy and at full strength, get beat by someone far superior to you who outplays you the entire game, you can accept your loss more easily than if you are simply behind at the ending point of the game, when at other times you were ahead and probably would have been again had there been a bit more time or there was one more turn for both teams.

And in some cases, a championship of what might be considered more reflective of ability has less importance and significance than a different kind of championship -- one that involves a tournament or playoff series after the regular season.  It is well-known that in any relatively short series (or single game elimination) tournament, the strongest (or generally best) team may not win.  A team could go undefeated during some season and still lose the last (or even the first) game and thus come away with, for all intents and purposes, ‘nothing.’  The playoff or tournament championship is what is honored, not the regular season championship.  The disproportionate honor seems unfair and unreasonable, particularly when there are far more games during the regular season, and particularly when all teams have played each other a roughly equal number of times, as in a baseball or basketball season.  In football all top teams do not likely or normally play each other during the season, so that way of determining a national football champion is off the table.  For a long the national championship was determined by a vote; then for a while it was determined by a single game between the top two voted teams.  Currently it is decided in two games among the top four voted teams.  The vote is often controversial in all three of these methods.  But it also turns out that in any tournament type of situation the team that is arguably better for various reasons might not win, and that can be problematic.  In all cases, but particularly those where the playoffs are won by the ostensibly weaker team that simply has a ‘hot’ short term streak at the time of the tournament, it seems to me that it would be better and more accurate to call the winner the playoff or tournament winner rather than season national champions.  “National champions” has a potentially misleading honorific connotation that just having a hot hand in a tournament does not.  And it is an objective fact (barring bad officiating calls) which team or player wins a tournament, whereas being considered the best team or player that season, and thus the champion team or player, is in many cases an arbitrary subjective judgment among fairly equal teams.

Or another case that seems unfair and unreasonable is when tournament games have more significance between the two opponents than their regular season games, and when the results of the previous games have no bearing on the tournament ones.  E.g., in 2017, Auburn beat Georgia during the regular football season, but then had to play them again to determine the SEC champion.  Even if there is a reason that a rematch would be important, there is no good reason the second game should be for all the reward and the first game count for nothing significant other than its own victory.  In the two games combined, Auburn outscored Georgia 47 - 45, but those numbers didn’t matter.  All that mattered was the score of the second game, which Georgia won.  Moreover, in that second game, Auburn’s best player had to play with an injury sustained prior to the game, and he was not nearly as effective as normal.  Of course, during the first game, Georgia may have played with some sort of similar adversity; I don’t know.  But that means you cannot just go by total points in both games to determine the better team either.

In essence, apart from clearly dominant victories by clearly dominant teams (whether in a single game, short series, or even in some cases an entire season) any reasonable or normal manner of determining “The (significant) Champion” the year will be as arbitrary as any other reasonable or normal way.  It is most satisfying in the sense of seeming to be deserving, in any sport when the team or player that is best throughout the regular season also wins the tournament championship. And that is particularly true when the strongest teams play each other in each tournament round.  There is something dissatisfying about any tournament where the strongest players or teams during the year are defeated in an early round by a normally much weaker player or team, and at least one of the teams that end up in the final round which determines ‘the champion’ is clearly weaker teams than the ones who don’t get to play for the championship.

The implications of all the above:

  1. There is a clear sense in which championships may not determine the best teams of that year.

  2. Nevertheless, because winning a championship is difficult it is still rightfully an honor, even if recognized as being somewhat lucky.  That kind of luck still requires talent, skill, and usually also hard work.  As Branch Rickey is attributed with saying: Luck is the residue of hard work.

  3. But the honor is of winning under a particular system, not a sign that the system is the best way to determine the best team.  Nick Saban seemed to understand that when he was asked prior to the current playoff system what he thought would be the best way to determine national championships and his reply was that he didn’t really care and that he simply wanted to know what the rules would be and he would try to have his teams do their best under them.

  4. There is some subjective sense of which team or teams are the best each season, and if the point of determining objectively the best team through some sort of playoffs or however that is done, then there should be a continuous seeking of the best system for determining a season champion in each sport.  And for the most part, the winner of that system should reasonably coincide with any consensus subjective determination of which team or player is best.  It should at least coincide with determining a champion from among those teams or players subjectively considered to be roughly equally the best.   In some years that may be more players or teams than others, so just having a predetermined set number of slots or participants is not necessarily reasonable.  E.g., this season in college football, both Ohio State and Central Florida were left out of the tournament.  Even apart from what it might determine in terms of a championship, it would have been nice to see what those teams might have done against the ones chosen -- particularly to see what Central Florida, who went undefeated all season, might do against Alabama.  And, in fact, there was some luck involved in Alabama’s being chosen to be in the playoffs at all, because what ended up their slot could easily have gone to Ohio State or another team.  Moreover, since losing to Auburn in the Iron Bowl meant Alabama’s not playing in the SEC Championship game, which gave them an extra week off to get healthy (which they needed) and one less game to sustain new injuries or aggravate existing ones, the loss to Auburn ended up being another bit of luck to help them become national champions.  While it is true Central Florida defeated Auburn in the Peach Bowl, it is also most likely true that the Peach Bowl was something of a letdown to Auburn and not as important to them as it was to CFU.

  5. However all this is done, everyone should keep in mind that there will be some flukes, and those need to be kept in perspective for what they are.  At the end of the 1972 Iron bowl, for example, Langner sealed the game with an interception of an Alabama pass.  But when he got to the sideline his coach Shug Jordan is reported to have seemed quite upset.  When Langner asked why, since he had stopped their drive with the interception, Jordan supposedly wryly said “because the plan was to make them have to punt.”   

    Or in the 1992 NCAA football championship game (the 1993 Sugar Bowl), MIami was a heavy favorite over Alabama and came into town with many fans saying “Alabama hadn’t played anyone”, meaning that though both teams came into the game undefeated, Miami fans were claiming Alabama had not played any good teams like Miami had and didn’t really belong there.  After Alabama won the game decisively 34-13, Alabama fans had a good time taunting Miami fans with a bumper sticker that said “We still haven’t played anybody.”  Clearly that was not true, but in light of what happens in the outcome of single-game championship, almost anything goes, but it needs to be understood in fun and with wit and class, not as pure boasting of supremacy.  “Bragging rights” need to be seen, especially in some cases more than others, as the result of luck or chance or just which team happened to be better that day and that it easily could have gone the other way with circumstances or decisions just slightly different.  One of the classic examples of this was during the 1954 World Series between the Cleveland Indians and New York Giants.  In game 1, in the 8th inning with the scored tied at 2, the Indians had men on first and second with no outs.  Vic Wertz came up to bat, and Giants manager Leo Durocher put in reliever Don Liddle.  With the count 2 and 1, Wertz crushed the next pitch 420 feet which would have been a home run in almost any other park, but didn’t reach the wall in the very spacious Polo Grounds.  Centerfielder Willie Mays had been playing shallow, but chased the ball down and made a catch over his head with his back totally to the infield, immediately turning to throw to the cutoff man to prevent the second base runner from scoring, which he did, because the guy on second base had taken off as soon as he saw the force of the hit, instead of waiting to tag, and then had to return to second before finally being able to tag up to get to third base.  Durocher than replace Liddle with relief pitcher Marv Grissom.  As  Liddle walked past Grissom back to the dugout he said “Well, I got my man!” clearly reveling in his pure luck as the beneficiary of what has become known simply as “The Catch” and is usually considered to be the greatest play ever made in baseball.  

    Clearly in seesaw games or games just won in the very last second or chance to score, the outcome and thus the championship could have been different.  Hence, any pride in winning should be tempered with humility or humor, and any agony or disappointment in defeat should not necessarily be accompanied with feelings of inferiority or failure.  

    As Pete Rose said after what was thought to be a heartbreaking and demoralizing Cincinnati loss to Boston in the epic 6th game of the 1975 World Series, it was not demoralizing at all but a total thrill to have been a part of one of the greatest games ever played.  One should have that kind of perspective, particularly over any game that could easily have gone either way.  While the Georgia players and fans are understandably disappointed in the outcome, just as Alabama fans were disappointed in the previous year’s last-second championship loss to Clemson, they should have pride in the hard work, skill, and performance of the their team, and Alabama fans this year should be at least as grateful for their sheer good luck as they are deservedly proud of the talent, effort, skill, resilient character, and dedication of their team.

This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.