Why We Reject Random Chance And Embrace Intangibles
Most people acknowledge that the goal of the NCAA Tournament is not to crown the best team. If it was, the NCAA tournament would look more like the NBA, with best of seven series. But even if the goal is not to crown the best team, we still need the NCAA Tournament to measure something. Even if Connecticut wasn’t the best team over the course of the entire 10-11 season, we say that they were the best team over six games in March. We say they were the best team at the end of the year. But that isn’t exactly what the NCAA Tournament measures either.
Random chance in which teams you face still has a large impact on whether or not you can advance. Almost every national champion catches a break at some point, facing a 12-seed in the Sweet Sixteen, or a 5-seed in the Final Four. Very few teams win a national title without a little luck at some point. But calling the national champion “one of several quality teams that happened to be lucky at the right time” isn’t very satisfying.
Random chance explains a lot of what happens in sports. But we are reluctant to embrace it because we want the outcomes of sporting events to be meaningful. We want each win or loss to say something deeper about the quality of the participants.
Often this leads us to say silly things. Let’s look at this weekend’s examples.
Right after Long Beach St. picked up a dominating win at Pittsburgh, they went on the road and lost at San Diego State.
Elsewhere, CAA favorite Drexel looked completely inept while losing the first two games of the Paradise Jam tournament.
Elsewhere, USC scored 36 points in a home loss to Cal Poly.
We cannot just let these box scores speak for themselves. We need the games to mean something more. Long Beach St.’s players got too arrogant after the big win at Pittsburgh. Drexel isn’t ready to play the role of CAA favorite. USC’s young players are a disaster.
Perhaps in a few months, these games will look like a statistical outlier. But we never want to consider that possibility. We prefer to look for an explanation. We want the outcomes to tell us something. And so we often end up saying things that we regret later. As journalists, it should be our obligation to look at the facts, to look at the odds, and to never draw conclusions based on small sample sizes.
But if you only view the world as a series of random probabilities, I think you commit a greater crime. A few weeks ago, the Minnesota Gopher football team which has been horrible all season, defeated the Iowa Hawkeyes. The next morning, the most accurate story would have been this: MarQueis Gray, who has struggled all season to be an effective college QB, suddenly got hot in the 4th quarter. And because his team recovered a low probability on-side kick, and because Iowa had a series of ill-timed incompletions, the Gophers were able to win. But if that is the story, the world is a depressing place to live. Instead the stories written about the game talked about how the team’s hard work finally paid dividends.
Of course, hard work is always a silly angle for a story. The losing team worked hard too. But very rarely do you read a story about how hard the losing team worked. After St. John’s Nurideen Linsdey missed two free throws that would have won or tied the game against Texas A&M on Friday, no one wrote a story about how Lindsey shoots 50 FTs a day, puts in extra time in practice, and still failed at the most important juncture of the game. As fans, we want to believe that hard work pays off. And so we look for the story about how the winning team worked that much harder.
This is also why players like Mississippi St.’s Renardo Sidney drive sports fans crazy. On an analytical level, no one should care if he does not put in a full effort to maximize his natural ability. If one of your co-workers goes out and drinks every night, and does not try hard in the office, you might care a little bit. But you probably just accept that people make different choices with their lives. But when an athlete makes bad decisions and doesn’t give it his all, that offends us on a deeper level. We want victories to mean something. We want sports to reward hard work. We don’t want sports to tell us that some people are more talented and can win even without working hard.
As fans, we watch sports not only for the great athletes, the strategic interactions, and the dramatic moments. We want to believe, whether valid or not, that the players are worthy of our admiration. We want to believe they are worthy of our respect. And that’s why D’Angelo Harrison’s quotes after the St. John’s loss were all the more powerful. Regarding Nurideen’s missed free throws, Harrison was quoted as saying, “Everybody missed at least two free throws. I missed two, so I lost the game, not Nuri.” We want our athletes to be humble. We want our athletes to be forgiving. We want our athletes to take ownership when they fail. We want these things because the games mean more when we can connect with the players on the field.
And this is why stats have ruined baseball for so many people. Baseball was so much more fun when we were 12 year’s old, and we could believe in such a thing as a clutch hitter. But empirical studies have convinced us that clutch hitters do not exist. Instead it is just random chance whether Derek Jeter is going to come through with a hit in the World Series. But if the season is only a series of random probabilities, you might as well simulate the season on the Xbox.
Sports are simply so much more fun, when you can believe in intangibles, when you can believe there are things that are not measured by traditional statistics. Every available data point suggests Tim Tebow is not an effective NFL QB. But we want to believe that Denver’s recent string of wins is more than a fluke. We want to believe that somehow, because of his presence in the huddle, he convinces his offensive line to fight through the pain. We want to believe that Tebow inspires his defense to try a little harder.
It may not be rational. It may not be reasonable. But in sports if your team isn’t great, the best thing you have is hope. And intangibles give fans hope. The great mass of unmeasured statistics give us hope. If your team is 10-2 in games decided by 3 points or less, analytically you may know that they are not that dominant. But you want to believe that there is some intangible that explains why they perform better in close games. You want to assign some meaning to those close wins.
The beauty of college basketball is that you don’t need intangibles to have hope. Every player is at the developmental stage, and at any moment players really can start playing at a higher level. There is so much we don’t know about each team, and so much chance involved in the NCAA tournament, that you don’t need intangibles to have hope.
But I still don’t want to embrace random chance as the explanation, even when I probably should. I don’t want random chance to explain why Purdue’s Robbie Hummel hit a three pointer to win Thursday’s game against Iona. And even though small sample size could explain the trend, I don’t want random chance to explain why Tom Izzo consistently wins in the NCAA tournament.
I want to believe that Hummel is a good person who has battled through injuries and is finally being rewarded in the end. I want to believe that Tom Izzo’s focus on a tough schedule early in the year pays dividends later in the year. Even if the most natural explanation is just random chance, if you look at the world that way, sports are substantially less fun.
So you might expect me to say:
-Stop writing about how fluke plays are the reward of hard work
-Stop writing about how when a team is 0-8 in close games, the team lacks clutch players
-Stop writing about how one big upset means a team is suddenly a Final Four contender
But in fact, I believe the opposite. If you love sports, every once in a while you have to believe in the things you can’t measure.