Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Is Credit for Success vs. Blame for Failure in Sports a Zero-Sum Equation?

After the New York Football Giants defeated the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night to advance to a Super Bowl rematch with the New England Patriots, I spent quite a bit of time "celebrating" with friends on Facebook. Being a displaced New Yorker, that's pretty much all I have these days. Besides, with the game starting and ending on the late side, and with a two-month old in the picture, I doubt if I would have been attending any NFC championship parties anyway.

Incidentally, and this isn't the point of the post, I've recently decided, when your team is in a big game such as this one, it's much better to "hang out" on Facebook than it is Twitter. Otherwise, I definitely prefer the latter, but when the spotlight is on your team, Twitter is like hanging out in a neutral bar and having to ignore a lot of ridiculous and obviously jealous comments, while Facebook is more akin to watching the game in a hometown bar. At least that's the way it works for me.

Since most of the people I follow on Twitter are baseball enthusiasts, I had to pause momentarily to realize Rangers fans are also probably Cowboys fans, and what they're going through is kind of like being a Yankees fan in the '80s, so I can relate. Some of the comments are still annoying, but I can relate.

Another fan base's ire that I got a charge out of—yeah, you know that was intentional—is that of the San Diego faithful, believe it or not. It's directed towards Eli Manning, of course, because he spurned their team back in 2004, forcing a trade to the Giants for Philip Rivers. At times, Rivers has looked like a better quarterback than Manning, but nobody seems to be saying that anymore.

The Chargers have had some bad luck with quarterbacks over the years—only some of it their own fault—so I can sympathize. I mean they came {this close} to getting Eli's older brother, Peyton, but ended up with Ryan Leaf. Then, they gave up on Drew Brees, paving the way for Rivers. Again, Rivers has been a solid signal-caller, but he's no Brees.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with what I set out to write about in this post. During the aforementioned Facebook celebration, a good friend from New York posted the following:

"I'd say all the pressure is on the Patriots, given how they choked last time."

I disagreed with this, contending the Patriots didn't choke in Super Bowl XLII, the Giants just out-schemed and outplayed them. Sure, there was considerable pressure on the Patriots to complete their perfect season, but it didn't just kick in when they reached the Super Bowl. And they were playing a team that was on a roll, and just happened to put it all together at the right time and rise to the occasion on the ultimate stage.

Which brings me, finally, to my point. When we emphasize the opposition's failures, does that detract from our team's successes?

Here's another example: many Red Sox fans love to refer to their team's comeback in the 2004 ALCS as the greatest choke-job in the history of sports—on the part of the Yankees—rather than the greatest comeback in history, by their team.

Can we have it both ways? I suppose to some extent we can, but I contend the more you assign blame for the other team's failure, the less credit you're giving to your team's success. When I had this conversation with a few Red Sox fans regarding 2004, they seemed to—for the most part—agree with me.

We know that winning vs. losing in sports is a zero-sum proposition. That is, in order for one team to win, another has to lose. So, does that make credit for success vs. blame for failure a zero-sum equation as well?

Let's consider the 2004 ALCS again. If the Yankees truly choked that one away, don't you think that even the Kansas City Royals could have taken them in four straight? Surely a team that was wilting under the pressure of just needing to win one game out of four would be ripe for the plucking by any other professional team. If this is true, is there really any credit to give to the Red Sox for their performance?

It's obviously not that simple, but as a Red Sox fan, wouldn't you rather celebrate your team's incredible accomplishment rather than another team's failure? I know there are other factors involved—sports fans love to mock their rivals, of course—but as a Giants fan, I know I'd much rather appreciate their tremendous performance in Super Bowl XLII than get a chuckle out of the fact they ruined the Patriots perfect season.

I choose to think of that Giants team as having pulled off perhaps the greatest upset in Super Bowl history. Sure, that has something to do with the fact the Patriots were working on a truly historic season. But, when I think of that game, it's in celebration of the Giants, rather than in desecration of the Patriots. I personally do feel the latter detracts from the former, so I prefer to glorify the positive rather than mock the negative.

But, that's probably just me.

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