Sports in the Rearview Mirror

One of the most difficult cognitive biases to resist is the tendency to see a deterministic pattern, or narrative, in what is largely a series of probablistic and chancy events. And so the same impulse that gave us animistic religion gives us sports journalism: Today’s case in point is Steve Simmons’ column in the Sun, arguing that the narrative of this year in hockey is the emergence of Sidney Crosby as a mature, successful Leader of Men, while his rival Ovechkin  “the older of the two, appears less mature than Crosby, less grounded, more individualistic.”

In support of this, Simmons notes some obvious facts: Crosby won the Cup last year and Olympic Gold this year, while Ovechkin’s Russians crashed and burned. Crosby is still alive in the playoffs, Ovechkin’s Capitals are gone for the second year in a row. And while both Crosby and Ovechkin had great first round series’, only Crosby “seems to have grasped that intangible called victory while Ovechkin understands the spectacular far more than the simple.”

What is really interesting here is the dual projection, of Crosby’s supposedly superior moral qualities, onto a highly probalistic series of events, to reach a highly deterministic conclusion. As my friend Wayne Norman wrote me in an email earlier today when we were discussing this, “Crosby could have lost that Cup and those Olympics if things had bounced just slightly differently. And yet, it is very hard to resist these narratives where Crosby’s superior moral qualities have made his success (and Ovey’s failures) inevitable.”

Winners and losers, good and evil, these tropes are as irresistable in sports as they are in life. But success in both is as much a matter of lucky choices and chance bounces as it is about talent, hard work, and good behaviour. Perhaps the reason we like these narratives so much is that the alternative explanation is too uncomfortable to face.

UPDATE: Ok, so let me amplify the point a bit. Take the more or less explicit moral opposition that floats throughout Simmons’ column:  “But there is that fine line between individual performance and making your team better.”

Unpack this a bit, and you have the following set of oppositions: The Canadian player is sober, focused, team-oriented, while the Russian is enthusiastic, emotional, and individualistic. Flip these on their head, and you have the precise moral qualities that have been held up as the epitome of Canadian hockey since the 1972 series. How often have we heard over the the past 40 years, that the Russians were corporate, focused, team-oriented, and collective, while Canadians always played with heart, individualism, and energy — viz., the values of western capitalism writ hockey?

And  now, along comes a Russian player who, in his raw exuberance,  embodies everything we have always celebrated as essentially Canadian about hockey, while our own champion, Crosby, is the perfect exemplar of the stereotypical “Soviet” style of play. And what do we do? We invert the moral valence of the old oppositions, so now Crosby is the great Canadian team player, while Ovechckin is the aimless individualist.

It’s completely ridiculous parochialism of the worst sort.