Commentary

Search for good in sports isn't objective

This Sporting Life: To be, or something other than to be

Updated: January 11, 2010, 7:17 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Our short subject today is subjectivity itself.

Somewhere, in a parallel universe, Aaron Rodgers hangs on to a football. Like Hannibal or Alexander the Great, inexorable, he marches the Green Bay Packers the length of the field. Triumphant, he beats the Arizona Cardinals in overtime. He pumps his fist and jumps for joy, and his heart soars with happiness and pride.

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesIn an alternate universe (or the state of Tennesse), Chris Johnson was the MVP this season.

In another parallel universe at the same instant, Neil Rackers makes a short field goal with a handful of seconds left in the same game. The Cardinals win 48-45, and he pumps his fist and jumps for joy and his heart soars with happiness and pride.

In fact, across an infinite number of dimensions bearing a limitless number of parallel universes, all versions of Sunday night's game are endlessly played to an infinity of outcomes. And in every game across the reach of time and space, all players are both happy and sad, heroes and goats, winners and losers. All fans are happy. All fans are sad. Out beyond the horizon, and far past the limits of our understanding, those playoffs extend in every direction, filling every moment.

In the few known dimensions of our own sweet-and-sour world, however, along the x,y,z axes of cliché and conventional wisdom, that game has come and gone. As have the games preceding it. To fill the vacuum they leave behind, the Monday morning eulogies and tributes have been written and filed and read, the talk-radio blessings and benedictions spoken, the banishments suggested and blame laid, the baseless predictions intoned, the txts txtd and tweets Twittered and the hot-stove grumblings begun.

Because as Einstein teaches us, in every possible universe -- but most especially in this one -- observation and fact and opinion are only a function of where you're standing. It's all relative. Thus the Patriots' dynasty is definitely, conclusively, inarguably over forever and ever. Unless it is not.

And of all things that can be scientifically measured, it seems that only the speed of light, and the poor script choices of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, remain constant.

So.

Having just sat through the annual Kabuki of voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame, I note for the record that neither burlesque nor vaudeville nor theatre of the absurd are dead. As performed by my colleagues, the yearly ritual in which jock achievement is held hostage to nerd vanity continues to amuse and amaze. To what standards of considered opinion do voters hew? What yardsticks do they bring to bear? By what metric, other than resentment or awe or a long gone past, are these candidates measured? Don't ask! Don't tell! Fat scouts! OBP + VORP! It'll all work out in 15 years! Or not!

[+] EnlargeConan O'Brien
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonWho is the best late-night television host? Don't let objective facts like the ratings affect your rankings.

(The just released NFL Hall of Fame "roster of the likely" makes the same point. Who's in? Who's out? Why? How? And how is it possible that in a game called football, super punter Ray Guy isn't enshrined at Canton? The fault lies ... not in stars ... in selves, etc., etc., ad inf.)

More people seemed to agree that Peyton Manning was the NFL's MVP this year, but even that near-unanimous choice of amiable spokesperson caused grumbles among the cognoscenti. Whither Johnson? Brees? Or some monstrous important lineman?

As a species, we pretty well agree on what makes something bad or wrong or undesirable. Doubters are here referred to the stele of Hammurabi; or the 613 commandments of the Old Testament; or to the sign above the cash register at that diner out on Route 4. They are mighty specific as to what constitutes a wrong. No spitting! Or adultery!

"Goodness" however is utterly fungible and always has been. We are no more likely to agree on what makes excellence in any field than we are on where to situate Conan or Leno or Letterman along the spectrum of our favor.

Fickle, fickle, fickle.

So during the U.S. Figure Skating championships a week from now, and again during the Winter Olympics to follow, he-man football fans will bluster and complain to their wives and girlfriends that figure skating isn't a sport, can't be a sport, because the judging is so utterly subjective. How can you quantify a thing based entirely on opinion, they'll ask one way or another, sneering, no matter how well-informed or disinterested? And those outfits! Where's my nachos at?

Sequins aside, they will thus ignore the fact that the Alabama football team was last week voted "national champion" on the identical strength or weakness of similar human opinion. Sure, the Tide went undefeated, but swap out the phrase "French judge" or "Ukrainian judge" for the SEC homers in the writers' or coaches' component of those postseason polls and you'll see what I mean.

Or try to decode the preseason NCAA basketball rankings. I dare you. Because no matter how founded in bias or optimism or blind conjecture, they're supremely important -- even months in advance of March Madness. Be mindful of this when you fill out your $15 bracket at the office. Where teams finish is almost entirely a function of where they're allowed to begin.

[+] EnlargeAlabama
Kevin Reece/Icon SMIIf Boise State had started the season ranked among the Top 5, would this picture feature different uniforms?

For proof, let's set the Wayback Machine for late last summer, and the preseason football polls.

If Alabama doesn't start that high, it doesn't finish that high. So, per a theory currently circulating on Twitter: As it is with "American Idol," so it must be with college football -- to win it all you have to be a favorite early.

(NB: Whatever happened to USC? The Trojans had such great stage presence, and seemed like such nice young men.)

Apart from the usual shouty nonsense on TV, unavoidable as it is, most of us try not to listen much as our experts lead us ever deeper into a wilderness of jackass conjecture and supposition and prediction.

That's why we love the games. Either/or. Binary.

Win.

Lose.

Simple.

In an infinite number of universes, across an infinite number of outcomes, the perfect beauty of any game is in letting us know, if only for a moment, how and where we stand in the great spinning scheme of things. Completely empirical. Demonstrable. Incontrovertible.To be, just this once, certain.

Except for that blown call.*

Ouch.

(*And the steroids. Sorry.)

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question "What Are Sports For?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.

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