10 April, 2008

When winning just isn't good enough....

Statistics could be the end of the sports we know and love

Everyone remembers the old cliché, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

Kids have been spoon-fed this approach to athletics since gym class in elementary school or sooner — at least that’s how I remember it being at Witchcraft Heights right here in historic Salem.

It is old as game itself, yet the games played by men apparently do not follow these timeless traditions that end all T-ball games in ties. When you reach a certain age, you learn the terms that can ruin sports for you, if you let the numbers get to you. Penalties, strikeouts, losses and wins (yes even wins) are statistics that detract from the sanctity of the game being played.

Wins and losses are the beginning, and they are the numbers that will always drive the game. Maybe it is because we are told that they don’t matter that we put so much emphasis on them, but that is for psychologists to study and this journalist to pretend to understand.

Losses, obviously, are the worst statistic in sports. If you or your team are not getting it done at game time, it shows in the loss column — plain and simple. What is an athlete supposed to do, though, when wins are not even good enough? NCAA athletes know what it feels like to win a game, but just not win by enough for it to matter. Talk about a depressing thought.

Wins are the gold standard in sports; they are the goals, the touchdowns, and the finish lines. But what if you found out that if you didn’t beat your opponent by enough, it actually hurt your ranking to play the game and win it. This is the product of “power rankings” as well as “strength of schedule” rankings, both of which can cause games that looked like great wins at the time turn into a waste of time for the team in the blink of an eye.

Expecting teams to achieve certain scores for it to count toward rankings detracts from the game itself, making it clearly all about winning — and winning big no matter what. Athletics becomes much less about how you play the game, which takes away from what morality of competition. Sure, everyone thinks its great when basketball teams run scores up to 100. Or do they?

The hero tradition

Does this really help sports? Or is it a path for its destruction? I have wondered if enough is enough, but sold-out stadiums and skyrocketing contracts seem to leave no sign of things changing for the better anytime soon.

In 2006, Lincoln University set a Division III men’s basketball record when they defeated Ohio State-Marion 201-78. Lincoln’s Sami Wylie made an NCAA record 21 three-pointers in that game and scored 69 points. How does the coach not take this kid out when his team is up by 50 or 60? And 21 three-pointers for 69 points, that only leaves 6 points scored from someplace closer than 19 feet, 9 inches. NCAA men’s basketball has since voted to move the line back one foot, to 20 feet, 9 inches, for the 2008-2009 season.

This is not even the all-time mark, though, that was set by then-Division II Troy with 258 points against DeVry, Ga., on Jan. 12, 1992 — 258 points. Are they even celebrating when they scored basket 180? It is absurd. Wilt Chamberlin’s 100-point game against the Knicks on March 2, 1962 has to be partly to blame for kids playing college basketball like this. Everyone wants to be a hero.

Loyalist leanings

Also, in baseball today there is a culture of the “homerun chase,” leaving us with overblown records by questionable athletes. Count me among the loyalists who will remember Hank Aaron as the Homerun King until every player in the MLB can be proven without a doubt to be free of performance enhancing drugs.

I’m not holding my breath for this breakthrough of epic proportions any time soon, though. The Texas Rangers scored a modern era (post-1900) 30 runs against the Baltimore Orioles in the first game of a doubleheader on Aug. 22, 2007. In the first game of a doubleheader ... I mean, come on, shouldn’t you be saving some of that run production for game 2? Winning 30-3 is just insane, and sort of Bush League.

My major sporting league of choice, the National Hockey League, even had to address a drop in scoring (gasp!), which was being blamed on large goalie pads and the neutral zone trap. So they made the pads smaller! So fans can see more goals! I couldn’t believe it. I wonder if the NHL-record 16 goal game, won by those Montreal Canadiens against the Quebec Bulldogs way back in 1920, will be a record for much longer. The competition — and victory in that competition — is what makes you keep scoring though.

Learn from The Great One

This feeling is embodied, to me at least, in a quote from “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky, in an interview with John Kreiser of NHL.com in 2001.

It’s important to know that this interview was commemorating Gretzky’s five-goal game on Dec. 30, 1981. It was the 39th game of the Edmonton Oilers season, and Gretzky’s 46th, 47th, 48th, 49th and 50th goals — goals that shattered Maurice “The Rocket” Richard’s record of 50 goals in 50 games.

Gretzky would go on to score 92 goals that season, a feat that has yet to be repeated or surpassed.

In the 20 years since Gretzky made hockey history, only two other players, Brett Hull (86 in 1990-1991) and Mario Lemieux (85 in 1988-1989) have come been within spitting distance of Gretzky’s mark. No one has even broken 70 goals in a season since 1992-1993, when Alexander Mogilny and Teemu Selanne each had 76.

With the current defense-first philosophy, no player had managed as many as 60 goals until the 2007-2008 season, Washington Capital forward Alexander Ovechkin has lit the lamp 62 times as of this writing. And Florida’s Pavel Bure won the first two Rocket Richard Trophies, given to the NHL’s top goal-scorer, in the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 seasons with 58 and 59 goals respectively.

And yet, after beating a storied NHL record, Gretzky said this in 1981: “It was a thrill to get 92 goals, but in some ways, I thought I let myself down by not getting 100. Maybe I should have pushed myself more.”

When being The Great One just isn’t good enough, and when winning just isn’t good enough, then there is something wrong with the game — or at least the way it is being played in society today.

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