November 8, 2012

The Greatest "Sporting" Event In America

     You can have the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NBA Finals, and the Stanley Cup Finals.  Election Day in the United States is better than all four of them put together.  (Hyperbole alert:  I really do like the Super Bowl.  But Election Day is certainly better than the other three combined.)

     First you have the fact that every viewer, provided that he or she voted, actually has a hand in determining the outcomes, unlike every other sporting event in which we just helplessly cheer on our team.

     Then there is the sheer amount of stuff going on.  You have the presidential election, senatorial elections, congressional elections, and various referendums.  And then within the presidential election, there are 50 different state elections, four or five of which are incredibly exciting.  As these state elections occur, much like the 130 plays in a football game, they are combined using some arbitrary point system to determine an overall winner, even if it appears that the loser performed better.  And to help us along, we get expert opinions on why things are happening the way they are, different strategies used by each side, and how the current trends will eventually affect the outcome.  Sound familiar?

     I was wondering what the sports analog to the 2012 presidential election would be, and, being first and foremost an NFL fan, the one game that came to mind was the Patriots' 52-28 demolition of the Bills in Week 4 this season.

     Obama went into Election Day as the clear favorite, as did the Patriots that day.  (Maybe not officially, but we all know how good the Pats are.)  Naturally, I was rooting for the Bills, and ended up rooting for the underdog Romney as well.

     The beginning went pretty well for the underdogs.  The Bills took a 14-7 lead into the half, and Romney took an early lead as well and was hanging in there in the battleground states.  But in both cases, there was an uneasy sense that the favorites could take control at any moment.

     The scrappy Bills and Republican continued their momentum, but both showed signs of weakening.  The Bills earned a 21-7 lead, but the Patriots ended the 3rd quarter with 14 unanswered points to tie the game at 21-21, and had driven inside the Bills' 30-yard line.  Romney had made up a 200,000-vote deficit in Florida and narrowed a 10% gap in Ohio to 2%, but the President got a win in Pennsylvania and California's 50+ democratic electoral votes were about to officially hit the scoreboard.

     That's when things got ugly.  New England racked up 31 fourth-quarter points to get a comfortable 52-28 win.  In the election, Ohio was called for Obama despite the fact that Romney would take a lead after that decision.  Then a couple more states came in to put the President at a victorious 270 electoral votes.  I, not believing that Ohio was done, waited until the 290th vote before accepting the loss, because at that point Ohio didn't even matter.  Obama would end up winning 303-206, with Florida pending.

     To summarize, both contests began well for the underdogs, and they continued to provide hope for their fans deep into their respective competitions.  But in the end, things fell apart, and we realized that it was never really that close to begin with.

     Sure, I felt disappointment at the results of the night, but the prevailing feeling was that the election was a heck of a lot of fun to watch.  Having only been old enough to vote since 2008, this was the first election I really got into, and I hope that there will be many more enjoyable ones to come.

(Side note:  Did anyone else notice the ridiculous vote counting system in Wisconsin?  The Republican goes up by 10%, then they call it for the Democrat because Madison and Milwaukee get counted last.  We really need to fix that because it looks absurd.)

October 2, 2012

How Sports Can Help The WWE

     I just finished watching tonight's episode of WWE Raw, something I do occasionally because as much as I love the idea of pro wrestling, it hasn't been good enough to watch consistently for a really long time.  Though I was pleased enough to abandon the "How to Fix the WWE" post I've been stalling on for the last couple of months, there was one nagging issue I still have with the WWE in general.

     Matches are too predictable.

     Every time I watch, there are a few matches featuring the fan favorite or the "unstoppable" new guy versus some lower-tier wrestler, and everybody knows there's no way the lower-tier wrestler is going to win because it would make no sense.  I even predicted this year's Royal Rumble winner based on crowd reaction and storylines in the weeks leading up to it, and that's a 30-man match.

     Contrast that with a sports league like the NFL.  How many times have we seen a 2-9 team get a random win against a playoff contender?  It happens quite a bit.  Not so much that it seems unusual, but enough to let you know that anything can happen in any contest.  And despite this unpredictability, the NFL is full of intriguing storylines throughout the season.  They don't have to be written and meticulously planned.  They just happen.

     Here's what the WWE should try.  Give everybody a true winning percentage, the chance that they would win against an average wrestler.  For chronic winners like Sheamus and Ryback, that could be 90 or 95 percent.  For the top bad guys, it would be in the 70 to 75 percent range, because as much as I think they deserve a fair shake, I understand that the majority of people want to see them lose.  For the more unknown competitors, put it at 10 or 20 percent.  These percentages could change depending on fan reaction and a desired build-up for certain characters.  Next, come up with the stories that will lead up to each match, just like it would normally be done.  Then for each match, use Bill James's Log5 formula to determine the probability of each competitor winning.  Finally, use a random number generator like to find out who will emerge victorious.

     It would make for a much better product.  Every part of the show would be suspenseful.  Writers would have to think on their feet and adapt to the outcomes.  As a result, maybe we would end up with a wide variety of story arcs we don't normally see.  Competitions, fixed or otherwise, are better when there's a sense of unknowing.  Sure, sometimes we end up with undesirable results like Boise State's 2010 loss to Nevada.  But we also get classic moments like Appalachian State's win over 5th-ranked Michigan in 2007.  And as long as they don't happen too often, those classic moments will be better than anything that makes perfect sense.

September 25, 2012

The Replacement Refs' Impossible Situation

Okay, so this picture is old and that's a legit NFL referee.  But I had forgotten about this and seeing Kenneth Darby get lit up by a ref made my day.
     If you're a fan of NFL football, or even just live within the United States, you know that the NFL's usual referees have been temporarily replaced while the refs and the league work out a new contract.  The replacement refs come from many different levels of experience ranging from high school games to lingerie football.  Yet these officials all have one thing in common.  Everybody thinks they're doing a terrible job.

     I'm not convinced of that though.  I think this situation is more about the Kobe Bryant factor than actual officiating.  You know how everyone thinks Kobe is "clutch", so when he makes a late basket we use that to reinforce our belief, and when he misses we disregard it since everybody misses at some point and that doesn't reflect who he is.  But when you look at the stats, Bryant is around the league average in late-game situations.  The replacement refs are in the same situation, but in reverse.  People expect the replacements to be terrible, so we focus on the mistakes that they make and don't notice the calls they get right.  There was no way they were ever going to be accepted by the general public, and that's not fair to them.  So to try to make it up to them a little bit, let me defend them against three of the main charges against them.

1.  They make the dumbest mistakes.

     I'll admit the new refs have made some gaffes that I would never expect the usual officials to make, like not knowing certain rules of the game.  But the replacements have taken some heat for judgement calls as well, many of which could have happened no matter who was in charge.  I know Ed Hochuli has been involved in one or two boneheaded decisions.  Super Bowl XL involved the best referees in the game and is still regarded as one of the worst officiated games ever.  Fans aren't going to be any happier with the normal officials than they are with the current ones.  Hatred for referees is just part of the sports culture.

2.  Games last 9 minutes longer on average.

     What world-altering thing do these people think they were going to do in those 9 minutes?  Sit on the couch and watch the postgame show?  Use the bathroom?  These referees aren't used to calling an NFL game.  That's just a fact.  I'd rather they take the time to get together and make the right call than hurriedly make the wrong one.

3.  They're endangering the players.

     This is my favorite bad argument.  First of all, when some linebacker is going in for a crushing hit on a receiver, he's not thinking about who the referees are.  He's just going to make the play regardless, and if he gets a flag, so be it.

     But my real issue with this allegation is the sudden regard by the media for player safety.  Remember all the way back in 2010 and 2011, during the height of player safety rules and offensive bias, when everyone just wanted the officials to "let them play"?  Now we have this new batch of referees that calls far fewer penalties than their counterparts, that "lets them play", and how does everyone react?  With a big "thank you"?  No, suddenly everyone is worried about player safety and pass interference no-calls.  It's like they just want to complain for the sake of complaining.  That's what really bothers me.  Decide what you want, then stick with it.  You don't get both sides.  So when the referee lockout finally ends, I better not hear any complaining.

September 24, 2012

What Does The Packers-Seahawks Ending Mean?

     For those who weren't watching tonight's NFL game, let me recap the end of it for you.  Down 12-7 with 8 seconds left, Seahawks QB Russell Wilson threw a Hail Mary pass into a mess of players in the end zone.  As players were pulled away from the pile, Seattle WR Golden Tate and Green Bay safety M.D. Jennings were seen fighting for the football.  One referee called it an interception.  One called it a touchdown.  Somehow that meant the ruling was a touchdown.

The best picture I could find, but it's obvious Seattle doesn't have a player whose hands are close to that ball.

     But luckily, every NFL scoring play is reviewed on instant replay.  So what really happened on the play?  Jennings first caught the ball with Tate's hands about six inches underneath.  Then as the players came down, Tate also grabbed onto the ball and both men fought for control on the ground.  The commentary crew seemed convinced that Jennings earned the interception, as did I.  Yet the official ruling was, you guessed it, a touchdown.  The Packers players refused to line up for the extra point for about 10 minutes while the sideline reporters interviewed Wilson and Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, who both acted as if they believed it was a touchdown like any other.  It was quite a bizarre scene, and even though I hated what happened, I was glad to have seen it live.

     So now I'm trying to figure out what it all means.  A lot of people are going to blame this on the replacement referees, but I don't think that's what it was.  It was the regular officials, after all, who made the controversial Calvin Johnson no-catch call in 2010 (another play I had the pleasure of watching unfold in real time).  Referees of any kind make some bad calls.

     What I think this speaks more toward is the league's general favoritism towards offense.  Look at everything that happened in that play.  Tate wasn't flagged for an obvious pass interference.  When one ref signaled an interception and one signaled a touchdown, it was ruled a touchdown.  And then there was the atrocious call itself.  I don't know if the referees thought, consciously or subconsciously, that the tie goes to the receiver, like it does to the runner in baseball.  I don't know what more they wanted from Jennings, but he and the Packers got ripped off.

September 15, 2012

I Was Playing NCAA Football '11 A Few Weeks Ago

     And I discovered that Ryan Tannehill, currently the Dolphins' rookie starting QB, is Texas A&M's starting wide receiver in the game.  And his throw power and throw accuracy ratings are 40.