Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Revisiting Existence and Essence

We must accept that the best team does not always win a championship. This is obvious, because in a particular game the best team does not always win (hence only one team ever went undefeated).  We watch sporting events because the outcome is not predetermined, because even if Team A is far superior to Team B, Team B might still beat Team A.  I would again define this as a difference between "existence" and "essence."  In its essence (its inherent quality), Team A is better, but in its existence (its actions), Team B is the better team at least on that day.

For example, I think it would be incorrect to argue that the 2007 Giants were a better team than the 2007 Patriots.  By nearly any measure, the Patriots were a far superior team.  Perhaps the only measure by which the Giants were the best team was "how the two teams played against each other on a neutral field one Sunday in February."  Yet I also think it would be incorrect to argue that the Giants were an undeserving champion, or that the Patriots were a more deserving champion.  Whatever each team's intrinsic quality, its "essence," the teams were given an opportunity to achieve a championship based on its actions, or its "existence."  The Giants won: whether in essence they were a better team or not doesn't matter, because in existence, in their actions, they won the games to determine a champion.

In any given season, there are multiple teams capable of winning the championship.  Which team wins the championship will be determined by luck, by timing, by matchups, and by performance on the field.  We can recognize this without disrespecting the team that wins the championship.  The good teams put themselves in a position to compete for a title.  Of course every season there will be very good teams that don't win the title, because there can be only one.  But the good teams compete, and one team (aided by luck) performs on the field in a way to earn the championship.

Of course there are other ways to determine the essence of a team.  There are several statistical ways to measure the inherent quality of teams (based on their performance, but separated from the outcomes of the games).  But these measurements can be debatable, or may show several teams being very close to each other, to the degree it would be difficult to objectively claim one team is the best.  But these measurements are useful, in that they can get at a team's inherent essence, helping us to access the quality of teams.

Here's what we must accept: "champion" does not necessarily equate to "best team."  But we don't have to see that as a bad thing.  There may be ways to try assess the essence of a team, but in sports, teams are required to enter a fair playing field and beat each other.  A one-and-done playoff at the end of a 16 game season can lead to all sorts of wild occurrences, and may not provide us an indisputable "best team."  What such a system does do, however, is give teams a chance to act.  Whatever their inherent essence, they are given existence, a chance to perform on the field and earn a championship.

Let me offer a concrete illustration of existence and essence.  At Football Outsiders, Ned Macey and Aaron Schatz made some important comments regarding James Harrison's 100 yard interception return for a touchdown.  Macey writes:

"while I know that return touchdowns are not repeatable, the interception itself was a fine bit of scheming and a terrible read by the opposing quarterback. The return, while not repeatable in a statistical sense, was still a great effort both by Harrison and his blockers."

Schatz follows up:

"We shouldn't confuse the concept that 'turnover returns are a non-repeatable play that we don't include in DVOA because they may not be a good judge of the defense's inherent quality' with the idea that 'a long turnover return is random chance.' There was a lot of athletic talent shown on that return, and excellent blocking."

I think this expresses the point nicely.  The long return, being a "non-repeatable play," may not tell us much about the "inherent quality" of the team.  But it was an accomplishment, an impressive play involving scheming and ability that had a gigantic impact on the outcome of the game.  While it may not be useful in assessing a team's essence, it was an action performed by the team, and it is the team's actions that determine whether it wins a particular game.

Sports are rather existentialist.  Because sports require performance, we can define players and teams not by any inherent quality we think they have, but by how they perform.  Hazard certainly plays a role in sports (and life), but winners are determined by their actions, not their essence.


  1. I like this post a lot. I've tried explaining at times to people why a championship in itself doesn't mean everything, but failed. I think I came across as disparaging a champion, rather than my intent to explain that many teams are championship-worthy and that the outcome is somewhat random. Your post does an excellent job of explaining things--one of the best posts I've read from you.

  2. Anonymous12:13 PM

    I guess I disagree with the premise. The "better team" in sporting events is the one that wins. All the measurables don't establish which team is the best or the better team, because as you say, that's why we have the game. Even when a team's measurable statistics are superior to it's opponent, a team is not 'better' unless it wins the game.

    Otherwise I believe we head down the slippery slope of college football where we determine the better teams (and two 'best') by measurable statistics and place those teams into a championship game. Indeed, it seems a fair way to determine who should be in the championship if the (statistically) better team does not advance.

    This is not to say I disagree with your comments about the effect of chance and the randomness of the championship. The outcome is somewhat random, the team with the best measurables doesn't always win. But to say that the Giants were not the better team is to ignore the only statistic that really counts: the scoreboard.

    (disclosure: i'm not a giants fan, unfortunately i'm a long-suffering vikes fan)

    Anyway, I'm a long-time reader and fan of your blog, please don't think I'm trying to flame or anything. Just throwing out a counterpoint. Cheers

  3. How do you explain upsets? If Team A is 10-2 and Team B is 2-10, and Team B beats Team A, can you really say that Team B is now the better team? Certainly, you could claim they were the better team on that day. But even by the measurable of winning percentage, the now 10-3 team certainly appears far superior to the 3-10 team. Perhaps Team B matched up well with Team A, or Team A played terribly, or Team B played a perfect game, whatever. It would be fair to say on that day, Team B was the better team. But in a larger assessment of the team's quality, the total record must be more important than the performance on that one day. And a championship is meant to signify a larger assessment than performance on one particular day.

    My basic claim is that "champion" does not equal "best team," but that is OK, because "champion" equals the team that earned it through its performance, and that is more important. I actually wrote this intending to give credit to a champion.

    In other words, even though the better team doesn't always win a particular game (since there are plenty of upsets), that doesn't mean I'm taking credit away from the team that wins with its performance on the field.

  4. And the other evidence against the better team always winning is season splits, which are also common.

  5. Anonymous6:23 PM

    Good points. I think I'm coming around to your point of view.

    prior anon