Widgets Magazine

Shi: On chance and luck in sports

One of the paradoxical things about sports is that although the outcome so depends on things outside your control — chance, the weather, whether the opponent has gotten food poisoning — athletes almost never ascribe their victories to dumb luck. Sometimes they credit their success to hard work or to divine intervention or to clutch play — all of which do play their parts — but never luck. As Stanford football gets underway with more expected of this year’s squad than perhaps any other Cardinal squad in history, perhaps it might be a good idea to pay Lady Luck the respect she is due.

Much has been made of the fact that Stanford was a point away from being in the national championship conversation (if it hadn’t gone to overtime against Notre Dame) and six points away from walking into the national championship game as the No. 1 team in the country. For all the anger that has been hurled at the impending College Football Playoff, we had a four-team playoff last year: Stanford-Notre Dame on one end and the SEC Championship Game on the other. It’s useless to second-guess what has already occurred, and dreaming of a more favorable refereeing crew in South Bend isn’t going to change how things turned out, but isn’t it pretty to think so? A lot of things out of Stanford’s control hurt Stanford in 2012. That much is undeniable.

But if we will grant ourselves the luxury of dreams, it should be equally undeniable for us that Stanford was 11 points away from going 6-6 in the regular season (Oregon, Arizona, Oregon State and San Jose State). The Cardinal only beat four teams by more than a touchdown. Ten games came down to the wire and Stanford won an astounding eight of them. What happens if Stanford is taken out by SJSU in the first week? Does everything come crashing down? Does the media immediately write off Stanford football as a mirage? By the time Stanford actually lost in our real timeline, it had accumulated a solid enough resume that it never fell out of the Top 25 all year. But does Stanford get that luxury if it doesn’t beat the Spartans?

So much of what we consider mistakes we might as well consider to be chance. Oregon didn’t expect that Stanford would fumble the ball in overtime, and Stanford couldn’t possibly have expected that Oregon’s kicker would miss. Armed with our 20/20 hindsight, we point out things that are now crystal clear: Player X was winded after that big hit, or Player Y simply had the wrong cleats on. But when you’re on the field in the heat of battle, you don’t know that; you can’t know that. It might not be chance when reviewing film a day later, but for all intents and purposes it might as well be. Stanford’s mistakes are its opponents’ lucky breaks. The converse applies as well.

So what then? There are too many ‘what ifs’ in football to summarize them all here, but one thing is for sure: The best team does not always win. The best team does not always come away with a conference championship. In any case, teams are fluid, and the team that began the year one way rarely, if ever, comes out in the same way. Injuries are a constant worry. New players emerge and new approaches to the game are tested. Nothing is static in college football. Neither can we properly tell where change ends and where luck begins.

So much of Stanford’s strategy seems geared at eliminating the possibility of errant chance. Stanford tries to run the ball to drain away time. Stanford plays ball-control football to avoid turnovers. Stanford emphasizes not giving up the deep strike on defense. But the paradox of this style of play is that by draining the clock, Stanford has fewer opportunities to impose its talent advantage on the opposition — fewer opportunities to march down the field and fewer opportunities to deny its opponents the same. It is certainly shaping up to be another cardiac season on the Farm.

Is all of this to say that Stanford didn’t deserve to win 10 games last season? By no means. Every drop of sweat and every extra rep and every bit of self-denial that went into that season and that team was part of the price of victory. But I would be remiss to say that chance was not a factor. If we are going to argue that a sport is life in its most distilled form, then we have no choice but to admit that a sport, like life, is an eternal clash between fortune and destiny. Perhaps this year Stanford will have both.

After Winston Shi acknowledged Lady Luck in this column, she returned the favor by granting him a victory in the lottery. Tell Winston what he should do with his newfound fortune at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Winston Shi

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.