Humans have a habit of comforting themselves with narratives driven by the past as a means to gain “control” over the future. It leads us to think we know everything — until we don’t, a point that can be profoundly dangerous in real life. (I’ve referenced this book here before, but I’ll do it again now).
In the world of sports, that danger is mitigated to relatively harmless consequences such as: looking foolish when our assumptions are flipped over 180 degrees. We can, say, look at Johnny Manziel’s incredible playmaking ability in college, ignore all his red flags because others have overcome immaturity and proclaim the Vikings should draft him.
(For example. Please don’t look back through my blog archive or Twitter timeline from April 2014).
One of the hardest things to say in life is “I don’t know” — and that difficulty only increases in a sports world full of hot takes and smarter-than-your analysis.
But it is the only thing we know about sports: that we don’t know.
Two months ago, the narrative was that the Twins were an up-and-coming team full of optimism after an 83-79 season a year ago. Even the most pessimistic predictor could not have conceived of the misery that would proceed through the first quarter-plus of the season.
And similarly, now that this awful trajectory has been established, few can imagine a reversal of course. A recent Startribune.com poll asked, “How many games under .500 will the Twins finish?” A staggering 42 percent of the roughly 1,800 respondents answered “45 games or more,” while another 34 percent said “31 to 45.”
The first category, in a 162-game schedule, would give the Twins no better than a 58-104 record. The second would top them out at 65-97. So more than three-fourths of voters say the Twins will lose at least 97. Only six percent had them better than 15 games under .500. That’s a high degree of certainty based on the very recent past.
A few days ago, the narrative was that Cleveland was unstoppable and could very well sweep its way through the Eastern Conference after starting out 10-0 in the playoffs. Some discussion had already shifted to a finals matchup with either the Thunder or Warriors.
Then the Raptors won twice on their home floor — hardly an unfathomable thing when you stop to think about it — and it seemed shocking because we thought we knew better.
The past can help us predict some things and establish probabilities (like, for instance, that Adrian Peterson has a better chance of running for 1,000 yards next year than Matt Asiata). But if we convince ourselves the Vikings are going to take another step forward simply because they won 11 games last year, that’s where the trouble starts.
Athletic gifts tell some of the story of sports outcomes. It’s hard, though, to believe that so much of what happens on a playing surface is determined by randomness and luck — but it’s true. And when what we think will happen actually does happen, it doesn’t necessarily mean we were smart. It quite possibly just means we guessed correctly and got lucky.
Will Cleveland beat Toronto? Are the Twins destined for 100 losses? Are the Vikings going to the Super Bowl?
I don’t know. And neither do you.