It’s the hoariest cliché in sports, trotted out in both roman à jock novels of the highest literary pretensions (see The Natural) and the basest low-budget sports movies (see Air Bud, Aspen Extreme, The Bad News Bears, Bagger Vance, and so on). The underdog, against all odds, snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. Repeat as necessary. It makes for good melodrama, but, as last year proved, not necessarily for good sports. Let’s hit the rewind button and take a look at the stranger-than-fiction highlights of 2002.
Taken individually, each of these moments had a certain Cinderella-at-the-ball excitement. Taken together, they illustrate that we’ve entered the Age of Parity in professional sports. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.
While Americans embrace the concept of competitive balance—in theory, you and I have the same chance as George W. Bush of winning the 2004 presidential election—in this incarnation it’s less about democracy than economics.
The NBA, the NHL, and major league baseball have taken a cue from the NFL, looking at the league’s enviable balance sheet and chalking its success up to parity. Who’s the best team in football? The Eagles? The Raiders? The Bucs? The Dolphins? The Packers? The Jets? The Giants? Who knows? The only thing that’s certain is that for the second year in a row, the defending AFC and NFC champions will watch the playoffs from the comfort of their own living rooms. The NFL is moving toward the inevitable: a season in which every team finishes 8-8 and all the playoff berths are decided by a series of coin flips. (Mel Kuiper Jr.: “He’s slow and undersized, and during the Virginia Tech game a physics major burned him for two long TDs, but using a controversial heads-only strategy, free safety Jermaine Holloway won 22 of 37 coin flips during his college career, so he should go in the mid to late first round to a team looking for a designated flipper.”)
If you’re a team owner or a television programmer, parity is a good thing. Parity ensures a kind of unofficial revenue sharing: Every team gets the boost in season ticket sales and merchandising that comes with a good run. Salary caps—which are the driving force behind parity—help hold personnel costs down. And these Cinderella story lines allow TV producers to seduce casual fans with the heartwarming up-close-and-personal vignettes with Tom Brady and David Eckstein. The problem, of course, is that when parity is taken to an extreme, you turn sports into Powerball. This was the year of the lucky bounce, the freakish rally, and yes, the bad call. Taken to this extent, parity renders the regular season all but irrelevant, as long as you can get on a roll for a handful of playoff games. Were the Angels really the best team in baseball—except for 17 games in October? Were the Patriots the best team in the NFL last year, or merely the luckiest? And while we’re on the subject, note that the balance of power in the NBA for the next decade will probably be decided by ping-pong balls in this spring’s LeBron James draft lottery.
To find true underdogs—winners who overcame real barriers instead of merely getting hot at the right time—let’s look to the world of individual sports. Is there a more unlikely tale in sports than that of the Sisters Williams? Forget their almost casual dominance and remember the remarkable backstory. Two African American sisters and their crazy, scheming father and their long-suffering mother take on the white world of tennis. It sounds like a rejected pilot from the WB. But that’s what came to pass. And with surprisingly little fanfare, Serena Williams dominated the world of tennis as completely as Martina Navratilova ever did, winning three slams in three tries (she skipped Australia with an injury), beating big sister each time. Or turn to the other country club sport and remember this classic golf joke: Tiger Woods shows up at Augusta after the Masters, and the starter tells him that blacks aren’t allowed to play at the club. “There’s a public course that’s only a three-iron’s distance down the road,” the starter says helpfully. Tiger glares at him and says, “You must not realize who I am. I’m Tiger Woods.” Realizing his mistake, the starter says, “Oh, I’m so sorry. For you it’s only a seven-iron.” But Tiger not only collects green jackets at Augusta, he made them move the greens. That’s an upset. And finally, when it comes to bucking the odds, what could be more improbable than a cancer patient winning the most grueling athletic event four times in a row? Lance Armstrong, we are not worthy.
So you’ll forgive me if I’m a little jaded about the prospects for the Super Bowl, or for that matter, the upcoming baseball season. It’s not that I’m elitist, it’s just that I think that a championship should take more than a dollar and a dream.