I have been a fan of the hockey comedian/commentator Down Goes Brown for some time. I don’t remember when I became aware of him, but it was before he started writing for Grantland. I have appreciated both his comedic takes on what is a very silly league and also his perspective, which often seems to bridge two different eras – he has fondness for a different time but he also (mostly) embraces new information.
However, his latest take, that the Vegas Golden Knights’ success says to all of us that Nothing Matters is an all time terrible take. Since he keeps writing about it and talking about it on his podcast – sometimes attributing it to other people when it’s clearly his take – has driven me to the point of writing a blog post about it. Sigh.
DGB alleges that because the Vegas Golden Knights’ Stanley Cup run was accidental, it causes us to realize that basically everything in the NHL is an accident. This complaint is part of a greater complaint that parity in the NHL is somehow bad. To that I say to him (and anyone else who hates parity): Spend some time watching the NBA – Cavs/Warriors 4 years in a row, I’m excited! Or, worse, watch some F1. Who is going to win today out of the 20 cars? Hamilton? Vettel? Oooh, maybe one other drive might win. Exciting!
There is a huge problem is taking moral and philosophical lessons from sports. All the Knights’ success reveals is a fundamental truth that we do not like to acknowledge.
Human History is Contingency
Human beings, including most historians, impose narratives on what is actually mostly a series of accidents. We all fall for what is known as the Historian’s Fallacy, which is the idea that things had to happen this way and could have never happened any other way. The truth of the matter is that we cannot predict history; things didn’t have to happen this way or some other way. Humans interact with each other and bump into each other and the results are – shock! horror! – unpredictable. This unpredictability of life is merely reality. It is certainly not some kind of deep dark secret, nor is it some horrible lesson that should cause all of us to kill ourselves.
The lesson of contingency is not that nothing matters, it’s that the possibilities are endless. When human beings impose narrative explanations on the world, they are simplifying a very complex world. It’s just a heuristic. But it’s generally a bad one and it’s led to tons of bad history, to conspiracy theories – such as the one that DGB hates, that the NHL rigged the Knights’ expansion draft – and to stupid sports takes. Human life is mostly accidental. This is just as true in a game as it is in .
Intentions are Overrated
Another side of the coin of our misunderstanding of contingency is the human belief that we will our own reality, or at least freely make our own choices, and history is what happens when Actors make Choices in History. This is bullshit. Human intentions exist and play a role in their choices, but they usually play a very small role, as any social psychology experiment shows. Most of us, most of the time are not rationally intending to do most of what we do. Rather, we’re reacting to stimuli around us. Even when we intend to do something, we’re usually pretty bad at accomplishing what we intend. (History is full of exceptions, of course, but the exceptions are still few and far between when you look at the entire history of human beings.)
We need to think about human intentions, particularly when it comes to crimes, but they are far from the determining factor in most human behaviour. In the prism of sports, it’s much easier to see intentions and so therefore it is more likely we fall prey to the fallacy of ascribing intentions to everything that happens involving people.
Odds are, Weird Things Happen
If we could run the same expansion draft experiment over and over and over again, it’s extraordinarily unlikely that the Knights’ do this again in the same conditions. Just because it happened once, does not mean it would happen most of the time or even ever again in the next X number expansion drafts. It’s in our nature to misunderstand probability. If something happens once or once in a few tries, we assume it must happen frequently when this is likely not true.
Statistical anomalies happen. Even really improbable ones. When they don’t happen for years or decades, we decide their improbable or impossible. But when they happen in our experience, we decide that they are way more likely than they really are, and we think that this has Meaning.
Nihilism is a Cop Out
Nihilism, the belief that nothing matters, is a joke philosophy. Not only is it ridiculous to claim one is a nihilist – as if you are really serious about nihilism, you shouldn’t care about anything, including nihilism – but it is a terrible lesson to take from reality. The universe is fundamentally meaningless but that doesn’t mean that human life or, specifically, your life is meaningless. We humans create our own meaning and our behaviour and beliefs matter to us, even if the universe is meaningless.
A series of fluke events that occur in a sports league is not proof that human decisions don’t matter, it’s just a reminder that they are less impactful than we wan to believe. Life is a learning process and we can learn from freak events or we can pretend that they are some kind of comment on the pointlessness of it all. The latter is a cop out, it’s lazy, and it’s wrong. There are actual lessons somewhere in the Vegas Knights’ success story if we’re willing to look for them. But deciding that, because the owner and GM didn’t intend to be this good this is somehow an indictment of the entire NHL, is not the lesson. Luck is a huge part of sports. So teams need to try to maximize their luck.
Unpredictability is why we care about sports in the first place. It’s why we pay so much attention to something that really doesn’t matter. Wishing away too much unpredictability in sport strikes me as essentially anti-sport.
The take that the Knights’ success is not fun and is bad for the league is bad for a number of reasons:
- Such a take gets probability backwards. An extremely unlikely sequence of events isn’t more likely to happen now that it has happened. It’s just as likely as before, i.e. not at all likely. (If I win the lottery on Friday, I don’t have better odds for next Friday’s lottery.)
- It takes the misinterpretation of probability and turns it into some kind of moral lesson for us all to learn – things are more random than we thought, so we can’t care as much or enjoy things as much. Not only is that not the moral – literally, all of life is like this, and most of us haven’t stopped caring about the rest of our lives because of freak sports events – but it sure feels to me like this is projecting unhappiness about something one dislikes onto everyone else. I’m sure some people are unhappy about the Knights’ success, but that doesn’t mean it’s not exciting or surprising or engaging for everyone else.
- Whatever lessons that could be learned from the Knights’ success are obscured by the whole “nothing matters” thing. There are lots of lessons to be learned. For example: “William Karlsson was underrated by his former team. Why?” That’s an interesting question that isn’t even asked if you decide that everything is completely random.
- Finally, the idea that this is bad for the league is a testable hypothesis, only we don’t have enough information until the Finals. Even then, we can’t know for sure, but we can certainly know whether or not the Knights making the Finals is economically impactful, based upon things like ratings and jersey sales and such. Deciding it is bad for the league before we know that is certainly something we’re all prone to do, but it is not a good take prior to the Finals. (Also, it’s not like the league had any control over this.)
We need fewer takes that are based completely in gut instinct and more takes that actually connect to reality.