Friday, June 25, 2010

Against Parity

A very compelling myth has seized soccer journalists, and it’s one of the few I feel qualified to puncture: this World Cup has been one dominated by parity. It’s not true, but it sounds good—feels good. Journalists generally embrace parity without reference to the means of parity: i.e. why exactly is there a more egalitarian relationship between the former upper class of sport and the former lower class. Are they leveling up or leveling down?

But parity is a factual claim just as much as a qualitative claim. If the elites and the regular old teams really were as close as everyone thought, then you’d expect all sorts of crazy results, with the top teams bowing out early. The World Cup features seven teams seeded on the basis of quality (the eighth seeded team, South Africa, got its seed by being a host): of those seven teams, six advanced. The one that didn’t—Italy—was something of a mess before it opened the tournament, with many people speculating that it just wasn’t their year this year. While they got drawn into a soft group, sometimes poor quality is enough to doom you. The other team that has caused most people to cry “parity!” is the fall of the French, but again, this is not particularly surprising: they only qualified because the referees missed a red card against Ireland, and the press was full of tales about the dysfunction of the French team and its manager before the World Cup. Given that they got drawn into a quality group, it’s not exactly a surprise that they failed to advance.

At any rate, the pundits generally overestimate the positive effects of parity. “Leveling up” parity has, in my experience, rarely happened in sports. Most parity is of the “leveling down” parity. Take the most famously egalitarian pro sports league, the NFL. Most NFL teams these days are bland, slightly manufactured teams with little to no personality whatsoever—the equivalent of room temperature tapioca. Some NFL teams avoid this curse—I’d say the Saints and Colts (as well as the dominant perfect Pats of a few years back) had plenty of personality, whether for good or for ill. That’s just entertaining. But who, besides people hailing from Cincinatti, found the Bengals last year an especially memorable or interesting team? Very few, I’d wager.

Soccer has the same phenomenon, particularly in the group stages. Draws are sort of a necessary evil for non-knockout games in soccer tournament, and the consequence of this is to encourage what soccer journalists term “negative football,” i.e. the congealing of the game to play for a draw or a swift counterattack. What these journalists fail to realize is that parity and “negative football” are, if not family, certainly close kin. They want the Brazils and Spains of the world to win; they’re just afraid to admit it.

Fortunately, my favorite sport and my favorite sports league—the NBA—shows little inclination to favor such a system. Unlike the NCAA, it doesn’t rely on a superficially exciting but ultimately deadening system (i.e. “March Madness”); its playoff system is well-designed to ensure that quality wins out. And quality in basketball is typically unevenly distributed: there’s a greater functional difference between the best basketball player in the world and his counterparts in, say, baseball or football. So quality is important. And, in general, quality means personality in sports. You might be an egalitarian in politics; but in sports, there is only one fair stance to take: elitism.

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