What does it mean to be a "champion"?

The working title of this post was "Why I love football (round ball) and dislike football (pointy ball) and really should dislike them both".

The background of this is that, in general, I dislike events that depend significantly on luck or random chance. I suspect this sentiment may well be common among scientists, maybe particularly physicists, since I/we like to be able to know things, to predict things, or at least for things to be knowable or predictable (were there enough time to analyze the situation, take data, etc).

This is certainly the case when it comes to sports. Americans especially seem very fond of declaring one team to be "world champions", based upon some kind of playoff... but by its very nature a playoff increases the leverage that random chance plays, because of the smaller sample size. To my mind, the European soccer leagues handle the topic appropriately; each team plays every other team twice, once at home and once away, and the team with the best record at the end of the season is the champion. Not the #1 seed in the playoffs, because what's the point of the playoffs when you have demonstrated that you are the best team already?

March Madness is a brilliantly exciting construction, perhaps the best playoff system in terms of fan enjoyment, but does it do a good job of sorting out which is best team in college basketball? No way. The Super Bowl is an amazing showcase of the sport, but does the NFL playoff system properly sort out which is the best team that year? Sometimes, but often not. The World Series has great majesty and a nostalgic tradition that rolls back the decades, but it's a stupid way to crown a "champion" after the teams have already played 162 games - the very definition of a non-small sample size.

And now we come to the working title... not only does my rational/non-sports-fan side dislike playoff systems, but I dislike sports that themselves have outcomes for which randomness has strong significance, and the "meaningful moments" of a given game are few enough that the outcome of the game depends on a small sample size. A corollary to this is that I dislike sports for which the judgement of an official/referee can significantly influence the outcome.

Thus, I *should* like baseball (and I do), and cricket, and [what else?], and *should* dislike the NFL (it's love-hate), the NBA (referee arbitrariness), and soccer (but I love it). Really, I can't defend my love of soccer given the fact that the outcome of a given match depends on often no more than 3-5 referee decisions or other pivotal moments... but I do, even though I despise the NFL's volatility in the very same manner.

That's really all I got. I was curious to see if, as I wrote this, whether I arrived at any kind of conclusion, but it hasn't arrived yet. Anybody else able to help me out?


Published by


"O Whisky! soul o' plays and pranks! Accept a bardie's gratfu' thanks! When wanting thee, what tuneless cranks Are my poor verses! Thou comes-they rattle in their ranks, At ither's a-s!" Robert Burns - "Scotch Drink" 1785