by Keith Aksel
Last week we introduced a series arguing that luck has at least as much to do with determining sports outcomes as controllable factors. In part two of the series, we discuss what luck actually looks like in sports. Luck rears its head all across the sports world in both big and small ways. As I dig deeper into what makes up luck in the coming articles, it is important to first discuss what isn’t luck. Factors that are not luck-based are any factors under a player or team’s control. Effort, preparation, game plans, strategy, coaching styles, and the motivational techniques used by a coach or athlete all qualify as controllable factors.
In academic circles, luck has been analyzed (like academics like to do) to seemingly no end. Some researchers have categorized luck in basic ways like identifying “good” vs. “bad” luck, while others have made more hair-splitting distinctions between “fortune” and “luck”. For our purposes, I define “luck” in sports as anything that the individual athlete or coach cannot fully control. Today’s article will profile two of the usual suspects in sports luck: injuries and overly-influential officiating. In both examples, beneficiaries of contests in which these factors occur cannot predict, prepare for, or encourage these things to happen on their own power. But, the long term effects of that luck are deterministic.
Injuries happen all the time in sports, and, despite arguments to the contrary, stretching and limbering up can’t prevent them. Injuries occur when teams play very aggressively, and when they don’t. Injuries happen if opponents seek to injure their opponent, and when they do it by accident. Sometimes, an injury happens without an athlete even getting touched by an opponent (being caught by the turf monster in the Astroturf era is one example). Despite their ubiquity, injuries remain nothing more than an unlucky break that athletes and teams have to navigate around.
Let’s use the 2010 BCS National Championship Game between Texas and Alabama as an example. The Longhorns lost star quarterback Colt McCoy to injury in the first sequence of the game, and proceeded to fall to Alabama. Certainly there was a high level of experience and athleticism on the field that day, and each team was full of athletes that went above and beyond in their effort and preparation. In other words, the factors that were controllable would have suggested a closely played game. Instead, Alabama dominated off of four interceptions by McCoy’s backup, Garrett Gilbert.
A team losing their best player at the beginning of a contest is nothing if not a purely unlucky break. McCoy was likely the most talented offensive player on the Texas roster, and was also the moral leader of the Longhorns all season. I assume Alabama did not plan to knock McCoy out of the game, but had to gameplan around him because he posed the greatest threats to the Alabama defense. Removing McCoy from the game was an unplanned but decisive advantage for Alabama, one they were lucky to have received.
But, who outside of the Texas fan base would say that Alabama got “lucky” in their win? As the historical record holds, the 2009 national champion is Alabama, without asterisks or footnotes to indicate that the win was likely not to have happened as it did without McCoy’s injury. Some say that the 2009 Alabama squad was Saban’s finest, a distinction that would be moot had Texas won that championship game. Postgame reports made clear mention of the McCoy injury, but there is a difference in noting the injury and claiming the outcome was a lucky one for the victor. Luck mattered even more than reports were willing to show.
Complaining about officiating has always been a part of watching sports, but sometimes there is officiating that takes a step over the line of fair practice. The NFL’s 1998 Thanksgiving game between the Steelers and the Lions stands as one such example. The Steelers and the Lions had battled to a 16-16 tie, and were headed to overtime. Back in the era of the NFL’s sudden-death OT rules, the coin flip was usually the most pivotal point of the OT process. Winning possession first meant that you could end the game on a long field goal, without your opponent having a shot to match you. As the visitor, Pittsburgh’s Jerome Bettis called “tails” as the coin was in the air, and it landed tails up. Head official Phil Luckett was certain Bettis called “heads”, and thereby awarded the Lions the choice to kick or receive. The Lions chose to receive, and won the game after quickly moving into field goal range on that first possession.
The reason that this officiating blunder was so lucky for the Lions was that it gave them a big statistical advantage (60% of coin flip winners wound up winning the game in that old OT format). Bettis and the Steelers knew that losing that coin flip meant likely losing the game, so they argued hotly for a reversal to no avail. This example of decisive officiating was completely out of the control of both teams and coaching staffs. There was no amount of work or preparation that could have ensured that the officiating crew would get the coin flip right. Still, this officiating move ended up being very important for determining the outcome of the game. As some Steelers fans would argue, that moment may have doomed the Steelers’ 1998 season altogether.
Now, there is always another side to these stories of luck. The moments described above are luck-based, but there were other controllable things that teams could have done to put themselves in better position to overcome bad luck. Texas could have played a two-QB system all season to ensure that someone was always game-ready in case one QB went down. The Steelers could have played a more lights out defensive series to get the ball back from the Lions after losing the coin flip. The counterfactuals are endless, but there are reasons historians are not the biggest fans of going down counterfactual rabbit holes. That sort of thinking is a fun amusement, but avoids the point; from what we know happened, lucky breaks inordinately affected important outcomes in ways that no amount of reasonable effort or preparation could prevent.
The example of injuries and officiating are well known and common ways luck becomes a part of determining sports outcomes. But, there is a much bigger set of examples that are not usually looked at as luck by observers. In the next article, I will present the other ways luck shows up in sports, with hopefully thought-provoking results. See you next week!
 Ed Smith, Luck: A Fresh Look at Fortune (A&C Black, 2013).
 It has been said that Bettis hesitated when he called “tails”, which contributed to Luckett’s response- but the video from the game sure sounds like he said “tails.”
 The coin flip winners won 60% of the OT games from 1994 on. See Steven Brams and Zeve Sanderson, Overtime Rules in Football: Bidding Is Fairer Than Coin Tossing, New York University Department of Politics (unpublished paper)