The Lottery In Secaucus
2:33 PM EST on December 7, 2021
On the first stage of the last day of Rally Monza, the final race of the World Rally Championship season, Sébastien Ogier, at the time leading both race and championship, but neither by insurmountable margins, hit one of the concrete barriers with the side of his car. One oddity of the WRC live broadcast is that they rely almost entirely on cameras inside the car, which show the road unrolling in front of the windshield and also the driver’s face, but not surrounding obstacles. I did not know that Ogier had hit the concrete until the broadcasters told me.
“It’s not the worst stage to get a puncture,” one of the announcers said doubtfully. The broadcast showed Ogier looking down at the dashboard, up at the road in front. Ogier in the car has a real doomed-father-seen-in-flashback look to him: stern eyes, set jaw. (Out of the car he looks young and skinny and very French, which is not at all the same.)
It turned out not to matter; the tire did not puncture. When the car pulled up to the end of the stage you could see the gouge in it. Later they would show the external camera view of the impact: a great spark flying out from the car. Ogier and his co-driver Julien Ingrassia, both of whom were to different extents retiring, went on to win their eighth and final joint championship and their last race together and look very small on the Monza platform while the Marseillaise played.
The word "luck" got thrown around a lot as Ogier went careening around the rest of the stage that morning. Rallying is a sport in which finishing a race 40 seconds ahead of a competitor is a huge margin of victory; if the tire had punctured, which it easily could have, Ogier would probably not have won the race. As he finished the stage he knew that and the commentators knew that, and yet there was nothing he could do other than monitor his tire pressure and drive the rest of the way as precisely as possible.
The luck of the draw—or perhaps the draw of the luck—in a particular sporting situation is subject to endless litigation, some of it a function of partisan interests. The Anaheim Ducks' local broadcast of the game against the Maple Leafs the other week was insistent on goalie Jack Campbell’s luck in a certain shot going off his stick; a hypothetical viewer rooting for the Maple Leafs might have seen the save instead as the result of good positioning. (I am a non-hypothetical Leafs fan; I don’t have an opinion on goalie positioning.) Here is Stephen A. Smith calling a basket by LeBron James, a man who shoots basketballs through a hoop for a living, lucky. Luck is clearly often code for something else.
There’s also the question of whose luck you’re measuring and how narrowly you define the scope of agency in the situation. When George Russell, driving for a sick Lewis Hamilton last year, found his race derailed by Mercedes screwing up a pit stop, it was bad luck for George Russell, but Formula One is designed in part to test the various teams’ skill at moving cars out of the pits and back into the race. There’s a corporate-sponsored award for it and everything. Russell’s bad pit stop was not the random intervention of malevolent fate; it was a failure on the part of the team of which he was one member—the rest of the team in this particular instance just happened to be playing the role of 2018 J.R. Smith.
One way to think about the highest levels of professional sport is as a space designed to eliminate the incursion of luck so as to allow for the precise measurement of particular skill or skills. The question of what skill a sport is designed to measure can then be answered by looking to those variables left uncontrolled. Golf, for example, does not actually measure how fast the golfer can get around the course, yet it still puts limits in place to keep pace of play relatively uniform.
The unmanageability of the physical world makes controlling variables in sports less absolute an endeavor than, say, duplicate bridge, but the attempt is made. The potential champions being dropped into the featureless zone where Morpheus takes Neo for training, the viewing audience can then definitively answer who is best. This line of thinking gives us replay review and best-of playoff series and outrage over unfair refereeing. And the satisfaction of a supposedly definite answer, even in team sports where often what’s really being answered is who is best at salary cap manipulation. In fact, it is so appealing that onlookers are driven to try to construct moral narratives out of an athlete’s injuries. This version of sports is non-coincidentally consistent with a culture so sullenly determined to place merit and skill (or the lack thereof) at the start of any chain of events that it invented evolutionary psychology.
Or you could see the true goal of professional sports as creating the opposite environment—two or more teams or competitors so equally matched that only luck, ultimately, will determine which one wins. If I had ever actually sat down to read The Golden Bough, I would cite it here to bring in some flavor of the human need for establishing who, precisely, is in favor with the shadowy forces of the universe at any given moment. Instead I can only refer you to the elaborate tracking system I maintained well into my 30s designed to correlate my well-being with the Lakers’ playoff success. In this version of events, professional sports is a supercollider attempting to isolate luck like one of those particles that can only be tracked by observing its impact. For those of us uncomfortable with the trap of false causation that modern culture seems determined to shove down our throats, this can seem, at first, like a more humane version of things, allowing sports to be a place where the role of randomness and fluke can be appreciated, where the outcome bounces endlessly on the rim like some sort of Schrödinger's Basketball.
But our hunger for causation is such as to turn luck itself into evidence of righteousness, as something that can be merited. “You have to earn that luck,” Ogier’s team principal, Jari-Matti Latvala said after the end of the season. This is an unsurprisingly common formulation given that we live in a society where people who check their text messages while driving don’t blink at the prospect of locking up the distracted driver who hits a pedestrian. The whole category of philosophy devoted to this concept has not led to any noticeable soul-searching on these issues by the powers that be. Instead, a win is virtue in and of itself, erasing the mundane work that goes into any victory and not so much overcoming questionable acts of personal morality as rendering them irrelevant.
It’s a bad thing about our society; it probably matters less in the narrower context of sport. Reducing any experience to the macro level sucks the pleasure and reality out of it, makes it unbearable to experience, and that’s as true of sports as of anything else. Instead, we experience sports on the micro level, where the levels of luck that we do allow in are endlessly idiosyncratic. Rally racing is different from other forms of racing precisely because so much of it takes place in the same environment that ordinary people drive in—the landscape is not denaturized in the interests of seeing pure speed. Baseball stadiums retain their peculiarities of neighborhood and climate. Draft lottery rules are set and reset in order to allow for the focus-tested-among-general-managers correct amount of chance, because one team's ping-pong ball came up too early too often in a TV studio in Secaucus, New Jersey.
The great Jorge Luis Borges story The Lottery In Babylon imagines a world in which the only cause is assumed to be the interpolation of purposeless chance by a shadowy lottery into human events, and while it’s kind of neat to watch that story turn what we think we know about how the world works inside out, the real joy of it is in the details—sapphires tossed into the waters of the Euphrates, arguments scrawled in the rubble of the mask factory, sparks shooting out of a tire in the dawn light in Monza.