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For Entertainment Purposes Only
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
Here is a sure-fire, winning strategy for betting the Super Bowl in 2010: identify the team that has the most heartwarming storyline, and then, coolly, calmly, bet the house on the other team. As soon as you hear a sports announcer say that an upcoming game is "more than just a game" for a certain team and its fans, it's time to empty the bank account and put the kids' college money on the other side. The heartwarming team has no shot.
This applies to all big sporting events. In the 2009 NCAA basketball championship game, North Carolina was a solid seven point favorite over Michigan State, but Michigan State was the heartwarming story — the game was played in nearby Detroit, a city hammered by the financial crisis, and the success of the Spartans was being portrayed as some kind of tonic for the depressed local community. Virtually every pre-game story contained an obligatory shot of a "Foreclosure" sign in downtown Detroit and an interview with some just-fired worker who was rooting for the Spartans. Winning the championship would be a big boost for local morale, everyone was saying. The underdog persevering and all that. The city believing it could rebound in a similar fashion. In press conferences before the game, Coach Tom Izzo acknowledged that his team was carrying the hopes of the city (and state) on their shoulders.
As soon as I heard the first of those "more than a game for Michigan State" stories, I called my bookie and placed a huge bet on North Carolina. I also made a number of smaller bets with acquaintances who had become enraptured by the storyline of the "peoples choice" Spartans. In making these bets, I decided that while Michigan State was, indeed, gritty, determined, and carrying the dreams of the entire state, it seemed more relevant to me that Carolina was, well, better. Way better. Taller, faster, stronger. Better athletes. They weren't necessarily gritty and they didn't seem too determined but they could sure shoot and rebound and play defense and run up and down the court. And even though they weren't carrying the dreams of an entire state on their shoulders, they still looked like a smooth NBA team who was prepared to drill a bunch of scrubs. Carolina had already hammered State by thirty points in the regular season, and there was little reason to believe the next outcome would be any different. And it wasn't. In the championship game, Carolina raced out to a big lead, was never threatened, and blew out Michigan State by seventeen points. The great, storybook ending never materialized. As it turned out, the NCAA Final was just a game, after all. A bad game.
I was rooting hard for Carolina in 2009, and not just because I had a lot of money riding on the outcome. I wanted Carolina to win so that people would stop reading deep meanings and truths into meaningless athletic contests. Sports have become too easy a metaphor for people today, as if all of the complexities of modern life can be reflected in the results of some sporting event. Fans have elevated sports into a place where it doesn't belong, into some just and moral realm that exudes goodness and propriety. But the fact is, sports have always been (and always will be) resolutely amoral — no matter how fervently fans believe a team "deserves" to win a certain game, the results rarely reinforce any notion of a fair universe. A winning team doesn't win because it's "right" or because the players are "good guys" or because there's a compelling story line; they win because they're better, or sometimes, because they're lucky. Right or wrong has nothing to do with it. In my lifetime, I've seen a number of championship teams that were filled with reprobates, thugs, and all around bad guys — the Detroit Pistons of the early 90's, the Miami U. football teams of the late 80's, and most notoriously, the Chicago Bears of '85 (who seemed like a walking advertisement for the "Seven Deadly Sins"). In an ordered sports universe that rewards decency and hard work and fairness, none of these teams would ever have succeeded.
And frankly, I have to wonder, does winning a championship really affect a city's psyche that much? Not to be cruel here, but living in Detroit in 2009 would still suck no matter if Michigan State won or lost the NCAA Final. I remember when my beloved Packers won the Super Bowl in 1997 — I was going through a rough stretch at the time, and I was hoping that Green Bay's title run would distract me from my troubles. When the Packers beat the Patriots that Sunday, 35-21, I admit it, I forgot everything that was bothering me. I did. Know how long it lasted? Half a day. Then, bam, it was Monday, and all my problems were back again. The following year I was in a better frame of mind when the Packers played in the '98 Super Bowl, this time losing to John Elway and the Broncos. When the game ended, I was deflated, I was bummed out, I was sad. Know how long it lasted? Half a day. Then the morning came, and I was happy again. Maybe I'm not much of a fan, maybe the die-hards think I'm pretty weak, but I've always tried to keep sports as a diversion and the day-to-day stuff — you know, life — as a priority.
As you may have heard, the Colts are playing the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl 44, and, as you may also have heard, New Orleans suffered a monumental catastrophe when Hurricane Katrina pummeled the city in 2005. Not surprisingly, much of the pre-game focus for this year's Super Bowl has been on the Phoenix-like rise of the Saints and the attendant rise in the spirits of the New Orleans' people. The "more than a game" stories have been rampant. For a heartless sports bettor like myself, of course, this is too good an opportunity to pass up. The Colts are favored by six points, but I'd take Indianapolis even if the line doubled — the rule of the "heartwarming" story must be obeyed. Sorry, but just because New Orleans is suffering doesn't mean Peyton Manning is suddenly going to turn into JeMarcus Russell and throw four interceptions. It is a cruel world, after all. Colts by 50.