As a rule I don't comment on sports here, but two related stories from the world of professional football may teach us some lessons about how business considerations designed to manipulate our desires can also disappoint them. A few weeks ago a minor scandal broke among some fans and reporters when the Indianapolis Colts, then 14-0 with only two games left in the regular season, sacrificed their chance to finish undefeated by benching their best starters in the second half of a game that they lost to the New York Jets. With the best record in football, the Colts had clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs leading up to the Super Bowl. Having done that, management decided it would be better not to risk getting their best players injured before the playoffs. Many of their own fans were angry because they wanted to see the Colts go undefeated and accomplish what the New England Patriots almost did two years ago: finish the year as Super Bowl champions with a perfect record, as has been done only once before, when the season was considerably shorter. Some people also protested from a consumer point of view: why should they have paid regular (exorbitant) prices for tickets when their team wasn't going to give its normal full effort? In response to the complaints it was argued that the real goal of any professional team is to win the championship, while finishing undefeated is secondary at best and possibly detrimental to the team. The Patriots lost the Super Bowl, after all, arguably because by driving themselves toward a perfect season they had exhausted themselves. Apologists for the Colts soon had cause to point to the Patriots again. This year, New England wasn't undefeated but had clinched a spot in the playoffs and a home-field advantage for at least the first round. Nevertheless, they sent out their starters for the final game of the regular season last week, and one of their best pass receivers was injured. Today the Patriots were whipped in their playoff game. The injury alone seemed to vindicate the Colts' conduct, while the defeat seemed like definitive proof of Indianapolis's wisdom.
The problem lies with the concept of a playoff system itself. The idea of a playoff, to my knowledge, dates back to the creation of the World Series in baseball in 1903. The reason for a World Series was the existence of rival baseball leagues, the American League having started in 1901. In both the American and National leagues, the champion was simply the team with the best record at the end of the season. Beginning in 1903, the champions played against each other to determine the "World Champion." Other sports without baseball's divided history began to structure themselves into divisions or conferences in order to have playoffs, and in 1969 Major League Baseball divided the American and National Leagues in order to have an extra round of playoffs before the World Series. Since then, baseball has subdivided again to make yet another playoff round possible. This is justified by higher TV ratings for playoff games and higher rates the TV networks can charge advertisers for commercial time. As more teams in all sports become eligible for playoffs, some naturally clinch their spots earlier in the season, and that means more meaningless games late in the season. They're meaningless to the team, of course, but not to the people who've saved money to buy tickets to those late games, only to see second-class efforts from their heroes, many of whom won't even play.
Fans should learn that if they want their teams to play their best every game, every game has to matter. Ideally there should not be a safe haven like clinching a playoff spot that allows a team to slack off in front of paying customers. The easiest way to this end, though not perfect, is to eliminate playoffs and return to one league and one champion, the one who wins the most games, in each sport. That would get team sports back to something resembling the simple higher-stronger-faster ideal that justifies any athletic endeavor. The Patriots attempted to live up to this ideal two years ago when they tried their utmost to win every single game, and no matter what detractors say, their ultimate failure (due mainly to two "miracles" in one freak play for their opponents in the Super Bowl) doesn't besmirch the nobility of their effort. On the other hand, who beyond the home fans will remember the 2009 Colts, even if they win the championship, as anything distinct from other champions? But after this year even the Patriots may prove more cautious in the future. That will be a failure of collective character, but they'd only be a product of a system that's supposed to create heroes but actually discourages athletes from doing their best except when it's convenient for them.