There are few more intriguing themes in journalism and literature than that of the brilliant loser – the superb racer who for a variety of reasons fails to meet expectations, be it runners Zola Budd and Mary Decker, speed skater Dan Jansen or Thoroughbreds Spectacular Bid, California Chrome and, most recently, Nyquist; the juggernaut so dominant in the regular season and so vulnerable in the playoffs (the Stephen Curry-led Golden State Warriors battling the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA playoffs); and, most heartbreaking of all, the “perfect” performer who finds that perfection elusive when needed most (Serena Williams against Roberta Vinci in the semifinals of the US Open last year; Novak Djokovic against Stan Wawrinka in the finals of the French Open last year; and, my favorite, the New England Patriots against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII).
Equally intriguing is the upstart who upsets the titan – the Vincis, the Wawrinkas, the Giants. How does it happen? Is it all about Herculean achievement, the raising of your game? Or does it rely on someone else over- or under-performing, a subject Malcolm Gladwell (“Outliers”) has written about? Are there people who are all parade and no battle – terrific day-to-day but lackluster when the pressure is on, as in a short series or big game, a criticism that has been leveled against New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez? And, conversely, are there others who simply have the ability to step it up in a big moment (Rodriguez’s former teammate Derek Jeter)?
Or is there something else at work?
A fascinating new PBS series, “Genius by Stephen Hawking,” suggests that there is. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I don’t understand or retain all of the series, but Hawking’s point is that you don’t have to be a genius to think like one. He breaks down a big theory, or theories, in each episode by having three people explore them through a series of games, so that the viewer can really visualize and experience what is essentially a group of abstractions. My favorite episode thus far – and the one that speaks to my point – was Episode 3, which dealt with Determinism and parallel universes. Determinism holds what I have long suspected – and explore in my novel series “The Games Men Play”: That we are strands fulfilling set patterns in the universe. (I arrived at this by no mathematical formula but mere observation: How else to explain why good people suffer and bad people dodge the bullet, why the industrious and accomplished often go unrewarded while the talentless slacker succeeds? It makes no sense unless it is part of some grand design.
Thus what we perceive to be a good or bad performance, or good or bad luck – something the swimmer Daniel Reiner-Kahn considers in my debut novel “Water Music” and quarterback Quinn Novak mulls in my forthcoming novel “The Penalty for Holding” – is really just the universe fulfilling itself.
It’s an idea that is underscored in Episode 3’s exploration of the illusion of free will (a subject that neuroscientist Sam Harris discusses enticingly in his short, accessible book “Free Will”). Basically, neuroscientists have demonstrated in experiments and studies that so-called conscious choice is made in the unconscious areas of the brain seconds before you realize what you’re doing.
And what you’re doing sets in motion all other possible outcomes featuring other versions of yourself in the universe (Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds Theory). So that somewhere out there millions of light-years away, Serena Williams actually beat Roberta Vinci in the semifinals of the US Open last year or didn’t play her at all.
You can see how people, particularly Americans, would balk at all of this. We are uniquely created by God and endowed with a free will to make our own destinies, we say. And if we fail to achieve or act properly, it’s on us.
You can also see what a clever defense attorney could make of Determinism: “Your Honor, my client couldn’t help killing all those people. The universe made him do it.”
And you could see why Many Worlds might not be a hit, either. As much as I like to think there might be a world in which my beloved Aunt Mary is still alive and living happily with me, I would also have to accept the possibility of a world in which the Allies did not defeat the Nazis.
But neither Harris in his book – nor, I would assume, Hawking in his series – is advocating for a lack of personal responsibility. We are, Harris writes, responsible for our habits. And here’s where it gets tricky. Episode 3 also explores Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which says that everything may not be predetermined, at least not on the subatomic level.
What does all of this mean for sports and everyday life? What scientists like Hawking, Harris, Everett and Heisenberg – indeed, all scientists – do is provide us with a bigger perspective, in hindsight. But here’s the irony: It matters not a whit when you’re running the race or playing the match, because you can’t know then how something might be predetermined.
We must all still play the game.