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The Spirit of Draws

19 January 09
by Brian Phillips

Illustration by Emily Thompson

I’m sitting in an American bar, looking and being American, my American self, at a table full of men in gigantic Carolina Panthers jerseys. A faux vintage jukebox, the kind with neon bubbles running up its flanks, is playing “Look Out Cleveland,” by The Band: an honest song, though performed by men of cunning. The grease on our cheeseburger patties glimmers democratically in the unsteady light.

At this point, the conversation having progressed down inescapable channels, it emerges that I run a soccer website. (I do. I run a soccer website.) The federalist tock-tock of the pool table suddenly goes quiet as the gasp of everyone turning to look at me fills the room.

“You do? You run a soccer website?” says a man with the look of a mournful hound dog, resignedly contemplating box scores from the St. Louis Cardinals’ 1964 world championship season.

Another man, whose tassel-fringed suede jacket suggests long nights spent tramping through cicada-haunted meadows, a rifle slung over his shoulder, reciting the Bill of Rights to himself, whistles soundlessly and mutters something about protection from peace-time troop quartering.

Debate, promptly, ensues.

One of the interesting things about a tie game in sports, I almost instantly find myself explaining, is the way it exposes a particular tension in the way we conceive of the game, the contradiction between the logic of finitude and the logic of competition. By the logic of competition, the game exists to determine a winner; by the logic of finitude, it exists to fill a certain number of minutes with play. The two are seldom directly at odds because the specific number of minutes allotted by the rules of most sports usually suffices to open a competitive imbalance. Where it does not suffice, a choice must be made: either the logic of finitude is demoted, in which case the game goes to overtime, or the logic of competition is demoted, in which case the game ends in a draw.

The argument that draws are boring is the argument of a society that has gone in for the logic of competition. In practice, games that end in a draw are frequently, as pieces of entertainment, as exciting as games that produce a winner. In soccer, for instance, I say, idly sliding a Moby Dick beer coaster here and there on the table, the legitimacy of draws allows greater scope for comebacks and upsets, two events that most sports fans view as inherently dramatic. A 2-2 draw in which the last goal is scored in the last seconds of the match is more thrilling than a 4-1 blowout in which the game is essentially over at halftime. And because it’s easier to tie a better team than to beat a better team, the draw provides weak teams with a far more feasible means of “getting something out of” a game against stronger opposition. (League rankings, which give teams three points for a win, one point for a draw, and zero points for a loss, make this a tangible idiom.)

Fair enough, says the man in the weathered bomber jacket, slowly advancing with a three-cornered college pennant and a set of Ken Burns DVDs, but isn’t it facetious to suggest that the logic of competition and the logic of finitude are or ought to be equal in the theoretical construction of a sport? Consider, for instance, games that have been devised in such a way that they don’t require an artificial time limit: tennis, for instance, or racing. What these games reveal—-particularly as there are no sports of any interest which impose an artificial time limit but decline to keep score—-is that where the logic of competition can be deployed without the assistance of a time limit, the logic of finitude is unnecessary. Surely, then, it follows that finitude ought to give way, and the game be extended, if the allotted time fails to fulfill the competitive goal of the match.

Furthermore, he says, as “Indian War Whoop” by Hoyt “Floyd” Ming and His Pep-Steppers began to play on the jukebox, think of the metaphoric source from which sports itself derives. A conflict on a field is an imaginary battle, a battle is a unit of war, and war does not stop because the bell on a timer rings. War continues until one side is beaten. If one of the functions of sport is to simulate the catharsis of violence, then it can only be regarded as natural that a tie game would seem somehow incomplete, frustrated, or inadequate.

But it’s precisely because sport isn’t war, I counter, that the logic of finitude has value. If you dismiss it so completely, what happens if neither team scores after a hundred overtimes? Do you keep playing, for the sake of the form, until all the players on one side are dead? Furthermore, it seems to me that suspending the logic of finitude ultimately does serve to make sports more militaristic, and at the same time more devoted to gratification: it’s the NFL of today that has to open every game with an F-16 flyover, that increasingly promotes itself as a kind of jingoistic patriotic bloodsport, not the draw-friendly NFL of the 1950s.

So draws are civilized, he paraphrases. A kind of peacetime gentleman’s agreement. But then, why do so many soccer games end in riots? Why are there so few basketball hooligans? And if the logic of competition is inherently dangerous to civilization, why have sports at all? Why not go to the symphony?

Sometimes equality actually exists, I say, so why not define a discovery period and make it one of the possible outcomes of the search? But I sort of confusedly agree with him by this point, and the hour is getting late, so I finish my Michelob Pumpkin Spice Ale, pack my Lone Ranger mask into my messenger bag, and ask my designated driver to take me home.

Brian Phillips runs the excellent soccer blog, Run of Play.


Nice essay, Brian.

Why don’t Americans like to draw? Because its too close to a loss. Patton said it best, “the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.” If the thought of it is hateful, how much love will we have for the next worst thing?

Keeping with the sport-as-war metaphor, it should be said that Americans’ historic experience with war has almost exclusively been one filled with victories. Suffering the major consequences of war (whether your participation was offensive or defensive) would definitely change your view of what a draw represents.

There are other reasons that Americans don’t like draws in sports, but Patton’s statement illuminates one of the most fundamental ones.

timlandrum    Jan 19, 12:27 PM    #

Sports are way better than war, especially on HDTV.

— RolandC    Jan 19, 12:44 PM    #