Friday, December 9, 2011


On January 9, 2012, 7:30 PM local time (1:30 AM GMT), the Louisiana State University (LSU) football team will play the University of Alabama football team in the BCS Championship Game for the national collegiate football championship and a horrendously tacky looking but much prized Waterford crystal football.

For my readers from outside the US, that’s American style football, as played at the collegiate level, not what the rest of the world calls football and we call soccer. 

LSU has won every game so far this season, for a total of 13 wins and no losses, against a brutally tough schedule. Alabama has lost one game (to LSU) and played one game fewer, since they didn’t play for the Southeastern Conference Championship. (For those outside the US, the college and university football teams are divided among regional groups called conferences. If there are 12 or more teams in a conference, the conference subdivides into divisions and the two division leaders play each other in a championship game for a slightly less tacky trophy and a banner. And bragging rights.)

In the time between now and the game, fans of each team will be talking smack, making bets both monetary and not, and making fun of the other team and its fans, mostly its fans. The real purpose of the teams is to serve as tribal totems. The teams themselves are pretty much composed of decent young men who are hoping to hone their athletic skills and go on to play professionally. The tribes of fans are pretty much composed of idiots.

Last time LSU played in the championship game, I bought John and Neal tickets on StubHub. 

So I look forward to the morning of January 10, 2012, by which time all this will have been settled, for good or ill. (Hubby and son are alumni of LSU, so “good” is defined as an LSU win and “ill” as an Alabama win.) In the meantime, I speculate, as sports events cause me to do, whether the winner of this game is predetermined or not. For some reason, I don’t wonder that about other events in life. It’s not that I think that football games fall into some special category of events that are predetermined while everything else is in free fall. It’s just that I don’t usually worry about predetermination. I don’t see any way of deciding whether events are predetermined or not, and if there is no way to know something, I prefer to use the brain space on reflecting on those problems that do have solutions. 

A year or so ago I read a discussion on Talk Rational regarding whether the omniscience of God made free will impossible. I tried to follow the arguments, but they pretty much made my eyeballs itch. I don’t know enough philosophy to know when someone is making a reasonable but difficult to follow argument and when someone is just bullshitting. I read Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, a book that can best be described as “dense”, but can't remember most of it two years later. So don’t count on me for a nuanced discussion of the problem of free will.

I’ve had reason to think over the years that I’m glad I can’t read the future. Once while reading an account of a murder trial in our local paper and realizing that the victim was a woman whose son was one of my little clients fifteen years before; once when a childhood friend who had attended my mother’s funeral died six months later of a longstanding heart condition; once when watching the Southern Yacht Club burn down in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. My graduate school boyfriend had taken me to the Yacht Club with friends of his who were members and I felt grown up and sophisticated. It’s probably also just as well I couldn’t foresee that the young man, who was brilliant, was also going to develop a mental illness that cut short his promise and left him on disability.

But my not being able to predict these outcomes does not mean that they weren’t already set in motion years before I arrived on the scene. The domestic violence that led to the murder, one friend's heart disease and the other friend's mental illness, the corruption and mismanagement that led to the levees failing didn’t just happen one day. They all had deep roots. But were they unavoidable? That I don’t know.

Compared to these events, football games seem uncomplicated. There are only two possible outcomes: either Team A wins or Team B does. Of course, on the way to these outcomes, unpredictable things happen: a ball takes a funny bounce, a referee misses a call, a receiver drops a pass that hits him right in the hands. Later fans of the losing team might think “If only Eric Reid hadn’t made that interception on the goal line”, but what does that even mean? If that one event had changed, what else would have had to change? And would it have made a difference to the ultimate outcome, or would something else have gone wrong?

What I know is that on the morning of January 10, 2012, either Alabama or LSU will have the crystal ball - the crystal football. The other kind of crystal ball, no one has.

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