The Frontstretch: The Certainty Of Uncertainty by Mark Howell -- Thursday October 20, 2011

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The Certainty Of Uncertainty

Mark Howell · Thursday October 20, 2011

 

People like to use clichés – those timeless adages that correspond to attitudes or beliefs deemed necessary for shared understanding and stability. Clichés like “Every cloud has a silver lining” or “Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life” sound like they should be stitched onto a wall-hanging, and quite often they are (in my childhood home, there was one handed down from my grandparents that read “Work out your own salvation.” It still hangs there for all to consider). Such clichéd comments are a recognized part of sport culture, an environment where adages are often seen (or heard) and regarded as useful motivators. For every “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’” or “Winners never quit; quitters never win” hanging in a locker room, there’s a team, a coach, or an individual athlete who reads the words, commits them to memory, then deposits them in their mental “bank” to conjure up when navigating the stormy seas of competition. Win, lose, or draw, these pithy statements try to explain the inner workings of the athlete, their audience, and their overall place within a culture.

The inherent problem with such clichés is that they are precisely that: clichés. In the various writing courses I teach, we learn that clichés are little more than weak or constipated thinking; writers rely on clichés or recognized adages because they have nothing truly new or revelatory to add to their take on a given topic. As a writer, if I’m having trouble coming up with a unique perspective on my subject, it’s easy to rummage through my mental “bank” of recognized and/or pithy adages and select one that fits the topic, yet brings nothing new to the discussion. As my colleagues and I instruct our student writers – using a cliché because you believe that the audience will “know what you mean” is flawed thinking. What it really shows is that you have nothing of substance to add to the exploration of your subject. An adage or cliché is little more than a “cop out” of sorts; when a writer is at a loss for words, they opt for empty ones that look meaningful, yet communicate little (if anything) of value.

One adage that seems to be receiving its fair share of attention during the 2011 Sprint Cup “Chase for the Championship” is “The only sure thing is that there’s no sure thing.” This cliché has been bandied about almost weekly (or is that weakly?) since the tour made its first “postseason” stop at Chicagoland Speedway. When a heretofore winless Tony Stewart conserved his way across the finish line to snare a much-needed victory, the cry went up that Smoke’s win was proof positive that the “sure thing” in question – namely, “Will the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet ever win a race in 2011?” – was, in fact, a certainty. The fact that Stewart won after many fans thought he might not (and in a Chase race, no less) turned the “sure thing” adage into gospel truth. If NASCAR Nation believed that Smoke wouldn’t win a Cup race in 2011, his late-season success at Chicagoland proved them wrong; in Stewart’s case, his victory was evidence to show that “there’s no such thing as a sure thing.” The problem, however, with this kind of logic is that the “proof”, more often than not, morphs into self-fulfilling prophecy; if the only certainty is that there IS no certainty, then the falsity of the prediction becomes, oddly enough, an accurate declaration. Isn’t that as clear as mud?

Consider the misfortunes of Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team at Charlotte this past weekend. Strong runs in three of the first four races in the Chase – including a 10th at Chicagoland, a 2nd at Dover, and a win at Kansas – had “Five Time” poised to stake a claim for his sixth-consecutive Sprint Cup title. When the No. 48 Chevrolet nosed into the 2nd-turn wall on lap 317 of the Bank of America 500, it appeared as though the only “sure thing” was that there’s no “sure thing”; Johnson’s misfortune led to the assumption that 1) his chances for a sixth championship had dwindled to near impossibility (especially given the new “point-per-position” points system in effect) and 2) those who responded to Johnson’s wreck on the basis of the clichéd reasoning behind the “no sure thing” mantra could now justify their opinions – the adage, albeit little more than empty rhetoric, suddenly rang true thanks to the intervention of fate. The “sure thing” corresponded to Johnson’s strength heading into the final five events of the 2011 season; the “no sure thing” became the accident that earned the No. 48 team their 34th-place finish on Saturday night – a result that dropped Johnson from third to eighth in the championship standings.

The attraction to clichéd thinking through the use of the “sure thing” rhetorical approach is that the speaker always comes across – after the fickle finger of fate intervenes – as being “correct” or “accurate” in their prediction. This “I told you so” school of thought is appealing to speakers/writers/pundits/wonks/et al. because they are able to operate in the relative safety of afterthought. Regardless of what occurs in the situation under assessment (like a particular race team’s performance, or lack thereof), the speaker/writer can rely on the “no sure thing” defense, based on the uncertainties of life itself, to prove their “correctness” to the doubters surrounding them. Such a rhetorical approach, while based on little more than self-preservation, seems to abound as we get closer to the end of the 2011 NASCAR schedule.

As Jimmie Johnson’s crash at Charlotte reminded us, there is no such thing as a sure thing.

As a resident of the great state of Michigan (our motto: “Things can’t get much worse”), I can tell you that this kind of reasoning has been atop our collective rhetorical “hit parade” over the past week. Watching the Detroit Tigers cap their stellar season with a 15-5 shellacking by the Texas Rangers – who scored nine runs in one inning when 14 batters pummeled four pitchers – in the American League Championship Series on Saturday night was a sour tonic for our overall attitude of major league superiority. The Tigers were a “sure thing” for a World Series berth, right? Nope. Oh, well; “there’s no such thing as a sure thing,” as they say.

Move ahead to Sunday afternoon and the NFL contest between the undefeated Detroit Lions and the San Francisco 49ers. The once-hapless Lions were looking good like a “sure thing” should until a late-in-the-4th-quarter touchdown shifted the victory westward to the 49ers. One twist-of-fate led to one late-game score, and suddenly “there’s no such thing as a sure thing.” See, I told you so. In all matters of hindsight, I’m right.

The benefit of broad generalizations resulting in such reasoning is that a sports fan can simply insert the name of any team into any “sure thing” scenario taking shape in any event. Jeff Gordon looks poised to claim his fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship? Not so fast. A blown engine with three laps to go at Kansas demonstrated that there’s no such thing as a sure thing. The No. 88 team looks good to break their three-year-plus losing streak after a competitive run of early-season races? A nice try, but no. The brilliant bloom of spring races like Phoenix (10th), Las Vegas (8th), Martinsville (2nd), and Talladega (4th) faded in the scorching heat of summer as Junior watched race-after-race (and their potential for much-needed victories) slip from his grasp. It wasn’t fun to watch, but you know what they say…

And the same goes for yet-untold stories surrounding other teams in and around the Chase. Will Kyle Busch and his No. 18 Toyota win at Talladega this weekend, given their “sure thing” record of consecutive wins at the track? Success for the No. 18 team seems pretty certain, but therein lies the dilemma – until fate (and human agency – always a pesky variable) intervenes, the only real certainty is that there is no real certainty. If Busch wins on Sunday, only then will the surety of the “sure thing” be realized. If Busch fails to win at Talladega, then the logic of the overall adage proves valid. All those who held glimmers of possible doubt will be vindicated by the accuracy of their predictions (that whole “I told you so” notion mentioned above). Banking on the validity of the cliché means being “right” nearly every time.

Predictions – no matter if they’re accurate or not – make up much of the discourse in-and-around contests. Regardless of whether you’re guessing the number of jelly beans in a Mason jar at the county fair, or trying to determine the eventual winner of the Sprint Cup championship, it’s all about making predictions and seeing them through. Being accurate with predictions after-the-fact isn’t something of which to be proud, but it is a way for all of us to enter the general conversation regarding a topic of interest. As an interested fan or an observer of a sport, people should feel good about speaking up and taking a stand for what they think might, or could, or should happen. Our perspective on a “sure thing” should not be regarded as a careless interpretation, a biased declaration, or a blind guess; it’s often easy to follow-the-herd and fall victim to group consensus, but that doesn’t mean your perspective should be lumped into a generic “pile” as the end result of what might be called groupthink. Sometimes the only “sure thing” is the conclusion that arises from difficult decisions and painful consequences. Sunday afternoon’s tragedy at Las Vegas is a good example of this.

In the aftermath of Dan Wheldon’s death on lap 12 of the Las Vegas 300 IndyCar race, the airwaves and blogosphere almost immediately overflowed with references to “sure thing” reasoning regarding the “real” cause of the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion’s fatal accident. The only “sure thing”, we were told, was that too many cars were driven by too many inexperienced drivers on too fast of a race track; those were the reasons why the 33-year old husband and father of two young sons was dead and the racing world was heartbroken. Turning the final race of the IndyCar season into a spectacle right out of Ancient Rome was not the way for a professional sport suffering from assorted marketing and competition issues (some of which, like the need for substantial sponsorship to help several teams in dire financial straits, we’ve seen in NASCAR) to showcase its own “chase” to a season championship. The IndyCar title wasn’t going to be as hotly contested as those in stock car racing this year, but it was still vital to the overall tenor of the series. So was the five-million dollar “challenge” up for grabs if Dan Wheldon could go from last-to-first in an underpowered (according to him) late entry and win the race on Sunday.

This additional story line was intended to generate fan interest and help spice up what had become a two-driver race for much of the late season. Such was not to be, as the horrific accident that unfolded on lap 12 was witnessed by tens of thousands live on national television, and by tens of millions more after footage of the tragedy was posted on the internet. As the wreckage was cleared and terror turned into tears, one could sense full well what was going to come next. The death of Dan Wheldon became the absolute “proof” needed to announce the most obvious “sure thing” that came out of the Las Vegas 300: the “sure thing” about automobile racing, as we’ve been reminded time-and-time again, is that it’s a dangerous business, one where the Grim Reaper lies waiting around each turn.

Not to burst any bubbles of clichéd thinking here, but – yes, the pundits are right to declare that automobile racing IS a dangerous business, one that can snatch away a competitor’s life in milliseconds. Part of the sport’s technological magic is the close attention engineers, mechanics, and crew chiefs pay to safety developments intended to minimize the obvious risks. Certainly, automobile racing in any form and at any level can prove fatal, but – if that’s the reasoning at work – what can’t be regarded in a similar manner? Sure, I can die by slamming a retaining wall at 220 mph in an open-wheeled, open-cockpit race car, but I can also die by choking on a sandwich while writing this column, or I can die of heart failure while going to check my office mail, or I can die if a car hits me while I’m crossing the parking lot to go home. Are any of these implied “sure things” truly a sure bet?

Once again we see the inherent lack of logic behind the “no such thing as a sure thing” line of reasoning. There’s no clear-cut “sure thing” except the ability to rationalize the outcome of events after said event occurs. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that makes me look pretty intelligent after-the-fact. Before the fact, I’m merely banking on what I think (or what I hope) might be a valid prediction based on my own arrogance. I observe what’s happening in any given situation (driver in the Chase, team in the playoffs, crowded race track on Sunday), and I can make an assumption based on what I hope the outcome might be (it’s a certainty, a “sure thing”); when the outcome is not what I predicted or anticipated, I can then fall back on my true line of reasoning – the fact that there’s no such thing as a sure thing. In the end, my prediction winds up being correct, but only on the merits of relying on the most obvious conclusion. Fate plays a major role in this story, but so does my rationalization that there’s no such thing as a sure thing.

It’s foolhardy to say that automobile racing isn’t dangerous or unpredictable, but it’s often just as foolhardy to say that someone (or some team) is certain to run well and achieve success at some such point-in-time. It’s part of human nature to desire accuracy and authority, but it’s also part of human nature to make mistakes and sense the need to own up to our inherent fallibility. Those errors can make the individual involved feel humble (and they most likely should). To say that “there’s no such thing as a sure thing” is to think in clichés, but it’s often what we rely on when we suddenly feel the need for a quick-and-easy way out of an erroneous prediction. With five races yet to go in this year’s “Chase for the Championship,” my guess is that millions of us will employ such rhetoric numerous times before we reach Homestead on November 20th.

I’d say it’s a sure thing.

Contact Mark Howell

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Bill B
10/20/2011 07:31 AM
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It isn’t over until the fat lady sings.

Joe--
10/20/2011 01:53 PM
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“Clichés are little more than weak or constipated thinking.” What a great line and it covers most of what ails NASCAR today.

Bill S.
10/20/2011 03:05 PM
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As the esteemed Dr. Gregory House once said, “It wouldn’t get to be a stereotype unless there was some truth to it.” Ditto, cliches. The only really sure thing is death. Now does that make everybody happy?

People talk, people predict, people are often wrong. At least it gives us something to do while waiting for the Grim Reaper.

And for the record, I KNEW the Brewers would lose to the Cardinals – because they always do when it matters.

And since when does Kyle Busch always win at Dega? Last time I looked, Joey Logano was punting him into the infield trying to “tandem-draft.”

The Bear
10/20/2011 05:59 PM
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Well stated Mark! But then again,“it is what it is”!And I was at Vegas when this tragedy occured. I hope to never witness this type of thing again in my life! There were simply too many cars on this particular track for this event! (just my humble opinion).With that being said,all I will say is RIP Dan,you will not be forgotten!!