When Tie-Breakers Break Down

The best tennis match I ever played consisted of only one marathon set. That set ended inconclusively with each of us having won fifteen games—a 15-15 tie—when we had to relinquish the court. My opponent and I had scrambled around swatting shots at each other for nearly two hours to produce those thirty games.


Along the way, each of us was repeatedly just one point from victory. Time and again, one of us held a “set point” where, by winning just the very next point, he’d have won the set. But time and again, either the player who was one point behind came through with a winner to bring the score back to even, or the player a point ahead misplayed his shot and blew the chance to win the set. When our court time finally expired and we had to declare a draw, we were both totally drained but also totally satisfied with not “winning”. The intensity of the competition itself had been our mutual victory.


But most competitions don’t end like that. There are ways to “break a tie”. And this past weekend we who watch sports on TV had a chance to see both the most wonderful and the most grotesque ways to bring a tied-up contest to a conclusion. One of them honored the competitors’ nearly identical skills but revealed the victor’s ultimate superiority. The other officially made a mockery of fair play and sportsmanship. (Full disclosure: the unfair tiebreaking rule handed victory to the team I was rooting for, so this is not sour grapes!)


The most wonderful example: in the Australian Open tennis tournament, superstar Rafael Nadal and well-ranked Adrian Mannarino reached six games all in the first set, which triggered a “tiebreaker”. The perfectly balanced process in tennis is simple: one player serves once, then the other player serves twice, and they alternate serving twice thereafter until one player is ahead by two points and thereby wins the set. Because a server is much more likely to win any point than the opponent, allowing the initial server only one serve and then alternating pairs of serves ensures that no player gets closer to that two-point set-winning advantage unfairly.


A typical tennis tiebreaker takes five or ten minutes to complete. But Nadal and Mannarino battled back and forth within one point of each other for an unheard-of twenty-eight minutes! At any instant, it could have been over. Continually, one or the other held a “set point” but could not win the next point to win the set. Finally, forty seconds into the twenty-ninth minute, Nadal prevailed when Mannarino sprayed a shot wide while already one point behind. Their marathon of equally great play and astonishing composure under such tense circumstances dramatically displayed the elegant fairness of tennis’ tiebreaker system.


By head-scratching contrast, the National Football League has a tiebreaker rule that throws two teams’ prior effort under the bus and arbitrarily hands one team a massive advantage for winning the contest in overtime. The NFL extends the length of the game for an extra period after the end of the original sixty-minute game. Nothing wrong with that. The referee flips a coin to determine which of these two equally matched teams may possess the ball on offense first in the overtime period, same as when they started the original game. Nothing wrong with that, either.


But that’s when it all goes completely haywire in the NFL. Because, if the flip-winning team then proceeds to score a touchdown during that first possession, the game is declared over. Over, finished, concluded. Imagine: the other team is never given a chance to touch the football in an attempt to fight back and equal the flip-winners' touchdown. Sorry. Tough luck. You lost the flip, so (in a majority of instances) you are doomed to lose the game, too.


What do we mean by “in a majority of instances”? In 365 overtime games in the regular season since they started this rule, the flip-losers offense never even touched the ball in nearly 100 of them. But the outcome of the flip is even worse during all-important playoff games. Imagine this: the team that wins the coin flip has won 10 out of 11 games! And seven of those wins came on the first drive and never gave the other team a chance to demonstrate that they could score a touchdown on their first drive, too. In the game between the Chiefs and the Bills, there can be little doubt that a retaliatory touchdown is exactly what would have happened. But we’ll never know.


When I behold something that seems ridiculous to me—an incomprehensible commercial, or a doomed business concept, or a manifestly unfair law—I sometimes amuse myself trying to image the group of people gathered around a table in a conference room coming up with it. In this current instance, the worthies of the NFL first met in 1974 to come up with a tie-breaking rule that the flip-winner could preemptively win the game with just a field goal—a far easier achievement on a first possession than a touchdown.


After a few decades of watching this utterly bonkers rule rob deserving teams of a fair shot at winning in overtime, they realized something had to be wrong with it. After all, someone had the temerity to point out, the flip-winners were winning almost twice as often as the flip-losers. More than 25% of teams that lost the coin toss never touched the ball. Since 1994, the team that won the overtime coin toss won the game 34.4 percent of the time on the first possession and have won about 60% of the time total. So they changed it. They sat around that same table and said, okay, so let’s force the flip-winner to score a touchdown to close out the game rather than just a field goal—but (no joke) let’s still deprive the flip-loser of any chance to retaliate and even up the contest.


Meanwhile, college football uses an ultra-simple overtime rule that could have been dreamed up by a kindergartner. It ensures a totally equal opportunity for each team’s offense to outperform their opponent. Is some version of this beyond the grasp of the NFL, to prevent the genuinely unfair outcome inflicted on the Buffalo Bills this past weekend? Apparently so. Seems like their ongoing tweaks must feel to them like striking a mighty blow for justice, by making a blatantly unfair rule just a teensy bit less unfair.


But as for me, I keep musing about that old question, “Is it really progress if a cannibal masters the knife and fork?”

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