Last weekend, I went to the Texas-Oklahoma football game in the Cotton Bowl. It was a terrific game between then-No. 1-ranked Oklahoma and No. 5 Texas. The momentum and the lead swung back and forth, but finally Texas triumphed, 45-35. Both teams played with great heart, with many magnificent plays on both sides, and all walked off the field with heads held high.
But hardly had the game ended when the Internet message boards devoted to Oklahoma sports began to light up with bitter criticism of various members of the OU coaching staff. Over the past decade, this has become standard operating procedure following any loss by any top team in any major sport, college or pro. Somebody must be held accountable, loudly and with prejudice. Perspective? It goes right out — and don't let the door hit you in the fanny.
I've been noticing the same dynamic on the Internet political boards lately. There is so much finger-pointing and advice-giving that I'd swear somebody had just lost a big game somewhere. But whether you're rooting for a football team or a political party, it seems almost impossible to believe that sometimes, disastrous events occur, completely outside the control of the coach or candidate, that end up determining the outcome.
Your star quarterback or middle linebacker goes down with a knee injury in the second quarter and an untested freshman backup comes in. Your usually stalwart punt returner drops the ball deep in his team's territory, and the other side quickly takes it in for a touchdown. Your nation's financial system goes down the toilet seven weeks before the election, and suddenly, what was a 3-point lead vanishes into the mist, and a very close contest begins to look like you might lose soundly. Your team, your campaign was doing fine up until your star quarterback got hurt, until that critical fumble, until the country suddenly had its worst financial debacle of the past half-century drop on your campaign's head.
But human beings are loath to accept that football games or political campaigns or even the course of their own lives and country can be determined so definitively by cruel twists of fate. The consequence of such a point of view is, frankly, frightening. The underlying message is that life is capricious and out of control. It leaves one feeling powerless.
So to avoid going down this unnerving if completely realistic path, we blame the coach instead.
In our comfy lounger of 20/20 hindsight, we manufacture a host of charges to divert ourselves from the fact that fate killed our team — or campaign — deader than a doornail. And of course, some of the charges leveled at the coach or the candidate have the advantage of being true, which serves to strengthen our conviction that see, it wasn't fate, it was because the special teams coach didn't have his squad practice catching more punts. Or that they should have played the backup quarterback a bit earlier in the season. Or that McCain should have attacked Obama on his political associations a month before he actually did. Or not brought the freshman, Sarah Palin, off the bench. Or not said he was suspending his campaign to return to Washington to try to help resolve the financial crisis.
Whatever. Monday-morning quarterbacking is in our collective blood. We don't even wait for Monday morning anymore to indulge ourselves; we start carping early in the fourth quarter, before the game is even over (just wait until we get back to our laptops!). But whether it's coach or candidate, the moaning, nitpicking analysis usually reveals more about the fans and the pundits than it does the contest's participants.
Fate can be so unkind.