Trust Us: We're Wrong

September 06, 2009

There are severalsmiling Buddhas in Madame Katherine's parlor, along with a menorah andfigurines of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Madame Katherine has her basescovered. We sit across from each other in wicker chairs, and I extend myupturned hands toward her. A palm reader and psychic, she studies my life linesand says she is in touch with the energy of the universe, which is telling herthat I have questions about an event in my future. What, she asks, is thismystery I have been pondering?

She has it exactlyright. Maybe this really is the place to find the elusive answer I've beenseeking. "It's about the Super Bowl," I say, and Madame Katherine, agrandmotherly type from the former Yugoslavia who now lives and works near SanFrancisco, looks at me with an expression that says she does not know the SuperBowl from a salad bowl. It's a football game, I tell her. Kind of a big deal.Has the universe happened to mention who's going to win the next one?

It might seemstrange, considering my line of work, to seek outside help for this kind ofprediction, but there is no escaping the facts. With all due respect to mycolleagues at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, we have not exactly distinguished ourselvesas prognosticators lately. Apparently we have not been getting the universe'se-mails, because we correctly forecast a champion about as often as Derek Jetergoes dateless on a Saturday night. This issue includes our prediction that theNew England Patriots will be the Super Bowl winners in February, but we'llunderstand if you want to seek a second opinion.

SI also picked thePats to win last season. We were wrong. We anointed the New Orleans Saints theyear before that, and the Carolina Panthers each of the two seasons beforethat. Wrong, wrong and wrong. It's not just in the NFL that our crystal ballfails us. We chose Georgia as the likely national champion in college footballlast season, and the Bulldogs finished ranked 13th. We told you that thisyear's World Series winner would be the New York Mets, who are currently soinjured and inept that they would have a hard time winning the Little LeagueWorld Series.

It is not a goodtime to be in this slump, because there is such heavy emphasis on predictionsthese days. Every fan wants a window into the future, for his fantasy drafts orto beat the point spread or just to impress his friends. The desire to know theunknowable in sports is greater than ever. We barely take time to appreciatewhat is before we turn our attention to what will be. Forget about today. Let'stalk about tomorrow or, better yet, a week from tomorrow.

Hours afterFlorida won college football's national championship last January, talkingheads on television were forecasting which teams would be at the top of therankings the next season. College basketball has its bracketologists, who spendweeks predicting and repredicting the March Madness seedings and matchups,because apparently it's important to know in advance whether Villanova will bethe sixth seed in the East or the fifth seed in the Midwest. Recruitingwebsites proliferate, trading on fans' hunger to know which 10th-graders aregoing to be college All-Americas in five years. In the NFL and the NBA, everydraft is preceded by countless mock drafts, because it's not enough to haveteams try to predict which players will make useful pros. No, we need topredict what the predictions will be.

But despite theincreased focus on the future, forecasting is as much a hit-or-miss enterpriseas ever. Number 1 draft picks still flame out, and no-chance underdogs stillpull upsets often enough to remind us that no one really knows anything, thatno amount of detailed analysis or inside information can guarantee an accurateforecast. We have made advances in almost every area of sport over theyears—equipment, technology, even the limits of human performance—but theability to foresee results hasn't evolved at all. That's a good thing (even ifit doesn't feel that way when our underdog doesn't beat the spread), becausethe appeal of sport rests largely on its unpredictability. Guessing wrong sooften may be frustrating, but if we guessed right more often, we wouldn't be asinterested.

Still, it would besatisfying to get this one right, just to raise SI's batting average above theMendoza line, which is why I am disappointed when Madame Katherine tells me shedoes not give sports predictions. Her clients get upset if she doesn't foreseesuccess for their favorite teams, she says. But after a bit of persuasion sherelents. "I am feeling very positive energy from the East," she says."I am seeing New York, does that make sense?" That would be the Giants,a reasonable choice. "No, a shorter name than that," she says."Only a few letters."

The Jets? The teamwith the rookie quarterback, Mark Sanchez? The team that hasn't won a SuperBowl since the days of bell-bottoms and peace signs? "All I can tell you iswhere I feel the energy," says Madame Katherine.

Fair enough. Theprediction here is that the Jets will be the next Super Bowl champs,far-fetched as that may seem. As I leave the parlor, I can hear the energy ofthe universe calling to me at last. Either that, or it is one of the Buddhas,laughing.

Talk Back
If you want to comment on Point After or suggest a topic, send an e-mail toPointAfter@si.timeinc.com

With all due respect to my colleagues at SI, wecorrectly forecast a champion about as often as Derek Jeter goes dateless on aSaturday night.

PHOTOJOHN BURGESS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)