On Platonism and National Championships

Texas lost the National Championship game. Congratulations to Alabama.

What is going to be discussed for a long time here in Texas is "What if?" Specifically, what if Colt McCoy wasn't knocked out of the game after only four plays? And so the question will be asked, was Alabama truly the better team?

Here's my take on that question.

The question about who is the better team is a Platonic question, a metaphysical question. It's a question that asks what if we could get the perfect expression of Texas and Alabama to play under perfect conditions in some heavenly realm--the Platonic ideal of the BCS Championship Game--who would win that game? Texas or Alabama?

The trouble is football isn't a metaphysical dispute. The categories of better or worse don't apply. Football is a game. That means it generates winners and losers. Not better or worse. That might be dissatisfying, but a Platonic search for the perfect is futile. Call it the sports version of the problem of evil. Alabama won. Are they better? That's a religious question and, of course, true believers on both sides will have their answers.

In short, football isn't a Platonic competition. It isn't played on Olympus by demigods who can't get injured. It is, rather, a game played with human bodies and minds. Bodies that can feel pain and get injured. Minds that can get confused or rattled. In short, football is drama. Not philosophy. And the drama that unfolded in the second half was pretty riveting.

So, congratulations to Alabama. They won the game.

But I still think Texas is the better team...

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7 thoughts on “On Platonism and National Championships”

  1. You, are of course, correct about the shortcomings of ideal or essentialist types in matters like these. And how would you locate or isolate the essence of Texas or Alabama? What ontological categories could you ground in an indubitable foundation? None, I would say. All you've got is the game.

    Still, there's no one arguing that Tulsa or Washington St. is better than Alabama. So, while there may be no essentialist criteria, no mean free from question at a foundational level, there is still judgment and reason based in experience--which is why there are fewer and fewer platonists out there. As football goes, there are in many instances clear better and not-better's.

    There are some places where theology is a metaphysical dispute, but fewer and fewer it seems. Even here, its all about the game (e.g., Barth, Pannenberg, Moltmann, Volf, Grenz, Hauerwas, McLendon). And there may not be any indubitable foundations this side of the eschaton, but there are judgments based in a reasonableness over time. We know some things don't pass the test. Syracuse is not as good a football team as Alabama. But Boise St? Your "faith" in Texas is not a ridiculous judgment. But if you had ended by saying Rice is better...

  2. If Texas was the better "team" their team would have won, even with a backup quarterback at the helm. Great teams overcome adversity. Texas was still a good team without their Colt. That being said, I'm sure there's a great, undefeated team out there that would love a shot at Alabama.......

  3. Richard, what you've written here is another reason why I am against a playoff system. People will get it in their heads that whoever wins it is the best team. I prefer the old system. Let's continue to leave some room in football for mystery and debate.

  4. Steve, why would an alleged athletic contest leave itself to a subjective analysis by nonparticipants (many of whom admittedly are ill qualified to cast an informed vote)? From baseball to billiards, games and their "champions" are decided by who performs the best, usually through some sort of elimination process. The BCS turns college football into figure skating on turf.

  5. "It isn't played on Olympus by demigods who can't get injured. It is, rather, a game played with human bodies and minds."

    Add to this, sports contests aren't exactly refereed, umpired, or officiated by demigods. During my nearly 40 years of following sports, I'd say, at least 70% of the time, the "better team" dilemma is inflammed by questionable officiating and "final rulings" (a lack of intervention) by the MLB, NFL, NBA, NCAA, Olympic committies/offices, etc - LOL.

    Gary Y.

  6. It's true that we can't know indubitably who the better team is and we can't create an "ideal" contest between idealized versions of teams. Circumstances and chance come in and foul up any chance of perfect knowledge of such things.

    And yet when it comes to games like football, the ways we design and modify them seem to be attempts to mitigate these possibilities to some extent. Take the development of reversing a call based on video replay, for example. We seem to operate with some goal of fairness, some way of adjudicating as well as is reasonably possible which team is the "better" team. If the game were such that being "better" obviously had nothing to do with who won, it would lack entirely the kind of appeal that it currently has.

    So I'm not ready to throw out Platonism in this case. Sure, we can't know with certainty. Sure, people won't agree. So what? We still try to discover it based on good reasoning (colored though it might be by certain loyalties) because this discovery is in large part what the game is about in the first place.

    This "mystery" will always be present by virtue of our finite nature. But if we let a fascination with mystery prevent us from making the game better able to approach the (only partially understood) ideal, then we risk ruining the game entirely.

    P.S.--I think Alabama was the better team.

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