Cohan ’17: Coming to terms with the American playoff system

Sports Columnist
Friday, February 7, 2014

When I was a little kid, there was no phrase I despised more than “Last goal wins!”

“Are you kidding me? We’re winning 8-1. How the hell does two beat eight? You’re telling me I kicked that kid in the shin to stop him from scoring for nothing?” In the interest of space, I’ll leave it at that, but my speech generally went on until either my team won (ball don’t lie) or the other team won, in which case I never got over it.

The thing I couldn’t wrap my brain around was how a system in which only the last goal mattered could possibly be fair. All kids are obsessed with fairness. Eventually, we wise up and realize not everything is fair. Part of this recognition comes from grimly accepting the imperfect world we live in. But we also realize that fairness is not the be-all-end-all. Other things matter, too.

“Last goal wins!” is obviously not as fair as allowing a game to end in a blowout. So why would the sage 16-year-old camp counselor throw the score out the window and award victory to whichever team scored last? Because it didn’t matter how badly one team had dominated up to that point. It was a blank slate — anybody’s game. How much more exciting was it to watch a bunch of hypercompetitive kids scramble to score that last all-important goal than to watch the eight-year-old version of myself taunt my best friend until he threw dirt at me?

You might think we would never allow this type of thing to happen at the professional level. It’s one thing to tell a bunch of infants that you’re changing the rules at the last second; it’s another thing when the players are grown men significantly larger than the average human being — and when billions of dollars and the hopes of millions of fans are at stake. But we still do it. We just make it less obvious.

Allow me to explain. In Major League Baseball from 1903 to 1969, the team with the best record in the American League and the team with the best record in the National League faced off in the World Series. That was it. One round. In 1969, the MLB expanded the playoffs to include four teams. In 1994, the playoffs were enlarged, yet again, to eight teams. And just two years ago, two more teams were added to the mix.

To be fair, the larger playoff field was accompanied by a general expansion in teams from the original 16 to the 30 we have today. Still, that’s 14 more teams and eight additional playoff spots — the difference between a roughly 13 percent chance of making the playoffs and a 33 percent chance.

All four major sports have this system. Twelve of 32 teams make the playoffs in the NFL. And in the NBA and NHL, an absurd 16 out of 30 teams make the playoffs — more than half. On top of that, we split our sports into divisions and conferences, so it isn’t even the teams with the best records making the playoffs. That’s how you get head-scratching situations like the 22-28 Charlotte Bobcats currently holding a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Bobcats have the 19th best record of 30 teams in the NBA. If the season were to end today, they would play the 38-10 Indiana Pacers in a seven-game series. The first team to four wins advances. Still think “last goal wins!” is just for little kids?

Why do we accept this? Imagine the Thunder are blowing out the Heat in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The crowd in Oklahoma City is going wild, knowing they are about win their first NBA title. All of a sudden, Adam Silver steps onto the court, and asks the crowd to quiet down. “Excuse me, if I can just have your attention for a moment. Whichever team scores more in the last two minutes wins. That’s all.” What would happen? Best-case scenario, you’re looking at a routine soccer riot.

Now imagine this. The NBA declares that the team with the best regular season record automatically wins the championship.

(Wait, they actually do this in Europe? No wonder their fans are always hitting each other with chairs. I’d be mad too.)

Immediately every team in the Eastern Conference besides the Heat and Pacers would have nothing to play for. I would have to accept the fact that my Wizards have zero chance of achieving anything for the next decade. How much longer would I keep watching?

So on one side of the spectrum we have “last goal wins!” and on the other we have European soccer. Obviously, neither is a good option. Somewhere in the middle, balancing excitement and fairness, we have our current playoff systems.

Could they be improved? Maybe. But an effort to make the system fairer  — possibly by eliminating conferences in the NBA — would be less exciting. And a move to be more exciting — by  expanding the NFL playoff field by two teams — would be less fair. I don’t think any proposal would be “better” or “worse,” just different. It all comes down to what you value.

James Cohan ’17 is still bitter about that 8-2 loss. Remind him at