It's time to retire this tired sports cliche--"A tie is like kissing your sister," said Navy football coach Eddie Erdelatz after a scoreless tie against Duke in 1953. Whether Coach Erdelatz said it first or not does not matter; it stuck.
We've all parroted it at one time or another. I know I have. In particular, I remember a UT football game back in the 80's when the Vols were unable to stop UCLA from tying the game late. My father-in-law and I spent the rest of the evening wallowing in the sentiment.
But I am here to tell you that a tie is in no way like kissing your sister, and I don't even have a sister. Push the perhaps suspect/creepy/misogynistic implications of the statement aside, at least for a second, and look it clinically as it might relate to a sporting contest. Does it imply that there is no joy in tying? Does it suggest that a team expected to get something more? Does it merely mean to capture the unsatisfying nature of neither team winning?
If the World Cup soccer I've been watching for the past week and a half is any indication, none of those interpretations are true. And, as you might guess, The Tie (yesterday's USA vs. Portugal match) is distinctly on my mind as I write this.
A quick review of the psyche of the two teams involved in that contest would suggest, at least to me, that all of the following assessments are true:
a. one team was bitterly crushed to be tied in the final seconds.
b. one team was ecstatic to avoid a loss.
c. one team, before the Cup started, and maybe even going in, or at least the commentators who analyze that team, would have been more than satisfied with a tie against the fourth-ranked team in the world.
d. one team, had the game ended 1-1, after a tying goal, instead of 2-2, after giving up a tying goal, would have walked away quite pleased. As would the fans streaming out of the bars.
Doubtless there are other interpretations, but I don't think anyone walked away from that match saying, "Well, that was underwhelming and a complete waste of time." For the spectator, it was a tense, exciting, nerve-wracking experience and some darn good soccer, along with a couple of mistakes.
Strategically, of course, a tie is not neutral at all. In the World Cup, you still get a point for a tie to add to your total. Even in football, a tie counts differently than a loss and works in your favor, percentage-wise. A tie pushes you forward, just not as much as a win. A tie, in the case of the U.S., means a slightly-better position going into the last "Group Of Death" match against Germany. A tie for Portugal means that they live to fight another day. Maybe not worth throwing a party over, but better than.....
Maybe the British have it right. In their soccer vernacular, they talk about scoring "an equalizer," they note that a goal allows a team "to get level." Implied in this is a kind of homeostasis of the pitch--so many things have had to happen in order for a the two teams to be back on an even footing. And they don't seem to lament that. If two worthy combatants battle to a draw and walk away, they seem to see something noble in that.
America, of course, hates the tie. Hockey has done away with it. Football makes it extremely difficult to still happen (at the pro level--it can't happen anywhere else). My blog mate texted me last night to say, "If America celebrated draws, we'd still answer to a king." We have very much bought in to Coach Erdelatz's notion, adding a dose of capitalism as well, suggesting that if two teams tie, we "didn't get our money's worth."
But as last night showed us, it isn't the tie itself that is the focus of judgement--it's how you tie. World Cup soccer teaches us that, in most matches that have ended in a draw, there is little that is ho-hum about that circumstance. It may be very frustrating, it may be a tribute to two evenly matched teams, it may be more than one of the teams ever could have realistically hoped for. but I promise you, no sisters were kissed at the outcome.