Coaches, both professional and collegiate, always say that they pay no attention to point spreads and simply go out and try to win. Again: bullfeathers. If a nationally ranked team beats another team by fewer points than it was expected to win by, they get zapped in the polls. Two years ago, leading Indiana University by around four touchdowns late in the game, Penn State relaxed and let the opposition score a bunch of meaningless points. The next week, Penn State took a dip in the polls. Even though Penn State ended the season undefeated, it lost the national championship to Nebraska, which never, ever failed to cover the point spread. The lesson: If the point spread has you favored to win by 40, keep the first-string players in there until the bitter end and win by 50. Is this sportsmanlike? No. Is this the way things get done in America? Yes.
My most memorable exposure to the point spread took place at 5:32 on a November morning two years ago, when I took an early train from suburban New York on the way to my native Philadelphia to see the Eagles play the hated Dallas Cowboys. As soon as I entered the nearly empty train in my black-and-green Eagles jacket, I was accosted by the conductor.
"You goddamn guys better cover this week," he said.
"Excuse me?" I replied.
"I said: You guys better cover this week. I bet on you guys all the time, and you never cover the spread. I could have retired on the money I've lost betting on the Eagles over the years."
Insisting that I personally had nothing to do with the on-field activities of the Philadelphia Eagles, I listened with rapt attention as the conductor recounted his tale of woe. Like all gamblers, he did not evaluate sporting events in terms of wins and losses, but in terms of failure to cover the spread. His lore of losery was encyclopedic: He could remember missed field goals by long-forgotten Browns teams of the '60s, botched extra points by the 1976 Oilers, suspicious groundskeeping that prevented the Jets from covering the spread in 1983. In each case, he was convinced that the players had deliberately muffed plays just to screw gamblers like him.
That afternoon, the underdog Eagles were driving for the winning touchdown in the waning minutes of the game when their quarterback threw an interception in the shadow of the Dallas goal line that was run back for a touchdown. As I drifted out of the stadium, I feared that I would run into the conductor on the way home and he would tell me that just before the final drive, the Eagles coach had gathered his players on the sideline and said, "There's a train conductor up in suburban New York who's got a lot of money riding on this game. He's a real pain in the ass, so let's throw an interception at the end and miss covering the point spread. That'll fix his wagon."
Despite the often negative influence of the point spread, on balance I would have to say it is a positive force in this society. Without the point spread, nobody would want to watch college football or basketball games, TV ratings would drop, and there would be nothing on the air but NASCAR racing, Riverdance, and Bill Moyers specials. Also, without the point spread, American men would have absolutely nothing to talk about. Here, it is worth noting that the point spread serves not only as an indispensable diversion from the pressures of marriage, but as a metaphor for that beleaguered condition. By this I mean that marriage is a game that men cannot possibly win, but one in which they can at least hold the score down.
Women probably feel the same way.