The rarest coin toss of all, and the most controversial, is one that decides the outcome of a game or a season. In 1968, a few years before the penalty shootout had taken root, Italy and the Soviet Union flipped a coin to settle a 0-0 draw in the semifinals of the European soccer championships. (Italy won the toss and the UEFA title—perhaps not a surprising outcome since the Italians hosted the tournament.) Twenty years later, Permian High—the school featured in Buzz Bissinger's Friday Night Lights—advanced to the state football tournament via a dramatic, three-way coin flip held at a West Texas truck stop.
As the coin toss has lost its primacy in sports, sabermetricians have come to realize the outsize role luck plays in athletic endeavors. Characteristics treasured by the media and fans, like clutchness and chemistry, have been shown to be fairy tales. In baseball, newfangled stats reveal that pitchers don't exert much control over hitters' batting average on balls in play. Meanwhile, my colleagues at Football Outsiders deduced years ago that fumble recoveries are random.
Luck-based factors like bloop hits and fumbles and injuries and weather cannot be legislated away. As a result, the coin toss—the event that so perfectly represents fortune—gets more than its share of the blame for outcomes that are perceived to be unfair. In 2008, after the White Sox hosted the Twins in a one-game playoff on account of a flip, Chicago general manager Ken Williams told the Twins' Bill Smith that such an outcome was "wrong and it should be changed." A few months later, Major League Baseball complied—home-field advantage in one-game playoffs is now "determined by a set of performance-based criteria that will begin with the head-to-head record between the tied clubs."
While the flip has been excised from the national pastime, the gridiron has yet to rid itself of the cursed toss. The most notable alternative to football's opening coin flip—the XFL's Braveheart-style Scramble—proved as successful as Linda McMahon's Senate campaign. (And given the growing concern over head injuries, the Scramble seems unlikely to make a comeback.) The NFL still lists the coin flip as its final playoff tiebreaker, after such obscure stats as net touchdowns in all games. And New York Jets owner Woody Johnson recently blew a gasket when a coin granted the Giants the privilege of the first home game in the New Meadowlands.
So get in the spirit while watching the NFL on Thursday: Call heads or tails with your father-in-law for that last piece of pumpkin pie. Just don't flip a coin to determine whether the TV stays on during dinner. In all realms of life, there are some decisions that are just too important to leave up to the fates.
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