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Biggest sports stories of the year (So Far)

The Atlantic has a pretty good list of the biggest sports stories of the year so far. Here's what they have:

  • Penn State Scandal
  • NBA lockout
  • NFL lockout
  • St Louis miraculous game 6 in the World Series
  • Aaron Rodgers and the Packer's Perfect (So Far) 2011
  • Dirk Nowitzki's NBA title at the big three's expense
  • Bruins win first Stanley Cup since 1972
  • U.S. women just miss world cup
  • VCU makes the final four
  • Johnson's reign ends with best NASCAR race ever
I have some minor issues and a few omissions that I would like to point out. 
Pack not deserving yet
First, congratulations to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. They seem to be on their way to another Superbowl. However, I don't believe that they deserve to be on this list yet. Since the NFL/AFL merger in 1970 seven teams have started the season 12-0 (2011 packers, 2009 colts, 2009 saints, 2007 pats, 1998 broncos, 1985 bears, and 1972 dolphins). If you consider the previous forty years (not including 2011) the chances of at least one team going 12-0 are 15% and if you only consider the last five seasons the chances are 60%. 

The mirror image of the Pack is the Indianapolis Colts who are currently 0-12. Also not much of a statistical abnormality, it turns out. The data for this are harder to get, but it seems that starting 0-12 is just as common and possibly even more so, as these data may not be complete. From various sources I found seven teams that started the season 0-12 since 1970 (2011 colts, 2008 lions, 2007 dolphins, 1986 colts, 1980 saints,  1977 bucs, 1976 bucs). 

The real statistically rare event would be to have one team go undefeated and another go winless in the same season. This has never happened. And some armchair (probably incorrect) calculations suggest to me that the compound probability of this happening is somewhere between .000625% and .00125% -- depending on whether you include the 1976 bucs who didn't win a game but only played 14 games (the NFL switched to a 16 game schedule in 1978). Now that would deserve a mention as one of the biggest sports stories of the year.

Slater gets no respect
Listen. I know that surfboarding is definitely a niche sport. In fact, many sports fans categorize it in that sports "gray area," it is clearly an athletic activity, but there isn't a consensus on whether it qualifies as a "sport." However, no one can deny the Kelly Slater (much like other "gray area" figures Lance Armstrong and Shaun White) truly dominates his sport. This year, at the age of 39, won his 11th ASP surfing title. He holds the record for most titles and has the record for being both the youngest and oldest title holder. He also gets brownie points for being a good sport. In his most recent championship when the ASP gave Slater his 11th title, he purportedly discovered an error in their calculations and reported it to them, effectively giving up the premature title, only to win it back later. 

Whew, no Tebow
I was clicking through the links expecting to see something about Tim Tebow and was pleasantly surprised that he hasn't made the list yet. Tebow clearly garners more than his fair share of media attention and his presence -- like it or not -- has coincided with a resurgence in the Broncos. Perhaps no other modern athlete has had such a polarizing effect on sports fans. Regardless of which Tebow "camp" you fall into, you have to admit that all this hoopla is premature. He hasn't started an entire NFL season yet and we won't really know the results of the Tebow experiment until we have 2-3 seasons to judge. I don't even think a Bronco's playoff birth merits a mention on this list. A playoff win, on the other hand, just might.

Smarty Nation, I would love to hear your thoughts. Sound off in the comments about my analyses and recommended additions. Are there any sports stories you feel should or shouldn't be on the list?

This post originally appeared on Stuff Smart People Like. Subscribe to the Podcast.


  1. Giving just a cursory thought, I think that the large number of americans who didn't care whether or not the NBA lockout ended was the biggest part of that story.

  2. Cam Newton has been a pretty incredible story all year, between the questions about whether he accepted gifts, which became answers, to storming into the NFL en route to what seems to be an NFL ROY season...

    The hockey world doesn't usually register in the U.S., but the combination of suicides, depression, drug-use, concussions, and fighting have really taken over the league this year. The Derek Boogaard story making the New York Times (and being presented quite well, I think) suggests it has garnered a larger audience.

  3. Yeah. Have to admit, Cam Newton as a rushing QB has better stats than Tebow -- in all categories but wins that is. I think he might deserve a mention regardless though.

    The Boogaard stuff is really sad. I admit I didn't know who he was until I read an article about him (in men's journal maybe?) about a month before his death. I think Jordan is going to weigh-in on the neurological implications of contact sports sometime soon.

  4. What, no love for Justin Verlander? MVP & Cy in same year! He dominated the MLB news all season. Not that these others aren't worthy, just... Go JV!

    Also would like to nominate the last day of the MLB regular season. It was a great World Series, but so many teams coming down to the wire in that fashion was unbelievable. It was a WS Game 6 all over the league. I've heard it called the greatest single day in baseball's regular season history.

  5. Agreed with the JV story. I also think they overlooked The Milwaukee Blitzdkrieg Men's roller derby team achieving their first ever exhibition win this past Sunday against the Twin City Terrors. *shameless plug*

  6. What an oversight! The authors were probably too busy getting their hair permed and listening to Blondie.

  7. Your numbers on the Packers are off. Note that it's stories of the year. The Packers have, so far, won 17 games in a row in Calendar year 2011, starting January 2, 2011 against the Chicago Bears (last game of 2010 regular season), adding 4 playoff wins in the 2010 season (also in 2011), and THEN going 12-0 this season (still 2011).

  8. Technically he used the words "started the season" when prefacing the numbers. So his numbers are on, it's just perhaps an error of omission in not mentioning the end of the 2010 season and postseason.

  9. DannyNoonan you have a point but Jordan is also right. I was talking only about streaks that ran from the beginning of the season. If we are talking longest winning streaks (including the playoffs), by my count a perfect season would land them at 22 games in a row and give them the record (currently held by New England at 21 games). That would be quite an accomplishment and worthy of the list. If, on the other hand, by some fluke they lose even once in the next two games, a case could be made for them not being on the list. All of this misses my larger point though that the joint possibility of both a perfect team and winless team in one NFL season would be the real story and currently they are only mentioning half of it.

  10. I get that you were talking only about streaks that start at the beginning of the season. My point was that it's stupid to talk only about streaks that start at the beginning of the season. Also, I think your numbers are off again. If they have a perfect season and win the Superbowl again, I think they'd be at 25 in a row. If they just finish this regular season undefeated, they'd be at 22.

    Any way about it, the story is top sport stories of 2011, and winning 17 games in a row in one calendar year is rare. It's definitely the biggest story in the biggest sport, so it totally fits on the list.

  11. Again, I was defining perfect season as the regular season. For instance, New England had a perfect season in 2007 even though they lost in the playoffs. Still, your point is well received. You're not a Packers fan by any chance are you? ;)

  12. I'm a fan of consitency and logic. :)

    You're critiquing a story that has already set its own definitions. And they're not weird definititions. When it says 2011, it means 2011. The writer of the article referred back to last season and specifically noted the other 5 games they won in 2011 last season. Then you came in and said "but 2011 doesn't start until... half way through 2011." As a critique, that just doesn't make sense.

  13. I don't think it's illogical to critique something that is outside of the definitions set about by the original author. If we abided by that rule, critiques of anything would be severely limited.

    Philosophical argument aside, while the point that the Packers are undefeated for the year is a given, and an accomplishment, some would argue that carry-over from a previous season is arbitrary. And there's a point to that. If there have been personnel changes in that offseason, then you can make an argument that the team is a different team. I think it just depends on how technical and philsophical you want to get.

  14. It's pretty illogical. Or at least pointless. I mean, if you want to make your own list of "Top Sports Stories since... like August or something" you can do that. That's fine. But it's not a critique of this Atlantic list. If that's what Ed wants to do, that's fine, but he shouldn't frame it as "pointing out some issues" with the Atlantic's list. He's not doing that. He's just making a new set of rules. The carry-over from the previous season isn't any more arbitrary than the list itself, which clearly defines it's parameters. Those parameters include part of last season. Teams have personell changes mid season too so that argument seems misguided. You guys are grasping at straws here. Just admit that you didn't actually read the article you're critiquing. :)

  15. Danny, you're missing the forest for the trees here. You're overwhelming need to be "right" is obscuring one of the main points of the critique. That being that we may have an undefeated and winless team in the same season. A much more unique incident that has not yet occurred in the NFL. That's a pretty big straw, hardly a need to grasp at it.

  16. The article says "Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' Perfect (So Far) 2011." I don't think that "perfect so far" is a worthy story. This critique is an opinion piece and that is my opinion.

    Other teams have had longer streaks. The Packers have broken their own franchise record but not the NFL record. It is also the only story on the list that hasn't completely happened, hence the original author's use of the words "so far" and why my minor issue with this story included the word "yet"(twice). They have three games left in 2011. If they lose any of those, I don't feel they deserve to be on the list, nor would I think their failing to reach the record would be deserving (unless it happened in some particularly spectacular way).

    On the other hand there is no arguing with the fact that the joint probability of a winless team and an undefeated team in the same (regular) season is more statistically improbable than the Packers' current streak. There just isn't. You can calculate it. IF it happens (and that is a big if), I believe it would deserve to be on the list and the Packers wins would still be a part of the story.

    And, just in case it wasn't clear from anything that I have previously written. I have no objections to them being on the list if they remain perfect for the remainder of the season. It's just too soon to make that call.

  17. I think you guys are the ones missing the forest (the whole year 2011) for the trees (the "2011 season"). In fact, I kind of can't believe you'd suggest the opposite. Very Karl Rove of you. AGAIN, the list we're discussing isn't about season stuff, it's about 2011 stuff. The Colts are NOT winless in 2011. They beat the Titans 23-20 on January 2nd. If you think that having one team go winless and one team go undefeated in the same season is more rare than a team winning all of its games in calendar year, I'd like to see the data. The Patriot's 21 game streak went from October 5, 2003 to October 31, 2004. So they did lose games in both Calendar Year 2003 and 2004. The Dolphins were perfect in 1972 but they lost the Superbowl from the 1971 season, which took place in 1972. And they lost the 2nd game of the 1973 season, so they didn't have much of a streak in 1973 either. I guess I'm not sure what team has equaled what the Packers have already done within a calendar year, which is what the story you're trying to critique is talking about.

  18. "On the other hand there is no arguing with the fact that the joint probability of a winless team and an undefeated team in the same (regular) season is more statistically improbable than the Packers' current streak. There just isn't. You can calculate it."

    I would like to see your numbers on this actually. We're comparing statistical probability of 1 of 32 teams going 16-0 in the same season that another one of those teams goes 0-16 vs. the probability of one team going 20-0 in one calendar year, correct? Are you assuming 50/50 for every game? In the latter equation are you assuming 50/50 for regular season games and playoff games, which are by definition elimination games? Are you factoring in that it's going to require the team that goes 20-0 in one calendar year to win 4 (not 3!) playoff games (which means they can't have a bye in the first round)? Let's just say I'm skeptical of your "you can calculate it" statement.

  19. Danny, you're perseverating on the the perfect 2011, which we have readily acknowledged is impressive. We're just making the simple point that the (so far), which was included in the original article is a sticking point for us. That's an opinion, I think most people have those from time to time.

    At this point, I don't think the debate is about the original article and critique anymore. I think it's about being "right" with some misguided notion that there will be a clear winner. Considering that the crux of the matter is based on an opinion, both sides can argue until they're blue in the face to no avail. Unless of course the Packers do have a perfect season, then I'll admit that they belong in the story.

  20. My last comment was challenging a statement that Ed claims is a "fact." I think it's factually incorrect to call what he called a fact a fact. :)

    I really just can't see how, of all the stories listed, the Packers one is the one that somebody would say doesn't belong. Even if you don't think it's "finished."

  21. If you're talking about the ability to calculate a probability. It is a fact. You can look at that issue in a variety of ways statistically, it really just depends on what angle you want to take and how much legwork you want to do. Off the top of my head I can think of several ways to run those analyses. Most of them require a couple hours of databasing, so there's no way in hell I'm going to do them. I don't care that much.

    And I don't recall him saying that was the only one that didn't belong, just the one he mentioned.

  22. No, that's not a fact. Seriously Jordan? You can run a zillion simulations, but you still gotta play the actual games. In the two situations we have come up with here, there are too many factors where reasonable people can have differing opinions about what the proper inputs should be. Again, here's his quote:

    "On the other hand there is no arguing with the fact that the joint probability of a winless team and an undefeated team in the same (regular) season is more statistically improbable than the Packers' current streak. There just isn't. You can calculate it."

    The "fact", according to Ed, isn't "that it can be calculated." It's that "the joint probability of a winless team and an undefeated team in hte same (regular) season" is more statistically improbably than the Packers going undefeated (so far) in a calendar year. My contentions, as explained a couple comments ago, are a) this is not a "fact" because of all of the potential and debateable inputs; and b) if we did try to calculate it, using the most reasonable inputs (IMHO) would probably lead us to the conclusion that the Packers' current streak is more improbable. I mean, just the requirement that the current streak has to not have a first round bye AND win the Superbowl the previous season makes it super rare.

  23. Seriously! It's the wonderful world of Science! We can run statistical probabilities within a set of parameters. Your view of this is too myopic. Remember, we're scientists, we can do anything with statistics. It's our world, you just live in it.

  24. Again with the Karl Rove stuff. YOUR view is too myopic.

    Okay, then explain to me what parameters you think would be correct in figuring this out.

  25. Please, the Rove thing is just becoming pedantic; I'm much better looking than that guy.

    And, I could give you several scenarios in which I outline variables that could go into calculating a possible odds ratio of said event happening. In turn you will find something to nitpick about (e.g., strength of schedule shouldn't matter because X,Y, and Z). But you're missing the point. There is a way to calculate and odds ratio. Is it going to be 100% accurate? No, nothing is. You can't forsee every possible contributing variable or you start getting down to things adding like .000001% variance. But we can calculate approximation models. Happens all the time.

  26. "There is a way to calculate and odds ratio. Is it going to be 100% accurate? No, nothing is. You can't forsee every possible contributing variable or you start getting down to things adding like .000001% variance. But we can calculate approximation models. Happens all the time."

    Yes. This is all true. And therefore, it's NOT a FACT.

  27. Ah, so we're going the solipsism route! I see your solipsism and raise you Cartesian dualism!

  28. My argument isn't solipsistic in the slightest.

  29. It's a bit methodologically solipsistic, bit that's besides the point. The duel here is to throw out random philosophical ideas.

    Transcendental idealism! Take that.

  30. Who is Karl Rove? Does he play for the Packers?

  31. Jordan,
    No it isn't. Not even a bit. The point is that the answer to whether it's a fact depends on your priors, and there's no real "correct" answer as to what those should be. It's not a fact and there's nothing solipsistic about that.

    He's known for accusing his opposition of things his side is clearly guilty of. No, I don't think he plays for the Packers.

  32. Danny, Ethical Egoism!

    Ed, I think he may have played some college ball back in the leather helmet days.

  33. Aaaannnnnddd, it looks like the blog stands and the Packers are indeed not worthy to be listed as a top story of the year. Way to lose to the Chiefs.

  34. They were when the list was created. Your comment just shows that you're making up your own criteria. The story was the chase for a record. Just because that chase ended in defeat doesn't mean the story disappears.

    But yeah, with 20/20 hindsight, you're right. If I were to make the list today, I'd leave the Packers off.