Yesterday the Oregon football team defeated USC 31-24 in the Pac-12 championship game. The win was satisfying for me in many regards, some of them philosophical.
Not that philosophy was on my mind as I watched the game with rapt attention. I got so nervous in the fourth quarter I was shivering with excitement and worry, so had to put on a sweater to make it through the final minutes.
There's something about a well-played close football game like this one that resonates for reasons well beyond the obvious.
Sure, Oregon was the underdog, a 3-2 team that was in the championship game only because Washington, who came out on top in the Pac-12 North, wasn't able to play because of their Covid cases.
So that produced a pleasing plot line. Oregon backs into the championship game in a surprising fashion, encountering big bad USC with a 5-0 record, an excellent quarterback, and a top-notch receiving corps.
Those were some of the big themes that laid the foundation for an intriguing football game. But as I was recollecting high points from the game after it was over, I kept thinking of the small things the game turned on.
Which reflects my philosophical interest in chaos. I delved into chaos theory when I was writing my first book in the mid-1990s, a study of how the new physics related to ancient mysticism.
I learned that chaotic systems aren't random. They're deterministic. However, the determinism is non-linear, since a small change can have a big effect.
The "butterfly effect" is often cited as an example of chaos, where theoretically the flapping of a butterfly wing in one part of the world can lead, through atmospheric causes and effects, weeks later to a hurricane happening in another part of the world.
Of course, those small changes are so difficult to discern, most of us look upon our life as being the result of Big Things, not small things.
We ascribe the general course of our life to our personality, our education, our upbringing, our genetics, and such -- not, say, to an overheard conversation in a college cafeteria (I've told that story on one of my other blogs).
Likewise, the outcome of the Oregon-USC game looked like it was going to be determined by whether USC could pull off another win in the fourth quarter after trailing for the entire game, which they'd done several times before this season. Their talented quarterback, Kedon Slovis, appeared to be on the way to doing that with about four minutes left.
I recall an announcer saying that Slovis was trying to throw the ball away to avoid a sack. Or maybe it was just a really bad throw. Regardless, at first it looked like Oregon defensive back Jamal Hill wasn't able to intercept the pass while staying in bounds.
Then instant replay showed that Hill did manage to pull off he interception in an amazing fashion. Behold...
All that talk rests on some small things. Hill juggling the ball and being able to control it at the last moment as he fell out of bounds. One of Hill's feet being inbounds by an inch or two. Slovis throwing the ball in just the right way to allow Hill to barely intercept it.
Without each of those small things happening, the Big Deal of Oregon becoming Pac-12 champions could have been erased.
Such is life. The proverb "for want of a nail," says Wikipedia, is a reminder that "seemingly unimportant acts or omissions can have grave and unforeseen consequences."
In this case it was grave from USC's point of view, fortuitous from Oregon's point of view. Last night's game showed that victory or defeat, joy or sorrow, success or failure, and so much else, often hinges on factors that appear to be insignificant in the grand scheme of things, yet make a big difference.
Bottom line: life is marvelously unpredictable. And, really, who would want it any other way? A game of inches is much more interesting than a game of yards.