Apr. 07, 2010 - Issue #755: Spring Style
Fortune favours the boldChances are I'll never win the lottery. For instance, based on the Lotto 649 format of randomly generating six numbers from a set of 49, you have a one in 13 983 816 chance of hitting the big jackpot. With odds like those, why even try? By the same token, with its randomized contestant selection process and its multi-tier event system, why do so many people travel to be on The Price Is Right? It seems as if the mosaic of regional T-shirts, college kids, patriotic octogenarians and army reservists that make up the live studio audience have come from every corner of earth to converge on the big possibility. It's a show that still subscribes to the American dream, regardless of the sudden exclusivity of that old axiom.
Watching this show recently, along with other standbys like Wheel of Fortune, I was taken aback at how these contests present themselves in today's economic climate. Gameshow money used to be gravy, but now it takes on the feel of necessity. Recent Price host Drew Carey uses "need" instead of "want" when referring to the products being bid on. The intense disappointment registered on an older woman's face when she just misses winning both prize packages during the Showcase Showdown is that of someone who expected a savior on the other end of the highway. What she needs is a game show that erases her phone bill or raises her credit rating. She does not need a boat. This is an example of television manipulating our emotions for its own benefit.
Ads for the lottery frequently feature smiling people, occasionally doing gymnastics or hanging out by a pool. But like the alcohol industry is obligated to do, there is also the presentation of Internet and phone help lines and a plea to enjoy responsibly. This is the conceit of commercial culture: ad companies sell you on getting lucky (figuratively and literally), but only tacitly mention the negative potential effects.
College basketball is a similarly misrepresented crapshoot. NCAA March Madness is certainly very exciting. Young players and bigger opportunities lead to more passionate, tense games. You get to follow a player in the embryonic period as he makes it to the next level, like on American Idol. Still, I can't help but feel guilty for being entertained by the collapse of hundreds of other dreams, and that isn't where it ends. Only one percent of the players from the 64 teams that make it into the NCAA tournament every year will play in the NBA. They even call the process of selecting players a draft lottery.
Yet the foundation of their school experience is predicated on the potential for making it big. And in the background, the machine churns. Coaches makes millions, companies put in ad money to get their credit cards and deodorant in front of a young audience, TV networks get guaranteed ratings. But the people doing the most physical and mental damage to themselves in the process are the only ones not earning from it.
Sure, a scholarship is worthwhile, but success with the team is obviously the main concern. There have been controversies about players accepting gifts from random benefactors or having their SAT written by someone else, all owing to the administration's desire for national exposure. Classic documentary Hoop Dreams is famous for illuminating the realities of the college recruiting process. These kids have every school in the nation clamouring over them and promising them the future but discard them as soon as they are no longer beneficial to the system. If you don't win the lottery, it's unlikely that you studied your major enough to make do with a career in the real world.
I recently watched the Spike Lee ESPN basketball documentary Kobe Doin' Work, an inside look at superstar Kobe Bryant's process. While the title was representative of the content (watching basketball broken down so deeply unflatteringly exposes the workmanlike, premeditated nature of the game), Kobe makes an interesting point about how he plays. After an opposing player takes a three-pointer, Kobe expresses he is complicit in letting him take that shot because he knows he has a low shooting percentage and is willing to hedge his bets on probability. This is at the root of luck: you take the shots you think you can make, but some people are just better gamblers than others. V
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