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On Binaries

Wins and losses only tell you so much.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

You’ve probably heard that old programming joke, right? That there are 10 kinds of people, those who understand binary and those who don’t?

I’m not a programmer by any means, but I nevertheless get a kick out of how binary code in particular has kind of seeped into language and culture. Like that joke, which still makes me smile after probably a decade since the first time I saw it in print, or how, because 0/1 is also off/on, the power symbol on all sorts of electronics is some variation of an overlaid 0 and 1 (I realized this much later into adulthood than is probably normal). And there’s no small comfort in knowing that as big, as advanced, as inconceivably powerful as computers and technologies get, they are always going to be able to be boiled down to ones and zeroes, switches getting turned off and on with no in-between state.

But people aren’t like that, at least in any way that matters. We’re more dial than switch. And maybe it’s in part because a certain raging transphobe is touring universities with a stop this week that happens to include my workplace, but right now I’ve got particularly little patience for folks who’d like to enforce immutable binaries on people when they just don’t fit. That goes, of course, for gender, but, as we finally reach a relevant point for this website and return to the thesis I default to when the writing well is close to dry (that is, that sports are best understood as a metaphor for people), it also goes for sports. And nowhere is it harder to maintain that energy than with football.

I know I’m not the only one who’s ever thought it’s weird how many fewer games there are in a football season than in any other American sport, but it’s worth noting anyways. College football teams play 12 regular season games; NFL teams play 17. Obviously this is a necessity because of just how violent a game football is and how long players need in between seasons to recover from the trials of one, but it becomes part of the culture of football fandom. NCAA Football and the NFL are the only sports where every single game is an event, where you miss one as a fan and suddenly you’ve lost the pulse of the season. And by the same token, it’s the only sport where losing just a handful of games transforms a season from elite to merely good, from pretty good to disastrous. Two games. In the NBA, that’s basically nothing. In college football, well... it’s the difference between UNC 2020 and UNC 2021. Wins and losses, successes and failures. Professional coaches are a weird breed, and probably because of exactly that exacerbated need to win, football coaches are very likely the weirdest of the bunch. Phil Longo called a trick play against Virginia Tech that worked to perfection — he caught the defense off-guard after having set them up with his gameplan and organized a pristine convoy for the intended ball-carrier, but since Kobe Paysour short-armed the final pass, he won’t even think about using its structure again until 2023.

What I mean to say is that I truly get the seduction of the binary for coaches, and also for fans, who probably accept coaches’ mentalities more than they should. Not winning is so very devastating to a season that each win feels like Armageddon staved off, a boulder inched up a Sisyphean hill; in short, something to be justifiably and uncritically celebrated. Seasons are so short that even a full one is probably not statistically significant for most things one might measure, so every win feels like beating the odds. I get it. I do.

I just... want us, so very badly, to be better than that. My colleague Max, in his excellent article from the other day about appreciating that at the end of the day, this is the best start to a UNC season since Nick Weiler tomahawk chopped down the length of Doak Stadium, reminds us at the end of it that “multiple things can be true.” Wins can raise alarms and losses can show you some good things. Going for it on fourth down can have been the right call even if it didn’t work out and gave the opponent a short field. You can be winning games and losing ground on a season, or multiple-season, scale. And yet, over and over again, I see people wielding wins as cudgels against criticism, unable to comprehend a fan who’s happy to win and who yet still wants to think a little critically, and who’s got some concerns about what happens against a more capable defense, or about how an FCS quarterback has people saying he might just be league-bound. You can either be happy we won, or you’re not. Your fan switch is either on, or it’s off. Fandom can’t be messy, can’t be nuanced, is never hard to navigate; it all has to boil down to ones and zeroes.

Binaries are easy. Binaries are comfortable. Binaries are safe. This is exactly why we call bigotries against LGBTQ+ folk -phobias. It’s not because the suffix from Islamophobia flowed better than the suffix from sexism (although “queerism” and “gayism” or even “homoism” are truly awful orthography), it’s because the existence of queer and trans people asks you to imagine beyond binaries, and that’s really scary, and sometimes that fear gets displaced violently onto the people doing the asking instead of the people creating the question.

But get past them, and you’re given the opportunity for a more informed life and a more worthwhile life, and the same is unequivocally true for sports. Maybe it’s obvious to note that an evaluation with some nuance to it is going to be more generative—for discussion, for your own self-education in the sport—than a simple value judgement, but more importantly for what we do as fans, it’s just more fun to be able to think about sports without every single one of those thoughts getting extrapolated into a judgement or decision. Maybe you’ll make those judgements and decisions eventually, but they won’t be reactionary; they’ll be based on trends, beyond the forces of individual wins and losses.

Take this young season. The App State meltdown, allowing 40 points in a quarter, is such a gigantic meme that it feels impossible to shed as the defining identity of 2022 UNC Football, save for a 2015-esque run, and it’s even such a legendary collapse that it might feel justified. But honestly? My worries about UNC’s defense are only mildly about that comeback and how many points got on the board in a throw-everything-at-the-wall scenario, and I’ve detailed them in a few of my position grades articles. Plenty of writers, and I’m not completely immune to this, have used both the Notre Dame game and the Virginia Tech game as early and opposite sure-thing harbingers of the rest of the season; the former as evidence that UNC can’t even stop a bad offense if it’s got anything resembling talent, the latter as evidence that nothing was ever wrong but a lack of time for Gene Chizik to get through and now UNC’s taken the first step in winning a weak Coastal. And I don’t want to invoke the Golden Mean Fallacy here, but, I don’t know, both of those takes just smack of a failure to think critically. UNC was outcoached more than it was outplayed against Notre Dame and not everybody has a Tommy Rees, and while shutting down a very bad Virginia Tech team is a definite step forward from not shutting down also-very-bad FAMU and Georgia State, the Hokies were still exploiting some of the same foibles we’ve been seeing all along. What’s all that mean? I’m not sure yet, but it’s pretty exhilirating to commit to keeping track, and finding something resembling meaning, instead of just counting wins and hoping they add up to a little happiness.

Ones and zeroes. Offs and ons. Yeses and nos. So much of our daily lives are governed by this simple coin flip of a function. But the parts of it that aren’t, that defy categorization into previously available containers and make us generate new ways of thinking and doing and being, are the parts that make life unique and cool and kind of beautiful. I guess my point is that if you only put in a little effort to let it instead of falling prey to reaction and coachspeak, football can be one of those parts. As Whitman implores us in a quote I can’t believe how often I find it relevant, let it, and yourself, contain multitudes.