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opinion

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson looks on during the first quarter of the game against the Washington Football Team at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Jan. 3, 2021.Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

It must be terrible to be a New York Giant right now. You’re paid millions of dollars to clock in 16 days a year and hit other people in the head.

Just as you were getting ready to work a 17th shift, someone goes and gets it cancelled on you. Now you have to figure out something to do next weekend. Go to Home Depot? Buy a Home Depot? Making plans at the last minute is a pain.

This seems to be the thrust of the Giants’ complaint, one that is roiling the NFL.

New York was not a good football team this year. Because it is not a good team, it did not control its own playoff plans on the last day of the season.

That power was in the hands of its most cherished enemy, the Philadelphia Eagles. If the Eagles beat Washington, New York advanced. The Eagles stood to gain nothing from this arrangement.

Philadelphia trailed by three points in the third quarter. At that point, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson pulled his starting quarterback and put in the third-stringer. Unsurprisingly, an already-bad Eagles team suddenly got much worse. Washington won, pipping New York for a postseason spot.

The reaction among Giants players, Giants fans, NFL observers and all other believers in truth and justice was outrage. The Eagles had cheated the New York Giants out of what was theirs.

One Giants player called the situation “sickening.” Pederson was singled out for abuse. Reportedly, a few of his own players confronted him on the sideline during the game.

On Monday, Giants head coach Joe Judge went for the sneaky low blow, drawing an analogy between all the players, coaches and “family members” who chose to participate in a pandemic season and – while only vaguely alluding to him – a skunk like Pederson.

“To me, you don’t ever want to disrespect those players and their effort and disrespect the game,” Judge said.

Well, that’s one perspective. Another is that Pederson is the only person behaving rationally in this situation.

If the Eagles had won, they’d have fallen to the ninth pick in the draft. Losing bumped them up to sixth. You know how much you’d have to pay to move up three spots in the top 10 of a pro draft? Pederson did it for free.

And why in God’s name would Pederson want to help the Giants? He wasn’t going to “win” anything for his own team. The only club that stood to “win” in this situation was New York.

This is a species of prisoner’s dilemma. Pederson was given several poor options and chose the one with maximum long-term benefit to his own side.

But people are angry, even Eagles fans, because this hits at pro sports’ sacred – and misguided – notions of fairness and sportsmanship.

Let’s say it again so that everyone in the class can hear: Pro sports aren’t fair. They aren’t meant to be fair. If the big leagues were fair, no one would watch them. You know what’s fair? Little League. You know who watches it? Your mom. And even she doesn’t like it.

Whenever I hear the word “fair” in the context of a multibillion-dollar entertainment industry, I think of Bob Gibson.

Gibson made the Hall of Fame throwing a (highly illegal and therefore unfair) spitball. A lot of people threw the spitter in those days. Gibson just happened to be better at it than everyone else.

In his autobiography, he addressed his critics with something approaching Nietzschean philosophy.

“Rules or no rules, pitchers are going to throw spitters,” Gibson wrote. “It’s a matter of survival.”

The confusion here is created by sports themselves. When they’re negotiating broadcast deals, the big leagues are a business. But when they’re writing ad copy, they are a charitable pastime reflecting working-class, community values – like the Salvation Army, but everyone drives a Rolls Royce.

What pro sports are most essentially is a market. They create a product. It is consumed by customers. The more effective – i.e. entertaining – the product, the more it is consumed.

If something goes amiss in this arrangement, there’s no need for some higher authority to intervene. The market is self-regulating.

If people are angry at Pederson, or the Philadelphia Eagles, or the NFL, or life in general, they have a customer’s choice – they can stop watching.

Perfect fairness in pro sports is possible – if customers insist on it. They insist not by jumping on Twitter to meme their sadness into likes. That behaviour boosts the market.

I’m not out there in these streets yelling about how much I dislike a certain brand of cat food, because I don’t have a cat and I don’t care. But ask me about The New Yorker. I have some deep, conflicted thoughts about the state of that magazine over the past few years. Yet I continue to read it.

If you want to affect the football market, you do it by watching hockey instead. Or giving up sports viewing altogether.

But the average NFL fan won’t do that. In fact, their participation in the football market has most likely been increased by the delicious pettiness of l’affaire Pederson. They’re watching ESPN’s screaming heads railing about him and reading the columns blasting him.

Unfairness is therefore a way to boost the market.

You don’t want to get carried away here. There’s a difference between the occasional spitball and a little bit of match fixing. But a judicious amount of rule/convention breaking greases the market’s wheels.

If the NFL wants to do anything about this, it ought to send Pederson a fruit basket. He’s driven product interest and reinvested in a rivalry between two of the league’s largest media markets.

Now what the Philadelphia Eagles executive thinks about it is a different matter. The team’s leadership has internal market forces to consider. Unfortunately for Pederson’s career prospects, those aren’t fair either.