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On Losing Streaks and Black Swans.

Posted By Cliff Tuttle | December 14, 2009

Posted by Cliff Tuttle (c) 2009

Summary: It may not be necessary to look beyond luck for an explanation of losing streaks and untimely events, sometimes described as “black swans.”

There is a great deal of discussion these days about how the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were being called the best team in football six weeks ago, could have lost five straight games, mostly to weak teams. The local sports writers, coaches, team members and talk show callers are all mystified.  Yet, the answer is extremely simple.

A season with only sixteen games does not constitute a statistically valid sample.  Chance alone can account for a five game winning or losing streak. Baseball teams, both good and bad, do it all the time. But baseball managers are not fired over a single five game losing streak.  There are a lot more tomorrows in a baseball season.

We rarely give proper credit to luck.  The last Superbowl was won by two astounding plays — Harrison’s 100 yard touchdown run at the end of the first half and Holmes’ acrobatic catch at the end of the game. The odds that the lumbering Harrison would be tackled by the pursuit (he had to run through the entire opposing team to score) seemed overwhelming.  But it didn’t happen. So too, were the odds against Holmes pulling in the ball he over-stretched to reach while falling to the ground with both feet barely in bounds.  But it happened and by a thread, the Steelers won the championship. The endless retelling of those two plays (at least in Pittsburgh) spoke of incredible skill.  Luck didn’t make it into the story. The two heroes were showered with awards and will live in legend as long as Superbowl highlights are broadcast in Pittsburgh. In fairness, large amounts of both luck and skill were required to execute these game-winning plays.

By the way, from the point of view of the Cardinals, these two bolts of lightning, which cost them the Superbowl, could be described as “black swans.” That is, they were highly improbable sequences of events that were in hindsight unavoidable. On the positive side, the word “destiny” comes to mind. In the Sixties, we had another less lofty expression for it: “the fickle finger of fate.”

And now, the Steelers have been visited by a few black swans of their own.

Every lawyer over 40 can tell you about  a case or two that resulted in an unexpected outcome, often contrary to  overwhelming odds. But unlike sports teams, litigants can sometimes control their fate by making an acceptable settlement. Who knows when the next black swan will come swimming by?



CLIFF TUTTLE has been a Pennsylvania lawyer for over 45 years and (inter alia) is a real estate litigator and legal writer. The posts in this blog are intended to provide general information about legal topics of interest to lawyers and consumers with a Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania focus. However, this information does not constitute legal advice and there is no lawyer-client relationship created when you read this blog. You are encouraged to leave comments but be aware that posted comments can be read by others. If you wish to contact me in privacy, please use the Contact Form located immediately below this message. I will reply promptly and in strict confidence.

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