The Breadcrumbs widget will appear here on the published site.
By Thomas Gessner
In 2002, in a shocking upset, the Chris Webber-led Sacramento Kings defeated Kobe and Shaq’s Los Angeles Lakers dynasty to move forward to the NBA finals and capture an NBA title as a small market… wait, that didn’t happen, did it? If there is one person to name for why the well balanced Kings did not win the series against the tumultuous Lakers, it wouldn’t be a player, but by a scumbag: disgraced referee Tim Donaghy, who was revealed to have illegally placed bets on the those games and intentionally made calls to affect the outcome.
Because of Donaghy, there is a constant nagging fear that his illegal actions persisted into the modern league, and because of that, there will always be a belief that the NBA is rigged. Donaghy is not the only example of mistrust of the NBA. Many people claim that the 1985 draft was set up to guarantee the Knicks the first overall pick, and there’s evena whole podcast dedicated to the Donaghy scandal and a comprehensive history of alleged NBA rigging.
At least we have the MLB, a league known for its good and honest stars like Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. Okay, I’ll stop, but even without bringing up the rampant cheating and PED use in baseball, the league’s salary caps — the subject of the 2011 film Moneyball — is comparable to a rigged system, where the richest teams get the most advantages.
Just last year the Tampa Bay Rays made headlines by reaching the World Series on a payroll of just 68 million dollars, but they ultimately lost to a Dodgers team that paid almost 108 million for their collection of superstars, which is unfair to an extreme level.
The salary cap issue is present in just about every major sport too, with teams in larger markets like New York and Los Angeles having much more money to spend than teams in cities like Charlotte or the godforsaken Detroit. In addition to that, there is an undeniable vested interest in teams that generate the most TV revenue, with former NBA commissioner David Stern once stating that his dream finals match-up would be “Lakers versus Lakers”.
It’s hard to care about a sport when it feels like the outcome is predetermined, and maybe that sentiment is partly why there has been a continuous decline in interest in sports over the past few years. The problem though, is that people who have vested interests in national sports are billionaires that like making obscene amounts of money, and the best way to do that is to have the teams that print greenbacks succeed.
And yeah, there are other sports not affected by the problems associated with big-money sports franchises, but I will not settle for watching a sport like tennis, because it is painfully boring and nothing will change my mind about that.
Regardless, this begs the question: is there a sport that is both completely fair and incredibly entertaining to watch on television? Well, the answer is yes.
This sport is one that brings together physical, mental, and social elements to foster some of the greatest competitors of all time, and if you’ve spent any time around me in the past few months, you will already know that I’m talking about Survivor.
For those who have never seen the show, here's the gist: 16 to 20 people from all walks of life are split into “tribes” and dropped off in a remote location where they have to make shelter, find food... i.e., survive. Every few days, those tribes compete in “immunity challenges” where the losing tribe must attend “tribal council”, essentially a big group therapy session, and vote one of their own out of the game. Midway through the season, those tribes merge into one and the remaining contestants compete for individual immunity and vote each other out until there are three people remaining. Those three advance to a final tribal council, where the "Sole Survivor", and winner of one million dollars, is chosen by a jury of contestants that have already been voted out.
Now, I must address the unfair and unjust criticisms that Survivor is faked. I’m not going to waste a lot of energy discussing just how hard it would be to script a show like this, and how a lot of the editing and camera work allows for the series to display a clear narrative arc without compromising the legitimacy of the game. Instead, I am going to discuss the three aspects of Survivor and how they work together to reach a higher plane of sports entertainment: Outwit (Strategic), Outplay (Physical), and Outlast (Social). They are not weighted equally, but each one finds a way to make the game engaging on multiple levels.
Outplay is the most simple of the three points, and it is the ability to succeed at the diverse array of challenges that Survivor has, varying from pure physical strength, brainteasers, balance, endurance, or in some cases, a combination of all four. Early on in the game when there are still multiple tribes, the challenges involve teamwork and communication, then later in the season they focus on just the individual. What makes these challenges so interesting is that there are a variety of skills that people must possess to propel them forward; giant, strong meatheads might suck at puzzles and balance challenges while a small yoga instructor could last for hours balancing on a small structure out in the middle of the ocean. There’s not much more to say about the Outplay category, so I’m just going to list two of the best challenges, both team and individual, ever seen on the show.
Battle Dig: This is easily my favorite Survivor challenge, and it is quite simple: two members from each tribe race to a designated spot on a beach, where they dig for a heavy bag in the sand. The first team to get that bag back to their mat wins. What makes this challenge so much fun is its physicality; the contestants can do everything short of striking and choking to stop their opponents. Watching people fight in the sand is undeniably awesome, and it also allows for negative feelings between the tribes to ferment into something tangible.
When It Rains, It Pours: This is an oft-used individual challenge, and its success lies in its simplicity. The contestants stand under a barrel filled with water, with one of their arms attached to a rope connected to the barrel. The contestants must keep their arms held up in the air to prevent the barrel from being pulled down and pouring water on them. This challenge can go on for hours, and Jeff Probst, the host of the show, only makes things more difficult for the participants by offering food to contestants if they step down.
The strategic aspect of Survivor has many levels to it, and in my opinion it’s the most crucial to winning it all. Strategy in Survivor is constant in all aspects of the game, but the nucleus for Outwit is tribal council. In most of the major sports, whatever team or player scores the most points wins the game, but in Survivor, being terrible at the challenges doesn’t matter as long as you can prevent yourself from being voted out by your tribe mates.
It makes sense to first vote out the weakest players who contribute the least to the tribe, and then later to get rid of the players that are the biggest threats to win the game, but this doesn’t always happen, typically because of voting alliances. Having a numbers advantage for voting is quite important, because alliances will form among the players and they will vote as a group to get out players from the opposing alliance. When creating an alliance, strategy-minded players will often surround themselves with people that are not perceived as threats to get jury votes, giving them a better chance of becoming the Sole Survivor.
People who watch the show for long enough will know that often there is a pretty defined pecking order in these alliances, and contestants who are on the bottom of their alliance often know when they are in danger of being voted out. Not all hope is lost for these players though, because there are multiple strategic moves that can be made to keep oneself in the game.
One of these famous strategic plays is the blindside, which occurs when a player is voted out thinking that they were safe, often being betrayed by their own alliance. Blindsides not only make for excellent TV because of how stressful and exciting they are, they’re also a great strategy for people on the bottom of their alliances, hoping to make a big move to turn the tide of the game.
If a player on the bottom is not able to flip the votes in their favor, there is another option in the strategic use of “hidden immunity idols”, small tokens hidden throughout the game that allow the player to be saved from the vote. The catch is, a player must declare that they are playing an idol before the votes are announced. If an idol is played, the person with the next most votes is voted out of the game.
What makes idols so powerful — and dangerous — is that they are placed near the tribes on the island, and can be found through clues that are given to contestants for various reasons. The danger comes from the fact that players usually don’t know when another player has found an idol. Knowledge is power, and like before with the discussion of blindsides, idols create opportunity to cause absolute, unbridled chaos.
Viewers of Survivor often have a very limited comprehension of Outlast, and that is completely reasonable, because it is the most abstract gameplay element in the show. Ironically, it also has the greatest influence on the final outcome of Survivor.
The social game is comparable to what is referred to in other sports as “intangibles”, moves that don’t show up in a box score but have a great influence on the final outcome. Being likeable, making funny jokes, and being perceived as a good story are all part of the social game. It is very hard to win the game if you are not liked, and it is impossible to win the game if the jury does not think you are deserving of the victory. Both these aspects fall under Outlast, and it takes a lot of work to be likeable and show that you are deserving of one million dollars, something that fans of the show often overlook.
One of the most famous players in the history of Survivor is Russell Hantz, a fan favorite that became popular for his incredible strategic plays and villainous style of play, was known to constantly lie and berate his fellow contestants, even bringing some to tears. He made it to the final tribal council twice, but never came close to winning the game because the jury simply hated him. Many fans think he was robbed of a million dollars, but that is an incomplete view of the game. Most Sole Survivors had to lie and blindside at some point to win the game, but there reaches a certain point when the Jury decides that they simply cannot vote for you.
Unlike the sports I mentioned at the top of this post, Survivor always has a fair winner, and the best player always wins their season, because to make it to the end and get the most votes at final tribal council definitively makes you a winner; it is not about which player was the greater physical threat or who had the best strategic mind, the game hinges on who the jury thinks should win, and their opinions are going to differ from someone watching the show.
Some jury votes might be illogical, or downright stupid, but it does not matter because that's the whole point of Survivor. And that’s why it’s the best sport to watch on television, because the human interactions in other popular sports do not translate to victory on the level they do in Survivor, and that human element makes the show so unpredictable, so exciting, and so original. ●
The Recommended Content Widget will appear here on the published site.
The latest from Instagram
Send us your thoughts, opinions, story tips, and more!
UNC Chapel Hill
NC State University
NC A&T State University