It's almost NFL playoff time, which means every two-bit sports reporter and analyst [sic] is talking about teams "in control of their own destiny," by which they normally mean: if they play well, they can get into the postseason.

This is now a maddening (no pun intended) cliche, and I know I'm not alone in wondering: is this not a contradiction? I seem to remember even Steve Young complaining about this a couple of years back right around this time.

destiny (n): the events that will necessarily happen to a particular person or thing in the future

The above definition is from Google dictionary, but I was dismayed to see it followed by this example:

"she was unable to control her own destiny"

Of course she was! Because it was her destiny!

But wait... ESPN did not, apparently, initiate this apparent contradiction. Perhaps they've been taking cues from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, in which Cassius says:

Men at some time are masters of their fates:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings. (1.2.9)

However, you may say, Cassius's entire point is that fate is a foolish notion, that free will reigns.

Still, I return to my initial question, and although it does seem that an all-powerful hand is guiding the NFL (how else to get such parity, compared to the other major sports?), I believe the teams do have control.... just not of their "destiny."

So: contradiction in terms or no? Can NFL teams, or mere individuals, "control" their own "destiny?"

  • 1
    The principle sense defined by CDO is the fate-divorced: destiny noun C1 [C] the things that will happen in the future. 'In control of one's own destiny' is of course a contradiction in terms rather than a paradox if the fate-associated sense is demanded. Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 23:07
  • There's no such thing as destiny. Apart from the word and the responsibility shirking concept, that is.
    – Joe Dark
    Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 0:27
  • They don't mean their destiny -- as @JoeDark points out, there isn't any such thing -- they just mean control of their future actions. Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 2:05
  • 2
    Football commentary is by definition nonsensical.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 3:15
  • 2
    @Rusty Tuba, Hot Licks was compelled.
    – user98990
    Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 3:35

2 Answers 2


The meaning here is quite specific. A team controls its own destiny if it reaches the playoffs by winning all its remaining games regardless of the outcome of other games.

So, for example: Suppose there is one game remaining, Teams A and B are tied in the standings with one to qualify for the playoffs, and Team A has a tie-breaking advantage over Team B for some reason. In the last regular game, A plays C and B plays D. A controls its destiny: it qualifies with a win over C. B does not. It needs not only to win, but moreover for A to lose. (Modify as necessary for games where draws occur.)

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    This is exactly right. As the term is understood idiomatically, a team that "controls its own destiny" doesn't have to rely on help from other teams in order to reach the playoffs. Simply by winning all (or some smaller number) of its remaining games, it can ensure that it will qualify for the playoffs.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 5:44

Due to the intricacies of the English language, the phrase is commonly bent to represent someone influencing outcomes based on changeable variables (a good example is Andrew Lazarus's Answer), but the fact remains that, at it's core definition, it IS a contradiction because destinies do not have changeable variables. They are predetermined and absolute.

Define the keywords:

"Destiny" is defined as "the events that will necessarily happen to a particular person or thing in the future."

"Control" is defined as "the power to influence or direct people's behavior or the course of events."

Now put the two together in a logical equation:

"events that will necessarily happen" == "power to influence course of events"

You cannot influence events that will necessarily happen. They happen necessarily, with or without your help/interference.

That makes the above logic false, which indicates a contradiction.

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