Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sport Ethics: "I've Got Your Back."

“I got your back.”

This promise has a profound role in American sports culture and in competitive athletics. The words are deceptively simple but involve a powerful promise that binds individuals together.

Take the words at face value. A person’s back may be their most vulnerable part. Our eyes cannot see behind us, and our ears point forward. The back defines a blind sport where athletes or people can be blind-sided. Notice also protecting another person’s back also assumes not just the vulnerability of the back but that another person or team is out to get a person.

We pledge, “I’ve got your back,” to people who have a vulnerable side and are exposed to competitors out to get them. This pledge binds two people and depends upon trust that the person will in fact be there to protect and that they have the skill and will to do so. Making that pledge takes on a moral responsibility to be there and to be good at what they do.

“I’ve got your back,” anchors the success of a team. It cements trust, loyalty and often competence on the team. On any good team including athletic teams, individuals have defined roles and responsibilities. The roles take tremendous focus, effort and skill. At high performance an athlete narrows their range of vision and effort. To perform at the highest level an athlete must trust that those around them will do their jobs so they can perform theirs. 

Relying upon and trusting the reliability and skill of those working with you permits individuals to commit wholeheartedly to a task. People can take risks and give all their focused energy when they trust others with them have their back.

More significantly when an individual commits and focuses, he or she narrows focus and creates blind sports while zeroing in. Taking this risk and achieving intense concentration depends upon a player not worry about their exposure. They trust their teammates to cover them as in, “I’ve got you covered.” This trust and reliability enable everyone to give their best with unguarded commitment.

For instance in football a linebacker depends heavily upon cornerbacks so that linebackers can read and commit. Fellow linemen on defense depend absolutely upon other linemen to fill a gap so they can stand in their own. In soccer the freedom and initiative of midfielders and forwards to attack depends upon having their backs covered by the defenders to prevent breakaways. I could go on but the point is clear.

Sometimes it is even more real. In contact sports, covering a back involves physically protecting a player’s health. For a quarterback the left offensive tackle protects their blind side. The tackle literally has their back and if they fail the quarterback can be blown up. In basketball weak side help literally covers the back of players who must commit on defense and leave lanes exposed. Another aspect of covering a back includes backing someone up when they make a mistake and covering for them to support the team.

This need to protect and cover explains the central role of constant communication in sports to alert, warn and anticipate. This communication maximizes the safety and the performance of each member of the team. These warnings and protection are the essence of having someone’s back.

Sometimes having a back seems to require retaliation. If an opponent intentionally hurts teammates, players will take it on their own to pay back. Retaliation seems to restore the moral balance of the failure to “have your back,” and deters future actions. When a pitcher risks getting fined or thrown out of a game to hit someone when the other team has hit their player, they “got the back” of their teammates.

“I’ve got your back,” becomes a norm for a team culture. It thrives in a culture engaged in competition and combat with opponents. The promise cements the trust and reliance that empower teammates to focus with abandon on their task and take risks knowing loyal team members protect them.

“I’ve got your back” supports high performance. It deepens the loyalty and self-protection that teammates have for each other. It joins bonds that hold under stress. If a teammate is seen as unreliable and cannot be trusted to protect one’s back, the individual will be ostracized and isolated. The promise defines a moral glue and code.

 “I’ve got your back,” can also lead to moral blindness. It is very hard to rat out a teammate who has protected you. It is very hard to betray someone you have trusted with your own safety or performance. It is very hard to give up someone who has done wrong if they defended you when you were in danger or being outmatched.

This bond of loyalty can be misplaced if it leads teammates to hide malfeasance. Yet one aspect of having a back involves covering for mistakes and being covered in return. The loyalty and bond of having survived competition or combat can lead teammates to simply refuse to believe or see when a person commits a wrong.

Several times I have participated in investigations of wrongful actions involving athletes on a team. The incident does not matter, what matters is how time and time again, no team members would identify what happened. Even if it involved an assault at a party, no one saw it. No one remembered it. Fellow teammates had each other’s backs not just in the performance on the field and together off the field, but the loyalty and bonding carried over to protect the malfeasance.

The simple promise “I’ve got your back,” can mean everything. It embodies loyalty, commitment, and shared membership in a common enterprise. The promise expresses integrity. It can lead people to sacrifice for others and to master their positions and help others do theirs. But, like all human practice, it can close up people and cover up wrong as well as enable the good.

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