Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sports Ethics: Play Through Pain

“Pain is your friend.”  “Pain lets you know you are still alive.” “Pain is good.” So Master Chief yells at the beleaguered SEAL recruits in a great movie G.I. Jane.

This lesson, so central to military life, pervades the moral culture of athletic competition. Every athlete trying to be a warrior, and here athletics draws heavily from millennial old origins as preparation for life combat, must learn to fight through pain and to seek goals despite  hurt and obstacles. Playing through pain is a central moral tenet of sports. It exemplifies three virtues critical to athletic success: self-mastery; courage; sacrifice.

It does not matter the moment we tune into sports, but pain splays through the games and the wounded fall before us with startling regularity. If we were not so inured to the carnage, we would be appalled by our callousness. This last month twenty five and counting baseball starters are out for at least three months. Seven Boston Red Sox outfielders alone are on the disabilities list. The first week of NFL pro to-practice saw at least three players end their seasons before even doning pads.  Derek Rose writhed on the floor with an ACL and the Chicago Bulls saw their playoff hopes collapse. The great Junior Seau committed suicide, too much pain. The NFL continues to try to bring to justice the players who deliberately attempted to end the effective careers of other league players through injuring them, not just pain. And this is only one month! 

All this endless pain in sports and life means we should not forget master chief’s lessons.. Pain is our friend, because pain signals to the athlete that his or her body has stressed beyond the point where it can continue to function at full efficiency and still be healthy. Pain signals deeper injury, inflammation, nerve overload, neurotransmitters warning and adrenalin flooded emergencies. The body floods itself with chemicals to deal with pain; some seek to quiet the pain, others to kick up the level  of awareness or body performance for a short time to get through the pain. Sometimes the body narrows the focus of the mind and eyes to prepare for and overcome the danger that body announces.

The ability of an athlete to be aware of and monitor their pain is important. In every sport every athlete lives with attrition of physical skill and strength over a season. They realize there are times when as an athlete they need to play with the pain because it is bearable and will not detract form their performance level. There are moments when they need to demonstrate courage to their teammates and encourage them to also play with a reasonable level of pain out of loyalty to each other; the contagion of a leader, if he or she can do it, so can I.

Last year Washington State University started a redshirt freshman quarterback Connor Halliday against Utah. It was his first start after a stunningly successful first game the week before. He played on cloud nine full of energy and adrenal protection. During the game he took some hard hits and suffered contusions and injuries, nothing that seemed out of the ordinary for the normal pain and injury that football inflicts upon its players. Yet later that day he ended up int he emergency room with a lacerated liver. The WSU doctors had run all the regular and protocol based tests when he was injured and nothing came up. This type of injury remains internal and not immediately evident; its pain should have alerted the quarterback of the severity. But like so many young athletes in the thrall of competition and loyalty and cortisol induced protection from pain, Halliday did not recognize the signals or refused the listen to them; he was going to play come hell or hi water.  To understand the culture of sport and athletes, it is important to listen to what his coach said after complimenting him for  "unbelievably courageous outing." "He hung in there and took hits and threw the ball under duress and pain. I'm very proud of his toughness and grit."

Yet even bearable pain may be a reason to leave the field. First, as in the case of the young quarterback, it may be the tip of an extensive set of damages not yet fully unfolded. It may be the warning signal that the body is pushing limits and catastrophic failure is shortly to occur. Playing on may intensify injuries or magnify the range of the loss. Secondly, even a bearable injury can detract from performance. It may be that a player hurts her or his team by staying on the field as an act of courage or self-mastery. Yet this important point is often missed and when Jay Cutler left the field of play for this reason the NFL's professional football semi-finals, he was vilified.

Pain serves a survival function and as an early warning system to people about the need to protect and attend to their body. It alerts athletes that worse is on the way if they keep pressing against the signals of the body. The young quarterback could have destroyed his life.

Pain manifests as a real physiological phenomena exhibited by neural and chemical responses. But pain is also experienced subjectively, and many persons have different responses to the same physical impact; they read their body differently. Individuals can be trained to deal with higher levels of pain, physical or mental, over time. Dealing with high levels of pain can be learned, and levels of pain that would paralyze a person at the beginning of training can be tolerated and functioned through later.

People experience pain subjectively, and the classic medical scales ask patients to rate pain 1-10. In real life, people might talk of mild or unbearable. It might be stabbing or throbbing or intermittent. It might explode or linger and thrum. The scaling and different manifestations make diagnosing and living with pain an art, not a science.

Sometimes the pain recedes because the pain initially signaled a level of muscle, vascular or pulmonary performance that the sport required pushing past. Pushing past meant experiencing the braying complaints of lungs, muscles and mind as the athlete learns to develop higher levels of endurance, strength or odd skills that require unique vascular and muscle specializations. The capacity of the body to function without hurting itself grows with practice and strength.

At other times the pain simply reflects bodily disorder and breakdown. The picture of Curt Schilling with blood flowing from a bone sticking through his foot as he pitches the Red Sox to a World Series win exemplifies the play through pain mystique and myth and imperative of sports. Jack Youngblood finishing a football game with a broken leg also ranks in the pantheon.

The key to remember is that  playing through pain has serious short and long term costs. First, pain distracts the athlete. It takes indirect concentration and focus to keep the pain at bay, and this distracts from utter complete presence to the task at hand. Second, the pain diminishes actual physical performance and limits physical actions. When a player is injured, they can often keep playing with adrenalin and team loyalty and support holding them together. But once on the sideline the adrenaline falls, the contagious strength of a huddle falters and the full measure of pain explodes and debilitates the player. The next time they go out, the deterioration of performance becomes obvious.

Finally, pain’s early warning nature signals later cost. Players who keep playing through the pain like a torn meniscus just tear the meniscus apart until they play bone on bone. Players with a ripped muscle continue to fray the muscle or micro-fracture grows into a greater break in the bone. Players compensate on the field and in compensating put excessive stress on other unprepared bones and muscle and end up multiplying injuries. The longer the player plays through the pain, the longer the healing and the greater the possibility of more injury and hence even longer healing. In my world of college athletes, the most common medical reason for waivers after major immediate injuries like ACL or broken bones involves players coming back too early, not giving their injury or body time to fully heal.

It makes perfect sense to play through certain types of pain. The accumulated aches, pains, strains, twists and bruises of a season nag at performance and harass a player’s focus. Good athletes know their own bodies well. They usually know when their body has reached its limits. Good athletes, like good professionals, learn to master these physical pains. They also learn to master and play through the mental pains that arise from daily life that ensnare daily suffering or worries about family or child or finances or breakups or friends. Playing through these pains mirrors a primary moral requirement of life.

The legendary status of playing through pain deserves its moral status. To do this humans manifest honor, strength of will, loyalty to goal and team. These are admirable traits and deserve praise. So modern athletes will “power through.”

But we have learned that more often than not playing through the pain of major injuries or threatening injuries makes no sense for athlete or team either in short run or long run. This is especially true for younger athletes who do not have the fine grained sense of their bodies or a well developed sense of self-preservation. This is why college and high school athletics must have independent and empowered doctors on the field to stop the athletes and stop the coaches when they prefer to risk the Achilles Choice that I have often discussed  to seek glory and victory.

The sacrifice of playing through pain makes little moral sense for young or college athletes. Players and doctors know this, even if coaches regularly forget it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Rules for Home Team Loyalties

In America loyalty to our home team brands our soul and anchors  identity. We move around so much, change jobs, change locations that we often lose track of friends, localities and even identities. Creating and holding onto a personal identity is hard enough without social and geographic mobility and technological disruption to constantly force revaluations. In addition humans take on the coloration of the environment and peers around them. While basic character traits often remain stable, values, loyalties and commitments can shift with displacement and moving.

America makes it hard to forge let alone maintain a sense of self and community across time and distance. One of the classic American solutions has been to moor one aspect of our personal identity through affiliation with sports teams. Rooting for a sports team anchors us in a place and locality. I have not lived in Kansas City for forty years, but I still follow the Kansas City Chiefs and Kansas City Royals. That thread of loyalty and casual checking of daily scores reminds me of my home. It recalls hours sitting with my family arguing over games, yelling at coaches and living and dying by Jan Stenerud field goals or George Brett doubles. The names may not be familiar to you, but they evoke a sense of place and time that reminds me of my roots. These names and memories  weave through the narrative of my own story and self-hood even as it grows and changes.

Team loyalty travels with us. I can follow my teams from a distance and still strengthen the narrative thread of my life. It reminds me of where I came from and where my family and friends grew up. When we come together we can bridge time, distance and even politics with memories of teams and outings as well as campfire sitting around the hearth of TV watching games while catching up on family or friendship. Being loyal to a team combines communal, familial and place bound loyalty and self.

Many remain in their home cities. This badge of affiliation is reinforced by proximity and saturation with news and by handing on these connections to their own family. Others leave and acquire other connections.. In my own career I've lived in Michigan and fondly rooted for the Detroit Tigers. I lived in New Jersey and rooted against the Yankees along with most of New Jersey and I lived in Boston and managed to avoid the contagion of Red Sox nation where your DNA somehow transmutes into a vaguely humanoid fan form. But I ended up marrying someone from Seattle and settling here and raised my children here. It's now been over 20 years and I consider myself an abiding Mariner's fan--not a fate to be wished upon people. Mariner loyalty like Cub loyalty goes to prove that sport team loyalty is not a form of collective egotism designed to enhance one's self of superiority. It sinks deeper into us and becomes an American surrogate for connection to place, work, family and community where a person lives.

This dilemma and reality came up when my daughter moved to Boston and wondered about how to manager her team loyalties. She now faces a moral dilemma. She's a born and bred Seattle Mariner's fan. Her family and geographic identity are bonded to her loyalty to the team. Like so many Americans she left her home to strike out on her own. She is choosing exile in Boston! Now she faces the gut wrenching and identity twisting dilemma of how to assign her sports loyalties.

She sadly is linked, thanks to my own madness, to the Mariners as an avatar of her community and a source of memory and passion linked to our  our family watching the games or obsessively following the scores. She knows the subtle madness of a losing streak and the insane joys of riding a winning streak. She's already had time in New Jersey (no threat to anyone's team loyalties) and just a year in Chicago (not enough to be corrupted). But she plans to stay in Boston for awhile and has attended a Red Sox game in the  Fenway Park.

So far she has navigated the swirling waters of American identity well. Most Americans construct plural identities across time and space. I have devised a few rules of thumb for sports fans about how to manage their sport team loyalties and most important when can they switch or add to their loyalties without selling their souls or rejecting their foundational bonds.These rules are especially important for those of us who move to new cities or localities and live there for awhile.

Rules of thumb for team loyalty:
  • Always hold your home team in your heart even if you only follow it on occasion. 
  • It is OK to find another team to root for, but there are conditions:
    • Find a team in another division or league to follow
    • It is always OK to root for a team in a different sport if your home has no team in that sport, or if the home team arrived on the scene after you left home. 
    • If you live in a town for over five years, you can permit yourself some attachment with the new local team
    • After ten years you can actually root for the team in your new home, but you still have to have a fondness for your home team.
    • If you marry or partner with a local citizen, you can root for the new home team, but just having a boyfriend or girlfriend is not enough to change.
    • If you have children in the new city, you should let them know their true roots but you can root with them for the false home team
    • After fifteen years, it is OK to call your new team your home team, especially if the new team has become your children's home team. 
    • But it is never OK to root for the usurper home team when they play your real home team, NEVER. 
    • If any local  team makes a championship run, you can enjoy the ride regardless of how long you have lived there.

After a decade or so, it's OK to give our new location, friends and family some some semblance of loyalty, but nothing should ever replace our primordial loyalty to the true home team. This is why my daughter has to be careful. The Boston Red Stockings, or "Sox"  do flaunt their world championships. The real danger lurks deeper. The Red Sox fans lived so long in pain, that their secret rage erupts like in 28 Days Later. The rage of Red Sox nation devours all vestiges a person's humanity.You don't quite become a flesh eating zombie, but like Yankee fans, you are not quite human anymore.

Moving to a new place is not just a geographic exercise or adventure in a new life and career. Any move contains a threat to your soul and identity.

My advice to my daughter, follow the north star of the Mariner's compass rose. Don't forget where you come from. Don't succumb to the siren songs of a new sports kingdom, even if it offers you world championships. Keep the faith and follow the rules. .

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Bull Durham—the Costner Baseball Movie Trilogy

Well the baseball season has reached the 30.9% mark. Interleague play has begun and the Mariners are on their way to another 90 game loss season. I thought I would celebrate by reminding myself of another great baseball movie and the middle movie of the Costner baseball trilogy—Bull Durham.

Baseball is a discipline of failure. The greatest hitters fail two-thirds of the time, and the greatest pitchers fail to throw strikes half the time. Succeeding in a world saturated by failure takes self-mastery and resilience. The protagonist Crash Davis of Bull Durham, one of my absolute favorite moves, embodies the stoic dignity of failure.
Kevin Costner as Crash Davis, a little thicker, still carries his lanky handsome athletic build and grace (he actually hit two home runs in the making of the movie) plays a professional minor league player. Crash has earned his skill as an accomplished catcher and manager of pitchers who could not quite master major league hitting. He’s grizzled, cynical, self-educated and droll. Unlike the Costner character in Field of Dreams, but similar to his character in For Love of the Game, Crash lives alone with baseball as his path and profession. He has been known to “howl at the moon.”

Crash lives in the shadows of the glory of the major leagues in the grubby perpetual minors. Annie (Susan Sarandan), the movie’s narrator and muse, upholds upholds baseball’s mythical status. As part time community college lecturer in Durham, she introduces the movie with a reminder, “I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. …I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball...You see, there's no guilt in baseball, and it's never boring…It's a long season and you gotta trust it. I've tried 'em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.”

At this Triple A graveyard for perpetual veterans and launch pad for hotshots, Annie picks one player each year to initiate into the church through reading poetry and love-making. In Bull Durham she has adopted to mother and play with Eby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) an immensely talented fire-balling air-head with the focus of an amoeba.
Crash Davis is approaching the end of his baseball career having once been blessed 21 wondrous days in the show, the Major Leagues.  By a fluke of longevity and talent he needs only 1 home run to achieve the minor league record of 247 home runs. The Durham Bulls bought his AAA contract to tutor the incredibly talented picture and Annie’s protégé “Nuke” LaLoosh. Nuke has just pitched a game in which he walked 18, hit, stuck out 18 as well as hitting the sportscaster, public address announcer and the mascot bull—he has “serious shit.” More to the point Crash announces he has “a million dollar arm with a five cent head.”

As the “player to be named later,” Crash enters just as the manager of the Bulls tells a young player “the organization has decided to make a change,” and a very young player’s dreams end. The movie highlights how genuinely young all the players are and how many will fall by the wayside trying to gain the holy grail, the Bigs, the Show, the Majors.

The cold ruthless culling of all elite sports looms in the background just as the incredibly fine difference between making it and failing. Yet the players are playing a game that flows from joy, fun and intense competitiveness. A desperate player points out it beats selling appliances at Sears. Crash recognizes the man-child in them all. He can still sneak out with the very young players one night to flood the field, slide in the mud and create a rain day. When the manager complains that the team is not paying attention, Crash reminds him, “they’re kids, scare’em.”
The manager follows his advice with one of the greatest explanations of sport in movie history. Throwing bats on the floor in the shower and cowering the team in the shower stall, the manager screams,

“it’s a simple game, you throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball .”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is baseball, pure and clean. I mean how hard can it be hit a rotating 2.78 inches ball at 97 mph with a 2.75 inch piece of ash?

You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball.

The movie reminds us that at the core of sport is simple, based upon natural human actions. Yet like great baroque music, these singular themes permit infinite variations that demand high skill from players and induces joy and satisfaction in the spectators.

Crash reluctantly becomes big brother to the young players. With Nuke, Crash has to break Nuke of the habit of relying on talent with no discipline and teach him how to learn. In one memorable incident, Nuke repeatedly shakes off his catcher to throw his “heater.” Crash smiles and lets Nuke throw, of course Crash tells the batter what is coming and the batter hits it a mile, a country mile. Crash gloats over how far the home run travelled and alerts Nuke that Crash let the hitter know to prove to Nuke who is boss. Nuke will have to relearn the lesson constantly.
Despite his callow flakiness, Nuke does not have a bad heart but is spoiled by a world that has value his talent and never asked that he grow up or mature. When Nuke tells Crash “you don’t like me.” And Crash lays out a professional’s credo, “Because you don't respect yourself, which is your problem. But you don't respect the game, and that's my problem. You got a gift….When you were a baby, the Gods reached down and turned your right arm into a thunderbolt. You got a Hall-of-Fame arm, but you're pissing it away.”

Slowly, with pain and wit, Nuke learns these lessons, sort of. He even learns Crash’s famous critique of strike-outs and defense of off speed pitches, Relax, all right? Don't try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they're fascist. Throw some ground balls - it's more democratic.”

The slow comic arc of learning to grow up and take a child’s game seriously is held together by a fun and sexy romance. The movies draws us into the world of aspiring dreams and uneven talent. Not everyone we meet will make the major leagues, in face most will fail. Crash and the movie teach about about resilience and about failure while reminding us, like Field of Dreams, that beneath the game lies the reality and importance of love.

Costner provides a tired lonely dignity to a man who has found his path. He purused it with passion, skill and dignity only to just miss. He scored a “cup of coffee” in the majors and remembers it as a shining moment he can share with the rookies whom will never see the promised land,  “yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once - the 21 greatest days of my life. You know, you never handle your luggage in the show, somebody else carries your bags. It was great. You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, and the women all have long legs and brains.”

The movie reminds us that desire, effort and practice are NOT enough. A player needs a gift, a talent from the gods. Even that is not enough, you need the talent and the discipline and respect to make it all come together. This becomes the lesson that Crash must hand on to Nuke. In the end Nuke does get called up with his gift and the seeds of maturity that Crash has planted, he may have a chance.

At the end the depth of Costner’s own loss and failure are revealed. After Nuke’s call up, Crash ends up at a bar—alone, drinking, ruing his loss. Nuke comes by to thank him, and Costner explodes in fury at the merciless statistical cruelty of baseball. His monologue spits out that the difference between 250 and 300 is 25 hits. 25 dying quails, flares. 25 hits that’s all kept him from the promised land, and he can only stare with awe and anger at the world Nuke will enter with his gift, a world Nuke neither understands or appreciates.

Throughout the movie the triangle among Nuke, Annie and Crash has unfolded with Annie and Crash realizing they belong together in a relation of mature equals, but they can’t act on it during the season to protect Nuke's own fragile ego and burgeoning success.

In the end Crash experiences what we saw at the beginning, “management has decided to make a change,” his manager tells him as he is released. But the manager also tells Crash that he will recommend Crash to be a coach next season, a perfect fit for Crash and baseball. Crash leaves, picks up with the Ashville Tourists and breaks the record, only Annie notices. The movie ends with Crash returning to Annie to begin a real relationship with a woman he can love.

The movie accepts the mythical sense of baseball’s uniqueness and inner joy but does not fall in bloated allegory like The Natural or reverence like The Lou Gehrig Story. Instead it weaves the joy and beauty of the game with the flawed, loopy and intense folks who inhabit its reality. Crash Davis learns and so does Annie that baseball can sustain you but it cannot fulfill you. 

Crash still loves the game and respects its incredible difficulty. He can hand this wisdom on to the next generation and others have seen this. His manager recommends him for a coaching job even as he must cut him. But baseball will be woven into the texture of his life, not be his life, as he move sin with Annie.

As Annie reminds us, “Baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but it's also a job.”

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Sports Ethics: Keep Cool

A paradox lies at the heart of all athletic judgment. To succeed requires passion and commitment, but achievement also demands cool judgment under immense pressure. In the heat of athletic competition especially in a contact sport, opponents will strive to deceive or intimidate or push or shove an athlete to throw him or her off their game. Coaches will even calling a time out to “ice” an opponent’s penalty shot aims at that end. Opponents try to “get inside your head” and distort an athlete’s judgment.

Mind games, physical intimidation, teasing, trash talk, pushing and shoving have one aim, to jumble an athlete’s fine tuned pattern recognition and judgment. The heat of competition disrupts the cool of judgment.

The capacity to channel passion and intensity into refined perception and quality judgment is the hallmark of any successful professional and especially athletes. The stress of endless competition within a person’s teams and against other opponents magnifies this.

The need to keep your cool stands in marked contrast the emphasis upon honing physical skill. Cognitive discipline, energy and time must be devoted to master the physical aspects. The excitement, however, of competing presses upon this cognitive control of the body.

Cool means excercising trained perception and judgment under chaotic conditions. In “the mind’s eye” reminds us how powerfully visual humans are; almost 70 percent of our perceptual energy is devoted to vision. In his or her mind’s eye athletes and professionals call up trained knowledge and assessments. They see, assess and judge; sometimes the judgments are so honed that they look like reactions or intuitions, but are really trained exercises of experienced judgment.

A firefighter, social worker, doctor or athlete all have the same obligation to think and act professionally under pressure. This means relying upon the trained intuition and a schema of knowledge and reaction that they have trained to engrave in their minds and bodies.
I use the word obligation because in team sports or activities, team members rely upon an individual to keep cool. Team members execute their own charges while assuming their teammates will do the same. If one person fails, the entire scheme falls apart.

Court leaders like setters, quarterbacks, catchers, middles or point guards demonstrate this best when they read unfolding situations and call plays. Players must recognize deceptions and traps. All the team members play off and coordinate with each other even when a broken play occurs. This built up trust and mutual understanding permits decision makers to make something from nothing.

This can only occur if players are paying attention to the play and to each other. It only can occur if their minds are fully integrated with flow and demands of a situation. An angry player misses cues or gets even or makes mistakes or commits fouls. A player replaying a mistake or the last play will not be crisp in the present play. When athletes “lose it” they start a cascade effect on their team and offer opportunities to opponents.

Keeping your cool may be natural for some phlegmatic types but most athletes and professionals have to learn it the hard way. When a player arrives at a professional self-discipline, they arrive at much higher levels of consistent achievement and help all players around them be better. Being professional means being mature and keeping one’s cool enables players to trust and react with confidence in each other’s consistency.

To keep your cool is central to athletic ethics and success. I think this is why I find the hockey enforcer so profoundly wrong. Designating a player to lose their cool, attack and try to hurt others violates any moral defense of sports as a worthy activity. The bounty hunting in the NFL violates the same moral code. To make uncontrollable and unpredictable violence a required part of an athlete’s job stabs at the heart of sport ethics and human achievement. The ugliness of the modern American hockey game as well as the psychological and physical cost to the so called “enforcers” speaks for itself.

Keeping cool is at the center of high quality execution, performance and team cohesion. This reality reminds me of a hoary old truth from Rudyard Kipling’s IF.

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too…
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same…

You can be an athlete.