Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sports Ethics: The Fragility of Athletes

Just a normal jump tangle going for a rebound in a hard fought close game. A Texas A&M player  Derrick Roland went up, lost the rebound to Washington's Quincy Pondexter. Pondexter and the game raced down the floor, but Roland came down wrong. Pondexter recounted, "I heard a loud slap, like his hand hit the floot, but that was the bone break. It's one of the nastiest things I've ever seen in my life."

I watched the game and along with the  Texas A&M bench could hear the break. Two breaks. The bone stuck out of his leg. Doctors and trainors rushed to his side. The 10,000 boisterous fans fell silent for ten minutes. Roland was rushed to Harbourview trauma center where he had major surgery. The moment silenced the crowd and reminded us all of how fragile and dangerous athletic competition can be.

This weekend the magnificent running back at South Carolina Marcus Lattimore was bursting through the line when two  Tennessee players tackled him with perfectly legal and tough hits . His body twisted and his leg twisted in inhuman ways until it flopped out in an unnatural angle. Tennessee players walked out to stand with him and honor him in his injury. Now he lies in a hospital with his season and possibly his career over. I could go on adding on the innumerable athletes in sport after sport whom have seen their game an careers snatched away by one misstep.

One fall. One slip. One tear. One break.One hit. Every athlete lives with the possibility of his or her sports life ending in a micro-second. Everything they have worked for and valued in themselves can be taken away without a moment's notice, usually by accident or chance.

This hovering fragility lies deep inside the minds of every athlete. It infuses the drive for athletic excellence and performance.


Every athlete is incredibly vulnerable to physical injury. The excellence of athletics builds upon the health of the body. All the character and commitment and mastery depend a sound body. Injuries can come from contact with another athlete or from a mistake or bad luck in execution or a mistake in practice; it lurks everywhere. One wrong cut, an ACL blows; one trip, an ankle goes; one wrong swing, a shoulder locks; one missed twist, a knee tears, a shoulder shreds. One greatness of athletic accomplishment lies in how humans can take this frail but resilient mortal coil and transform it into admirable feats of mastery and discipline. How they can overcome physical limitations and pain to achieve these goals.

This physical foundation can collapse in a mini-second. Every elite athlete has struggled through the pain and despair of injury. All athletes are aware of their own physical mortality, even as it means little to them. To a young athlete in superb shape, immortality seems more the norm than mortality, but it shadows them all.

This vulnerability can tear away the dream, path or livelihood in a second. This ever present vulnerability creates a peculiar fragility that generates a compelling  urgency to compete in game time. All  athletes live with the endless  shadow of injury and bodily expiration date hang over them. 

Most athletes ignore it; can't even acknowledge it. When they face injury, they grapple with it, rehab and overcome it. They learn to view their bodies as allies but also dimensions to be mastered, cared for and feared. If they are good they read the bodies well and carefully. But bodies can betray them. Time betrays bodies, but life, accident, one false move or awful collision and bodies can fail.

The quickness with which it can all disappear raises the intensity of the experience of play. The sheer joy of playing, the satisfaction of mastery, the cordial fun of hanging with team and friends, all reinforce and make athletics worth while. They provide motive, reward and renewal for athletes.

This extreme vulnerability infuses the games with the sense of urgency and intensity. Most athletes know that they live on borrowed time. Their own bodies and skills will break down soon enough. Their own skills will fade or be surpassed by the unrelenting competition of each new generation of younger athletes pushing them to get better and pushing to replace them. All this should remind athletes of the gift and privilege of competing.

The fragility of injury just amplifies this urgency and intensity. Few of us perform jobs whose very structure can take the job away from us. Few of us face the unrelenting competition and demands of each day or performance. Dancers and very high risk workers know the same tradeoff and intensity. Athletes who don't get this, fail to develop or flourish. Athletes who do get it can flame out or like a firefighter or dancer learns to meld performance and intensity and just "do my job."

This explains the hunger and drive of athletes as well as the strained morality of players who seek to play through pain or hide their injuries to get to the field, to compete. For some it may be about money in the rarified pro ranks, but for the vast vast majority, intense play challenges themselves, their bodies, their skills and time. Time and injury shadow every moment saturating athletic action with potential depth and energy. This makes the game worth playing.

Athletes are humans and know they possess  limited tim. They want to draw every ounce of satisfaction from the time they have. They want to play and compete. An injury can also lead to a journey of painful recovery, rehabilitation and hopefully self discovery. When an athlete's achievement is stripped from them with injury, they are challenged to discover the depth of their humanity, not just their identity as an athlete.

Athletes live at an edge of loss and accomplishment that makes competing an embodiment of the existential moment of existence. The very exhilaration of that edge, that danger helps them endure the risk for the reward of play.

Then again, all life is vulnerable and saturated with the possibility of loss. As is often the case, sports simply etches large and clear the reality that underlies all our lives.

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