Monday, November 5, 2012

Sports Ethics: Winning Ugly

A win is a win. This is a fundamental maxim of competitive sport. But a second level of discussion always occurs around how a team wins. Teams can win well; games can be well fought and competitive; teams can give up; games can be one sided, you get the picture. Games won by cheating carry a particular moral stigma and if discovered are discounted; but I have always been fascinated one kind of win—winning ugly. This weekend I witnessed several ugly wins and got a sense of what it means.

The UW football team managed to beat the California football team but not for lack of trying to lose. UW “won ugly” by the assessment of its coaches, players and fans. I recall one sequence where four turnovers occurred in eleven plays and another play where four simultaneous penalties cancelled each other out. The team won but it was an ugly win.

Now ugly is one of those interesting words with a cavernous etymology. It emerges from references to the frightening and horrible and fearful in life. Later versions add a moral meaning of profoundly morally offensive and wrong. By the 15th. Century it had taken on its reference to appearance as something “frightful or horrible” in appearance which set such events apart from the normal run of things that appear unpleasant or unattractive. To be ugly means something really has to be frightful or horrible.

These links bring an ugly win back to its roots in dread and fright. An ugly win despoils the line and form and smooth technique of a sport that provide the aesthetic and performance core. This violation of the internal logic of the sport is reinforced by the external appearance that lacks the smooth crisp precision and power of watching a well-played game.

Remember despite all this the team wins. This accounts for the interesting nature of the word. The team wins but players leave relieved and worn out rather than exhilarated. Many are disgusted or angry at their play, but they still won. This is the type of game coaches breath a sigh of release and at best say, “we can learn a lot from this game.”

Winning ugly means that the quality of play was low by the standards of the sport. The team may “win” but it did not demonstrate fine skill or excellent form. To be blunt, they played badly. Their technical execution was sloppy and not crisp. This lack of execution permeates their fine individual skills as well as messy coordination on schemes and play. I have talked about this moment for an individual when I discussed what it means to have to “grind it out” when a player does not possess his or her best stuff. People have to step up even when they do not have their best skills at hand.

The counterpoint here is when we know a player or team is at the top of their game. We can see the smooth flow and crisp execution and admire and enjoy the sheer virtuosity and skill unfolding before us on the field. Coaches, players and fans have an idea in the back of their mind of what great or perfect form looks like. Sometimes one team will hits their stride or at rare times both teams will be competing at their highest emotional, physical and intellectual level. Those games we remember for their sheer force and beauty.

I believe ugly play moves beyond the failure of execution and the inability of players to discover and deploy excellent form in their assignments. As my example from the Washington game suggests, ugly wins are also riven with mistakes. Teams and players are literally beating themselves in ugly wins.

Ugly wins are larded with an excessive number of penalties, fouls, turnovers, and saturated with errors of the mental and physical varieties. These errors and penalties further disrupt the flow and smooth performance of the game. They take away accomplishments like runs or points scored or give the other team advantages like a penalty kick or an extra man on the field or free throws or loss of a down. The point is that a team starts to beat itself by cumulative errors. The self inflicted errors like off sides in football or steps in basketball or double faults in tennis add up, each one undercutting smooth execution, giving the other side an unearned advantage and denying the team a chance to gain an advantage.

These add up to a form of sloppiness that can be contagious. It can play out as frustration that leads players to try too hard which in turns undermines smooth flowing execution. Errors and mistakes generate anger or frustration with each other, and players can turn on themselves rather than focus upon the other team. The internal cooperative schema can be thrown off, and this lack of synchronicity leads plays to start to not trust each other which in turn leads to more sloppiness as players try to do too much or jump too quickly or mistake hurrying for quickness.

Yet amid this disorganization and mistakes and failures, a team can pull it together just enough to win, and they came to win. Winning when you are playing ugly draws upon its own particular strength and trust that grinding it out also requires. Jim McLaughlin the coach of UW VB team had a similar straggling match this weekend that his team pulled out despite its errors and lack of cohesion. As he put it, “sometimes you've got to just kick, bite, and do whatever you have to do to find a way to win, and we did. Utah played well and we faced some adversity and didn't back down, so that's the good part."

Ugly games possess neither beauty of form nor execution. People labor and stumble and willfully grind out their assignments. Nothing comes easy or flows. It is not pleasant to watch the sport of such a game. Fans and players alike are just glad to get off the field with a win. Their relief comes from an exhaustion that can only come battling incessant mistakes, crumpled confidence and fixing them on the fly. Ugly wins are born usually of desperation and drawing deep. The team hangs on to win, but it does win.


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