Thursday, January 24, 2013

Sports Ethics: Why Athletes say "Good Luck"

"Good luck."

I was counting down the carnage of both college and professional football seasons. I lost count at over 120 people lost for the season. UW lost six starters within weeks. The NFL is so riven with injuries that the league mandates weekly reports on injuries. The baseball  season winds down the the grind of 162 games more and more players lands on the disabled list through sheer attrition regression. This endless array of injury and harm reminds us why athletes wish each other good luck.

These few words are central to the morality of sports competition. Athletes exchange these words with competitors and fellow teammates. The common phrase expresses a core relation in competition among athletes. To wish someone luck recognizes them as fellow competitors in a difficult intense endeavor where good athletes prepare in every way possible. That preparation displays their commitment and focus and enables their talent to be pushed to its greatest potential. The words also reveal that the competitors seek to win on the basis of skill and competition, not on the basis of injury and harm to other competitors. Athletic competition is not war nor based upon hatred, but rather a respect, sometimes grudging, that exists across individuals who may not like each other but understand and recognize commitment and excellence in performance.

Preparation, effort and focus matter and prepare athletes for the highest competition against their opponents. But every athlete knows luck enters into the equation.

Many kinds of luck affect them, especially situational luck such as a bad or good bounce or slippery surface or bad call. The "luck of the game" pervades sports and life. Most athletes accept this and understand the arbitrary and conniving nature of such luck.

I want to address a very particular type of luck that involves  staying healthy in competition. Any commentator projecting a career prefaces it with "if he can stay healthy" as the fundamental condition of having any success.  Every athlete knows that their career can be taken from them in a nanosecond. One misstep, one cut, one crash, one accidental block--the causes of athletic injury are endless. But athletic morality relies upon the fact that such injuries are not intentional; they occur from bad luck or as side effects of both athletes intentionally seeking to execute their roles, but not intentionally seeking to maim or end the career of the other athlete. The former involves luck, the latter criminal mayhem.

At its core, good luck extends wishes that a fellow athlete not suffer sudden injury that harms  and ruins their ability to play. A twisted ankle on a cut, a knee giving out, a concussion from a trip, fall or slam, a blown ACL on a cut or sliding tackle. A hundred different ways, all unforeseen, many not yet envisioned, can ruin an athlete's day, year or career. This wish of good luck reaffirms that an athlete would rather win "fair and square" against the best the opponent has to offer rather than win because the other athlete was injured. The injury brings a win and no athlete will reject the win; but the winning athlete knows that it was not a true and complete test because they did not face the best the opponent could offer. Good luck offers a wish for health but also for the ultimate competition, not a wounded one.

The Roman goddess Fortuna carried a cornucopia from which she poured out her largess, but she wore blindfolds so the gifts are distributed with no connection to moral desert. Good as well as bad flowed from her, and behind her the wheel of fortune turned inexorably demonstrating how capricious fortune's "gifts" could be. Athletes know this better than most people.They know despite their intense physical preparation, it can all be taken away in a nanosecond. This awareness lies on the back of their minds, and they do not wish it for themselves or even upon a fellow competitor.

This reflects the athletic code, when it works, that sees opponents as just that, opponents and fellow competitors, not as enemies. An enemy crosses a moral boundary. Facing an enemy is a different moral endeavor than facing a competitor, so acknowledging their mutual vulnerability both respects fellow athletes and respects fortuna who haunts them all. Athletes play hard against each other. In contact sports they play hard, hit hard and everyone hurts. But trying to deliberately injure another athlete and take away their capacity to play, to take away their dream and skill on purpose violates the core of an moral athletic code.

Because athletic excellence depends on the body, athletic achievement remains under considerable control because individuals can devote immense trained effort to build and support their body. But the body remains vulnerable and fragile in so many ways. Repetition, striking, contact, intense pressure from the force of arms, legs knees on surfaces take their toll, and bodies break and fold and strain. Accidental contact with other athletes, it all happens every day in their lives. Athletic life can end in a micro-second. Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman, Joe Thiesman, even Petyon Manning, the list goes on, largely in football, but every athlete stands a second from having their career ripped away.

Good athletes know this of themselves and the rigors of their sport. They know their own fragility even as they deny it and train to overcome it. In true competition and fellowship they wish to best the best of their competitors and work with the best of their teammates. That best can be destroyed by the luck of injury; it hobbles their competitors and weakens their team and weakens them since they must not push themselves as hard to achieve success. Bad luck takes away the glory and satisfaction of winning.

True athletes, true competitors wish good luck as a ritual of respect for each other and for the sport they pursue.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Lessons of Pete Carroll's Hair

We can learn a lot from Pete Carroll's hair. I finished watching the NFL Conference Championships and got my fill of the scowling hat wearing brothers Harbaugh or the stone faced hoodie wearing Belichick and the guy from Atlanta. They all take lessons from the same coaching school where coaches don’t show emotion and never ever ever (to quote Taylor Swift) smile. They know how to scowl, stare, and in Jim Harbaugh’s case, simmer in coiled anger until exploding in ax-murder tantrums. Watching this breed of coach made me miss Pete Carroll ex of USC and presently of the Seahawks. More to the point, I missed Pete’s hair because his hair tells us a lot about how to be a good coach.

 I teach at Washington so I do not see Carroll as a paragon. He is a ferocious and cold-eyed competitor and built a superb dominating program at USC. After talking to friends, I don’t believe he fled to escape the looming sanctions that hit the program (I do believe he should have known about the Reggie Bush issues and under modern NCAA rules would be responsible for the mess)—I do believe he had unfinished business with the NFL, believed he had reached his college ceiling at USC and had an amazing offer to build an NFL program his way from Paul Allen. Carroll had nothing more to prove to himself in college football but a whole new world to conquer in professional football.

I decided that Pete’s hair (
held the key after watching him coach the Seahawks to one of their seven improbable fourth quarter victories this year. His mind never stopped racing; his jaw never stopped working on the gum; and his emotions flashed across his face in utter transparency. When the team made a mistake you knew; when they succeeded you knew. But above all his platinum hair flawlessly disheveled remained resolutely in place through all the emotional, intellectual and physical gyrations of the game. Storm, suprises, violence, purpose and platinum order amid the game chaos.

Carroll freely admits that his emotions sometimes got the better of him and he makes high-risk calls. He now expects his assistants to get in his face and remind him of the real risks association with his own high-roller instincts honed so successfully in college. Carroll likes to take chances, big chances, and in college with USC’s dominance, it usually worked. Professional ball creates a different calculus and the talent differential will not carry a team; Carroll has learned this the hard way. It tempers his emotions, but won’t dampen them.

He understands that his own emotions can catalyze and support his players. In college this matters more profoundly with 20 year-old young men, but Carroll believes that professional players are not so jaded that contagious energy cannot be created and sustained on the sidelines by the coaches. He is correct.

I do not want to romanticize the hard driving relentless and ruthless side of being a coach. In his first two years, the Seahawk roster churned through players faster than any three other teams combined. Like all winning coaches, Carroll must and will replaceunderperforming players, even veterans and players he respects and likes, with younger, hungrier and more talented players. His staff has scoured every heap of players and every league, but once in Seattle, players get a real chance to earn their shot. His team could fall apart with its intense never ending “everyone competes every day” philosophy, but he infuses this with a passion and exciting dimension that players actually can sense the fun that brought them to the game originally.

Unlike the Belichik/Harbaugh School of coaching, Carroll still believes that football can be fun for players and for coaches. He knows how demanding the game can be. He pushes his players and will cut and churn the roster to get talent and fit. He knows how quickly players and coaches go from hero to goat; but he remembers at his core that this fiercely competitive game is a game and a fun one at that. His entire approach from recruiting, to training, to cutting to game play is infused with that celebration.

Belichick’s players will dutifully say that they grew under him, and he got the best out of them. No one will say they enjoyed it or had fun. Jim Harbaugh’s players form an us against them cult and play with a chip and intensity that scares everyone. The Seahawks play hard, physical, brute and intimidating football. Their defense anchors them which surprises folks when they want to picture Pete Carroll as a laid back west coast kind of guy. The players know the drill and costs but like playing for him and will acknowledge they are having fun in the process. Dare I say it playing for Carroll can be cool.

When he used to coach at USC and regularly whump us, I wondered if Carroll did not have a portrait of Dorian Grey somewhere—you know, where the real Pete Carroll had a widow’s beak, age spots and grew fat and waddled. I still worry about it sometime, but I’ve seen the wrinkles and crinkles, the minor blemishes and know that the hair takes really really good product and blow-drying.

Coaches should take a cue from Pete Carroll’s hair in its glorious tousled impeccability (is that a word?)—Passionate but focused; aware but decisive; disciplined but open; unruly but never disarrayed.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

If Lance Armstrong is Wrong, Vote against PED Baseball Players

Open season has begun on Lance Armstrong—again. His ferocity, arrogance and success generate immense distrust and accusation. His American success in Europe’s second most corrupt sport, cycling, spawned envy, cynicism, attack and hero worship. I was one of the hero worshippers for his success in a European sport, his beating cancer and his devotion to a foundation that helped give hope to cancer fighters. I still wear my Live Strong bracelet given to me by my son for my own struggles. Now I know and cannot deny that Armstrong had created a massive and systematic blood doping apparatus that drove his seven wins. He pressured his entire team to join. Hedenounced his doubters and regulatory organizations. His hubris created the opportunity for a second round of indictments that brought him down.

Now everyone and anyone, including disillusioned ex-supporters such as myself, are excoriating him, demonizing him and doing their best to belittle even his cancer work and battles. The media demonstrate its typical blood lust that galvanizes them whenever they can destroy another icon or public figure. Some of this goes deeper though and  emerges from long suppressed anger and envy of the journalists and organizations whom he had dismissed and attacked over the years. For many of us, however, I believe it arises from a righteous anger not just at him and the myth he represented but from our own, my own, sense of betrayal. But he did not just betray me or us, we betrayed ourselves by investing so much belief in him and connecting him to precious ideals of integrity, commitment, and devotion. This belief permitted me and us to forgive his arrogance and deny the mounting evidence. This anger at Lance Armstrong burns as much against our selves as it does against him.

I do not think I am a prig. I do not expect my heroes to be perfect. All of us make mistakes; all of us sin. I try to respect and admire people in their domains of achievement. I can admire and respect a sports figure whose accomplishes  reflect focused mental and physical discipline and skill. I do not expect the achiever to be a saint or perfect in the rest of his or her life just as I would not expect it of an artist, lawyer, or doctor. People will be selfish, vain, self-interested and sometimes driven by passion to do stupid things. They may betray their families, make bad investments, lose their temper or let the false hubris of fame and celebrity get to them. I accept this as part of the human condition. My heroes do not have to be perfect humans, just women and men who accomplish great feats in domains of life I follow and admire.

My issues with Lance Armstrong go deeper than he broke the law of his sport in order to win and the issues apply to others like the recent controversy about whether baseball performance enhancing drug users should in the Hall of Fame.

I think we should note that if we jump on the hate Lance Armstrong band wagon, we need to be very clear that we also have to reject all the putative baseball hall of famers coming up for votes like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens—they should not be voted into the hall of fame and rewarded for their own inhuman accomplishments. You cannot have it one way with Armstrong and another with the PED baseball players.

There are a slew of baseball guys, most known and identified in the Mitchell report, who achieved their outsized success because drug use gave them greater returns in strength, recovery and speed for the same training effort of their peers. I use Bonds and Clemens as surrogates  because they epitomize the endless self-righteous denials, riches, arrogance, iconic status, perverted athletic skill, and counterattacks that characterized Armstrong.

I want to address three issues surrounding Armstrong and the baseball PED users that disqualify them all from our respect. In Armstrong’s case, these lead to his victories being taken away because he used performance enhancing drugs—he is stripped of victories and titles. Baseball has no such way to deny the full moral worth of ill begotten gains such as wins or records, but baseball can, at least, deny these players entry into its hall that recognizes great athletic achievement. I wanted to focus on athletic achievement. Nothing about the Hall of Fame says you have to be a good person, otherwise Ty Cobb would not be there.

What are the problems with what Armstrong, Bonds and Clemens did? At one level we could say they broke the rules of the sport and even broke the law of the land. This is clearly true of Armstrong and only true for Bonds and Clemens later in their careers. I don’t want to focus upon the law breaking. I think they do not deserve our respect and adulation for three moral failings in their performance:

1)            They lived a lie in their sports. Each presented their achievements to others as their own human scale accomplishments. They presented their achievements as earned on an equal playing field of talent+work+skill+endurance. All three were fine, even great athletes, but that did not satisfy them. They took substances that deliberately augmented their human capacities beyond their normal physiological and mental responses given regular well conditioned diets and training. The issue is that the drugs and doping did the work, not the human being. Now the human may train and act, but relative to the baseline of their peers, their increase in strength and other dimensions were caused by the drug, not by the human effort.
         This is the lie, the lie  they told themselves and to others. “I achieved this.”—but the I was an illusion augmented by technologies that caused the same amount of training effort to return more mass and speed and efficiency. They lived a lie as augmented humans.
2)            They competed unfairly. We all know the argument—everybody did it. Well everybody did not do it—although that is less true in cycling than baseball. This deception-based unfairness had two ugly dimensions.
a.    First, other competitors who competed based on their own physical and mental training without physiological augmentation suffered at their hands. They stole a competitive advantage over every player who was not doing it. Their won unfairly because the other players did not have this augmented advantage of quicker speed, recovery time, muscle mass or aerobic efficiency.
b.   Second their using pushed others to use and degraded the tone and culture of the sport. Other athletes succeeded less or had their careers cut off because they could not compete with the augmented humans. The success, adulation and lying of the augmented humans motivated others to live a lie and pretend their accomplishments were based on human effort, skill, and training.
3)            They lied to everyone else about their actions. Sometimes they lied under oath to formal organizations, regulatory bodies and congress. Let me be clear, they did not tell the truth. They deceived others by claiming they did not do what they in fact what they did was augment their strength, recovery time, reaction time and efficiency by taking drugs that bolstered these beyond their own efforts. They gained money, fame, and advantage over others, hurt other’s careers while lowering the culture of their sport. When confronted with the truth, they lied, attacked others credibility, stonewalled to protect their reputation and endorsements. 

I am deeply angry and despairing facing the truth about Lance Armstrong. I am deeply upset with myself for all my defenses of him and my invested belief and capacity for denial to protect my ideal of him and my ideal of myself. What I know is that all the reasons that I cannot respect Lance Armstrong apply to the baseball PED users.

  •           They lived a lie and let drugs augment them not their own effort;
  •      They competed unfairly and won because they deceived and created an unequal playing field. Doing this they ruined careers of good athletes and demeaned the culture of their sport;
  •          They denied the truth, attacked the credibility of their opponents, lied to friends, supporters, the press, their fans and governing organizations. They are liars.

Just being a liar should not disqualify them from the Hall of Fame or their records, unless they committed perjury. But letting drugs replace effort, winning and achieving on an unequal playing field and ruining other careers--these disqualify Lance Armstrong from respect and recognition for his athletic achievements and they should keep the PED users out of the baseball hall of fame.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Sports Ethics: Finish It

Last year I watched both the Seattle Seahawks and the Washington Huskies take strong leads into fourth quarter of their football games. The games felt" in the bag" so  I could switch channels. In both games, however, the teams lost the games in the final minutes. I listened to the Husky coaches and players repeat the mantra “we have to finish.” Commenting on the Seahawks game Leon Washington who had a fantastic kickoff return for a touchdown stated, “finish, finish, finish. That’s what we have to do, that’s what the coaches had reminded us.” After the Seahawks came from behind to win their first road playoff game in 25+ years, Redskins half back Alfred Morris reminded everyone, "it's not how you start, it's how you finish."

The words sound so simple—finish it. The concept is fundamental to the ethics of high achievement in life and sports, and its execution very hard.

It sounds so easy but really demands more than any of us think. Any writer trying to finish a manuscript; any lawyer trying to finish a case; any salesman trying to finish a sale; they all understand the discipline of finishing. The context does not matter, the concept of finishing it highlights how results overshadow effort or excellence.

Finishing as an Accomplishment:           Finish it hints at how just finishing the game can be an achievement. I think this can be true in both a good and bad sense. If a team reaches a moment where they are only playing to finish the game, period, and they are going through the motions and just want it over; that team has failed in its purpose and betrayed itself and its integrity. Playing to finish in this way insults sports integrity.

On the other hand, playing to finish can involve a team or person that might be outmatched, but the athletes play on with intensity, focus and at their highest skill. They do not give up; they may lose but they finish the game, even a loss, with heads held high. They kept in the game and finishing this way even though outgunned involves a form of honor.

In life we often face these challenges that tempt us to quit. In an iconic example any runner knows he or she can quit at any step, at any time. Their legs hurt, their breath shudders out, their body screams quit and their mind mutters that this is stupid. An individual runner can finish their first marathon or even their first mile or in my case their first block and feel great pride at the accomplishment of finishing the race and above all of not quitting. To finish in these terms of not giving up, keeping up intensity and focus and finishing despite pain and obstacles bring honor and a true sense of accomplishment. The reality and metaphor of a "finish line' solidifies  the power and importance of getting across the line, of finishing what we started. It implies a level of responsibility and self-discipline that accompanies finishing what we start. 

Sometimes just finishing, period, displays integrity and moxie and should be recognized. An injured player who plays to the finish elicits the same admiration. There is a reason coaches and trainers and friends all urge us to "finish strong" at that moment when we most want to quit. 

Finishing as Focus at the End:      When Leon Washington repeats the mantra “finish,” he means something different that deserves attention. He describes a team that does not manifest the intensity, mental focus and physical prowess at the end of a game in a way that allows them to hold a win. The expression refers in a good way to teams that “finish off” teams they should beat. But more often it indicts teams or athletes that that lose games they should win or to teams that are ahead and cannot finish. The once winning team loses at the end of the game and lets the other team back in because they do not play at their highest level at the end of the competition.

Competition means human beings opposed to us will be trying, thinking, training and developing new ideas to surprise us or win over us. It never ends. During games opponents adapt and if they do not lose heart, they strive to come back and change to gain a victory. Athletics exposes this archetypical core that rivalry in life or sport never stands still. 

To focus upon the finish reminds athletes and professionals that they are always on the clock. The game is never over until is is over or at least until the fat lady sings. Until the court closes, the surgery ends, the time clock runs out, a person must be present, focused, skilled and attuned to what is going on around them.

Athletes can lose in a number of ways. Sometimes adversaries just erupt and blow a team out of the water fast. Athletes finds themselves so far down so fast, they literally go into shock and underperform and stumble forward just playing out the clock. Sometimes, the game seesaws back and forth, and every play counts. Every player knows they are locked in a tight hard contest and must be fully engaged; people who play or witness such games know either team could have won. People remember such great competitions.  But sometimes a team is winning, and the other team claws back from being down and snatches the victory away. The athletes fail to finish it.

Finishing as a Mind Set:     Every game or series has built in attrition. To finish involves not just a point or play or even a game, but a rhythm where a team can start off winning and then faces the opponent's come back. Sometimes mental and physical attrition can distract or wear down intensity and focus. A team might relax when it gets ahead. Finishing involves a mind set and discipline. A team that knows how to finish does not relent but keeps its attention and resilience intact when runs and surprises occurs. It involves a form of focused emotional discipline coupled with the suppleness to bounce back when stress erupts.

Good finishers exploit their advantages and keep pressing to the end. But a failed finisher lets the opponent just “hang around.” An opponent keeps competing and gains confidence and energy rather than give up. The winning team cannot “put them away.” The other team stays within striking distance.  The failed finisher  should finish them off but does not have the energy, intensity or skill to up their performance and “pull away” or “put the game out of reach."

Sports contest have a winner. They end with a victor, and that requires someone must finish the game. High performers, athletes and professionals have the ability to envision the end and to let that vision discipline their training and attention before and during the competition. Life throws curves and just having the capacity to envision the end game and focus upon it is not enough. Getting ahead, facing a run from the other side, making mistakes all can tumble quickly into downward spirals and games get out of hand quickly.  A finisher must have the resilience to adapt and bounce back within the course of a completion to address these surprises and keep focused amid the ebb and flow of a competition.

The language of finishing can migrate into predatory language. To “finish someone off” resembles the language of hunting to kill. I had a student who left her sport because her coaches demanded that she display a “killer instinct.” She possessed superb skills and court sense as well as a balanced presence during the game, and won regularly. But her coaches wanted some type of zeal or emotional delight in beating the other person. They believed this emotional motivation to destroy the opponent would permit her to heighten her game and move in for the kill. I am not sure the structure of being a finisher requires having a killer-instinct. Too many coaches who see competition as war fall into that trap, but most good soldiers never do. They master discipline, focus and tempered ability to draw on emotional reserves when required. The involves the capacity to step up a person’s game. Here the person  unites skill, effort and judgement under stress  in order to finish off the competitor.

Focussing on finish it creates an imperative to stay present and focused upon the task at hand.  The ethics implied by finish reminds us that we cannot take anything for granted, and we can never rest on our laurels. Even when things are smooth sailing, things can go wrong. It requires a situational awareness of when to press an advantage and above all when not to let down one’s intensity that permits the other side get back into the game.

Finishers compete to the end; they cross the finish line with strength and attention intact. They compete fully with effort, attention and physical effort. Know the finish line and pressing forward involves responsibility plus resilience to hold on against the temptations of attrition, quitting or letting the other team steal a game.