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.

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