Gore Vidal once said, "It is not enough to succeed. Others must
fail." He said it at the funeral of another writer; I can't find
the exact context of the quotation, but I can imagine.
What he said is true for everyone, in the sense that success is
relative - any of us can seem triumphant or inadequate depending on
whom we're standing next to. This is particularly evident in
sports, where every victory is someone else's defeat, and no matter
how many shots you make, you aren't going to win unless the other
team misses a few.
Lately I've been watching the NBA Playoffs. The Philadelphia 76ers
haven't made it past the first round since 2003, and this year it
seemed certain that my team would die a quick death once more -
until the first-seeded Bulls lost their MVP point guard Derrick
Rose to an ACL tear. Now, suddenly, the Sixers have a chance to win
(or at least it seems like we do at the moment) although I guess by
the time you read this column my hope may have proven false - in
which case, please don't mock my innocence, future-dweller.
If we do win, it won't mean so much that the Sixers succeeded as
that Derrick Rose's ACL failed. But, man, it'll be sweet to get out
of that first round! Why, we could win the whole thing, as long as
every other good player in the NBA gets injured too. What I'm
saying is: when I heard that Derrick Rose had torn his ACL at the
end of the 76ers' first game in Chicago, I was kind of excited, or
maybe even more than "kind of."
Tearing your ACL is really painful, by the way. My mom tore her ACL
while skiing three years ago, and the recovery process was just
miserable, and even now her knee hurts sometimes.
When I think about that, it seems pretty terrible to be happy about
someone else's ACL tear, even if that person has committed the
unpardonable offense of playing basketball against the team I like.
This is something Philadelphia fans, we boors, are famous for: when
Michael Irvin sustained a career-ending spinal injury at Veterans
Stadium, everyone in the stands cheered as though the Eagles had
just scored a touchdown.
Yet injuries are a part of sports, and more often than not, the
team that ends up winning the championship in any professional
league is the one that happened to stay healthier than the other
elite teams. In an ideal world, nobody would get hurt, but in our
world you can't win without winning the injury game. And we want
our teams to win. We can talk all we want about "winning the right
way," without an asterisk or a footnote, but the truth is that
every Super Bowl needs an asterisk; every Stanley Cup deserves a
To smile at someone else's misfortune, though, is taboo. Well, it's
OK to cheer when the opponent misses a potential game-winner, but
to cheer when he breaks his arm - you'd have to be a sociopath.
Basic human feeling should prevent us from enjoying another
person's physical pain. But think of this: remember when Butler
lost to Duke in the 2010 NCAA Championship because Gordon Hayward's
last-second three-point heave rimmed out? Well, imagine, in that
situation, he could have chosen from two options: 1) the shot
misses, or 2) the shot goes in, but he somehow breaks his arm in
the attempt. My guess is that he'd pick number two - missing the
shot is more painful than bodily harm.
When an NBA player gets injured, is it a serious enough issue to
warrant engaging our humanistic impulses, rather than our
sports-fan impulses? Derrick Rose is a multimillionaire who plays a
game that, as he knows, involves getting injured. I'm sure he's
frustrated right now, but his life, by an objective measure, is
still really awesome, and he'll probably be fine ultimately. With
all the real suffering in the world, am I a bad person if I save my
sympathy for someone else?
Yes, possibly. Once you begin to value the success of your sports
team over the health of another human being, you're on a slippery
In the last game of the Rochester Royals' 1957-'58 season, their
star, 23-year-old Maurice Stokes, hit his head on the floor,
sustaining a brain injury that would not only cut short his career
but destroy his life, permanently paralyzing him. He would die at
age 36. But back in the spring of 1958, when the seriousness of his
brain damage was not yet clear, and the Royals were set to take on
the Pistons in the first round of the playoffs, did any Detroit fan
rejoice as Stokes went down?
Boston sportswriters talk all the time about how heartbroken they
were when Len Bias, the Maryland star who was supposed to carry the
Celtics' 1980s dominance into the next decade, died of a cocaine
overdose just after he was drafted. You can debate the extent to
which their heartbreak was about the death of a young man or about
a devastating blow to their favorite team (is this what our tender
sympathy really consists of when athletes fall?), but here's what
I'm wondering: were any Lakers fans secretly relieved when it
happened? None would ever admit it.
Those tragedies are a world away from Derrick Rose's ACL tear, but
they're worth thinking about. For all the touchy-feely articles by
Rick Reilly, watching sports is a dehumanizing affair: we applaud
and boo people not for who they are - they may be rapists or they
may be saints - but for what they do. We don't know them. What we
care about is how well their bodies perform. Maybe we have to keep
our fandom and our humanism separate; if we mix them, they both
become diluted. Or maybe not.