Saturday, March 07, 2009

2 Legit 2 Quit?

Today I had the opportunity to do play-by-play for a radio broadcast of a high school basketball game. And though I always enjoy announcing games, some games are more enjoyable than others, with the determining factor being how competitive the contest is. The final score of today's game was 73-42, which pretty well says everything you need to know. Just to be clear, I am not writing this in order to denigrate the losing team--they actually played pretty hard. It's just that they were overmatched by a more talented squad. The winning team is the #1 seed in the region, state ranked, and they were the home team to boot. And it was undeniably clear long before the game was actually over today what the end result would be. Much of the second half was academic, a formality, or "garbage time," depending on what term you wish to apply.

And though I didn't allow my mind to wander into abstract territory while I had the immediate task of announcing the game, as I reflect on the experience several hours later, I can't help but ask an absurd hypothetical question. What if the coach of the losing team, upon the completion of the third quarter, had gathered his guys together and said, "Fellows, you've played hard, you tried your best, but it is now apparent that they are the better team. So let's shake hands and go to McDonalds," and then proceeded to inform the officials and the opposing coach that they were forfeiting the fourth quarter? Chances are this would have become a national sports story, if not a national news story, probably debated by TV pundits, sports radio talk show hosts, and newspaper columnists. All this despite the fact that there would be no practical difference in the end result. Either way, the team loses.

Such a decision does have a historical precedent. In the very first ever Rose Bowl in 1902, Stanford quit with eight minutes left, down 49-0 to Michigan. Since we were still in the process back then of constructing social "rules" for organized sports, and the taboo against quitting hadn't yet been encoded, this was probably regarded at the time as a reasonable action. In most areas of human endeavor, when an outcome is assured beyond reasonable doubt, we don't belabor the process of assuring it. In fact, we've invented and circulated a cliche ("beating a dead horse") to describe and discourage such a behavior. And furthermore, we even uphold this principle to some degree in sports. When a team wins four games in a best of seven series, the series ends. Why then do we insist that a team down 27 points in a basketball game inbound the ball with .4 seconds left, when the mathematical possibility of the team winning is the exact same as a team down 4-1 in a best of seven series?

I think there are two somewhat related factors at work which make the idea of quitting during a game anathema. First, there is the notion that to concede is to surrender, to commit an act of cowardice. The reason that doesn't work for me is that the team showed up in the first place. I'd admit that there would be something cowardly about saying, "Hey, we don't stand a chance today, let's stay home and go to McDonalds." But where is the shame in showing up, trying your best, and then looking at the situation objectively and realizing at some point during the game that victory is literally impossible?

Though I would like to see concessions occur at all level of sports, I anticipate that many would object furiously to the idea of high school coaches taking kids off the court or the field. "What does that teach kids about perseverance?" they might ask. I would respond that it teaches kids to pick their battles (an important life lesson) and to live to fight or play another day (no small consideration in a sport like football where catastrophic injuries can happen on any play). I think it also teaches respect for an opponent. It is an act of great sportsmanship to look an opponent in the eye and admit "I concede that you are better."

Finally, it would help kids to prioritize the importance of athletics in life. I love sports, but I think to slavishly insist on ritualistically following the rules when the rules have outlived their usefulness (as the whole purpose of rules is to aid in determining a victor, so when a victor is already assured, the rules are useless) imbues an unnecessary sanctity on the proceedings.

To understand the second reason why giving up during a sporting event is taboo, I think we need to consider the one "sport" where the practice is not only acceptable, it is normative. In competitive chess, no one actually gets to the point where their king is captured. The loser, upon realizing the inevitability of this occurrence, concedes. Of course, the difference between this and other sports is that chess is entirely intellectual. And though intellectual strategy has made its way into almost all athletic competitions (think of how often announcers refer to strategy as a "chess match"), I think there is a resistance among athletes in the "physical" sports to becoming too aware of the intellectual components of their endeavor. The athlete and coach already have a lot to think about in a game; to consider the point at which a comeback is impossible is an intellectual burden that might be too great to bear,. To expect athletes to think in terms of inevitabilities is a lot to ask; in fact, it might be the hardest concession of all.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Donna said...

I don't really know much about high school sports but I have observed that sometimes when there is no possible way for a team to win, the coach will allow the bench sitters to finally get a chance to play.
Maybe my observations are just those of elementary teams?

1:21 PM  
Blogger mhoce said...

I know that if I was on that losing basketball team, I would not want to quit and go to McDonalds. Giving up says a lot about a person. It shows that you are willing to give in if circumstances become to extreme. I wouldn't want someone who 'throws in the towl' on my team. The only way I could be removed from something, is if I wasn't able to physically or mentally perform.

Just because you lose at something or don't succeed doesn't mean you are a quitter. So to give in before something is complete or over, to me is wrong.

5:55 PM  
Anonymous Eric Awesome said...

Basketball blowouts are obviously a conspiracy to balance out the blantant lack of $1 hot dog sales and 50 cent popcorn that don't sell during 6 OT games.

12:56 PM  

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