Aaron Gordon wonders if we should feel bad for athletes when they fail.
Have you ever failed at something you have done a million times before? Did you bite your tongue while chewing? Or did you kick a ball wide of an open net?
Fernando Torres may be in the throes of complete soccer deterioration since his £50-million transfer from Liverpool to Chelsea, but the depths to which he sunk with that miss are known only to certain invertebrates miles under the surface.
Torres knew it was a mishit the second he struck the ball. He was in the process of sinking to the ground in disbelief while the ball was still coming off his foot. But, once he raised his body and revealed his head to the cameras, he had the blankest facial expression in the stadium. He wasn’t riddled with disappointment, anger, or exhaustion. It had simply happened. He stole a quick glance upwards, perhaps looking at the time elapsed, but more likely wondering how utter failure has seeped into his very essence. His best half hour of soccer with Chelsea was overwritten by YouTube bait.
Even if you don’t watch soccer, you know this phenomena in sports: when an athlete, who is paid millions of dollars to perform feats we can hardly visualize—much less comprehend—fails to complete the most basic motor skill. Stevie Johnson might drop a pass in the end zone, or Bill Buckner might let the most innocent ground ball trickle through his legs.
When Torres missed a kick the vast majority of us could make, the viewer was conflicted with a mixture of awe and pity. Of course, we are in awe Torres—not long ago considered the best striker in the world—could be such a massive and complete failure in that specific moment, given his vast technical and athletic skill. Yet, Twitter was fluttering with messages of pity; You gotta feel bad for the guy. What an odd sentiment to convey. Why should I feel sorry for a man who makes more money a week than I will in many years, simply because he didn’t kick the ball well once?
There’s no need to specify that athletes make mistakes. The whole idea of competition is that neither side can be perfect at all times. But, we have come to expect the “mistakes” athletes make to be hyper-specific. When an athlete makes a mistake, it’s a matter of milliseconds or micrometers; they hit the ball a hair too far, or they time their swing slightly off. In professional sports, the difference between a mistake and success can hardly be discerned without seeing the completion of the action. Watch a baseball swing—but not where the ball goes—and tell me if it’s a home run or a pop fly. Tell me if a putt is going in when it’s 20 feet from the cup. It’s not possible. The mistakes are too subtle.
Such volatility in the results is what makes sports so unpredictable. Great sports moments are defined by the unexpected. Many times, the unexpected comes in athletic prowess, like David Tyree’s Helmet Catch. (Note to editor: seriously, for the love of God, don’t post a video of this.) But the unexpected can also come in the form of the opposite, the breakdown of coordination at the most crucial time. Since it happens to ordinary people on a daily basis, it makes perfect sense it happens to athletes on occasion.
We—the media, fans, the general public—spend a lot of time and energy turning professional athletes into pseudo-theistic creations, and then reveling in their crash to humanity. We have around-the-clock sports coverage, highlight reels, and the prose of old-style sportswriters to transform athletes from well-sculpted people into descendants of Zeus with human tendencies. Then, we have media establishments to bring their flaws to light, likening their craft to shining headlights on deer in the middle of the road. We want to expose athletes as the “frauds” they are, despite the fact that we are the ones who put them on the false moral pedestal.
But in moments like these, we remember who athletes really are. We feel sorry for Torres because we are humans, and by nature we are compassionate. Your mileage may vary, but almost everyone is capable of empathy. Unless your soul has been captured by the Red Devil of Manchester (If so, may God have mercy on you), it’s hard to watch Torres on all fours on the Old Trafford grass and not feel a tinge of that sinking feeling Torres surely had. The man failed at a simple task in front of millions of people. Athlete or not, millionaire or pauper, that’s embarrassing, and nobody wants to be embarrassed. Lots of creatures possess impressive physical attributes, but only humans are capable of empathy to that degree.
When an athlete makes an inexplicable gaff, it’s not just a revelation of his humanity, but also of ours. Embrace that sinking feeling, because if we float to the bottom with Torres for just a nanosecond, we can remember who athletes really are.
—Photo via kilinyepesi.blogspot.com