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Win or Lose, You Decide
Okay, I’m going to say right now that it’s me. I am a dinosaur, a relic of a bygone age. I am out of step with modern norms of interpersonal conduct. Sometime during the last generation, it seems, there was a major shift in acceptable social behavior, and I have been slow to adapt.

I’m talking about touching. No, not that kind of touching, sickee. Ordinary physical contact. Hugging is perhaps the most obvious example. In recent years it has somehow become expected that we embrace others at greeting and parting, even people we barely know. The handshake and the friendly pat on the back are still around, but such modest displays of familiarity have been superseded by the intimacy of a full, two-armed embrace.

So be it. Customs change (sometimes rapidly) within a culture, and sometimes, as with hugging, across cultural boundaries. Human interaction, like language, is an ever-evolving form of communication. I accept that. I am concerned, however, by a parallel development within the world of athletic competition.

I’m not sure when it started, but there has been a sharp uptick in communicative touching in sports. The change is most noticeable to me in basketball. A teammate will miss a free throw, say, and every single member of his or her team will shake the hand of the free thrower or make physical contact in some way.

It never used to be this way. I don’t remember anyone bumping fists with Wilt Chamberlain after any of his 5,805 missed free throws. They certainly didn’t say or do anything to show him up, like moaning or rolling their eyes, but they didn’t pat him on the back, either. So why did that change?

I know that these acts are meant to signal solidarity and encouragement, but they trouble me. Part of my objection is that these gestures might send the wrong message to a teammate. I don’t think our free thrower would think that his buddies are encouraging failure, exactly, but he might get the mistaken impression that his failure is not a problem. Worse yet, these touchings might be subliminally received as signs of consolation or pity. If they are, then they might actually weaken team chemistry and lead to yet more failure. All these roads lead to losing, and in sports, that is a bad thing.

Furthermore, the touching seems a bit perfunctory, like a ritual act that must be performed. Doesn’t it lose its meaning, mixed or otherwise, if it is obligatory? The whole thing smacks of touchy-feely overreach and coddling, and I don’t see how that helps the team. Shouldn’t this kind of positive communication be reserved for success rather than failure?

Please don’t misunderstand me. There is more to sports than winning. It’s important to enjoy the contest regardless of the outcome, blah, blah, and blah. But this is competition we’re talking about. It doesn’t work as an enjoyable pastime if the participants aren’t actually trying to win. And when you get to the NBA or the Olympics, that drive is what makes the game fun. We’re not supposed to feel good about failure in this context. If we don’t feel bad about losing, then we’re not truly competing, and the whole thing becomes a charade. Who won? Who cares? Let’s have a round of hugs and all go home happy. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see the point.

I’m not a natural hugger, but I like it well enough, I guess. Most humans could use a little more shared intimacy in their lives. I’ll even hug total strangers if that will really help. When it comes to sports, however, I prefer the old ways. We’re not playing nice, we’re playing to win. If you make that free throw, I’ll give you a high five. If you miss it, I know I can count on you to try harder next time.
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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee