No Excuses for "No Excuses"

STORY BY David Eskridge

Published: April 10, 2013

As most of us know, Rutgers University men’s basketball coach Mike Rice was recently fired (and Athletic Director Tim Pernetti resigned) after a videotape surfaced of Rice disciplining his players by whipping basketballs at them and calling them homophobic slurs.  Public reaction has ranged from shocked outrage to lament that a coach can no longer use the kinds of hard-nosed tactics that have inspired rigor in generations of young players (indeed, Rice was merely suspended in the autumn, when school officials viewed the tape privately, and was not fired until ESPN made the tape public).  Defenders of the decision have rightly pointed out that Rice’s behavior (and the apparent lack of shame about it evinced by recording it) is, in part, the result of a “no excuses, no whining—win at all costs” attitude that is pervasive in sports.  Much gets made of the consequences of the latter half of that formula—just ask Lance Armstrong about the lengths to which a pathological need for victory can drive athletes—but what about the first half?  Can being disallowed any excuse for failure—not just by themselves but by leagues, university administrations, fans, and media—warp the priorities of athletes and coaches in the same way? 

To some extent, players and coaches need this attitude for the same reasons that Marines subscribe to their “improvise, adapt, overcome” motto:  training and competing are so difficult that it can be dangerous to allow oneself even the tiniest opening to slow down or quit; belief in the possibility of victory despite any obstacle will carry one much further than belief in the possibility of victory only under optimal circumstances; and, when the stakes are high, one cannot waste even a moment crying foul or trying to change the past—one must seek a solution until time runs out.  While these strictures do not excuse bad behavior—players and coaches must exercise the same judgment that we demand of soldiers who receive orders that they know to be illegal or immoral—they do make it difficult to determine where to draw ethical lines.  That’s why, just as with the military, athletes need “civilian oversight” from spectators who will help them to draw these lines. 

When an MMA fighter puts in a poor performance because he breaks his hand mid-fight, he rarely cites the injury as a significant reason.  But it is just as rare for fans, announcers, or news media to dwell on the injury and near unheard-of for them to suggest that it might invalidate the fight’s result (those that do are often laughed off as crybaby “fanboys”).  When common sense and our own eyes tell us clearly that a crippling injury affected the athlete’s performance, why can’t we simply acknowledge this even if he—having necessarily schooled himself to permit no excuse, even a broken bone, for his failure—can’t?

Similarly, while the NFL and its referees regularly issue apologies for blown calls (such as the infamous “ineligible receiver downfield” call that cost the New York Giants a 2003 playoff game or referee Ed Hochuli’s botched fumble ruling, in a 2008 San Diego Chargers game, for which he personally answered every piece of hate mail that he received)—they have never, nor has any major sporting league of which I am aware, annulled the outcome of a game because of such a mistake. 

I understand that, as an official’s mistake does not always necessarily change a match’s outcome, invalidating results would often lead to impractical or (depending on weather, TV schedules, and player health) impossible rematches.  But when, as sometimes happens, games are decided by phantom penalties with no time left on the clock, a post-game review and reversal of the call would award victory to the true winner.  And isn’t that the point of officials, and instant replay, and playing the games to begin with?  But still the attitude persists:  suck it up.  No whining.  Never leave it in the hands of the judges.  While we may hear some grousing from the local fans, we seldom hear sustained outcry from reporters, bloggers, league executives, and fans outside of the wronged cities for practical, systemic change.  We are content with a toothless apology—not even a footnote in the record books. 

Even some of the steps taken to increase fairness, such as the NFL’s “coach’s challenge” (the red flag that coaches throw to protest an official’s decision), have seemed begrudging:  penalties (which can affect a game as much as anything else) cannot be challenged and, because a scoring play is automatically reviewed, a challenge to one results in an “unsportsmanlike conduct” penalty and nullifies that automatic review (as famously happened to Detroit Lions’ head coach Jim Schwartz in a 2012 loss).  Broadening the challenge parameters would do little to impede the flow of the game (it takes no more time to review one type of challenge than it does another and the number of challenges per game would remain static) or undermine the officials’ authority (the challenge process, with its attendant admission that referees are fallible, already exists), the two most common objections to play reviews.  It seems, then, that the NFL maintains these needlessly restrictive regulations for the same reason that it has made no significant effort to implement the GoalRef technology that, through the use of sensors, allows referees in FIFA soccer matches to determine when the ball has crossed the goal line:  this notion that “real competitors” focus on training and playing to win rather than quibbling about unlucky circumstances.

“No excuses, no whining” is a fine, even necessary, mantra for competitors to adopt but that leaves it to the rest of us to do the whining for them.  We must demand more sympathetic media coverage, and expanded reviews, and sensors in balls, and even asterisks in the record books.  Otherwise, the pressure to maintain combat readiness without complaint makes it easier for coaches like Rice to justify hurling basketballs at the heads of kids barely old enough to vote and calling them disgusting, outdated, bigoted slurs without fear of repercussion.  Firing Rice was the right decision but until we stand up for fairness and purity in our officiating, reporting, and record-keeping we can only expect more incidents like this one.

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