What a great time of year. It must be true that absence makes the heart grow fonder, as not having the NCAA tournament last year seems to have renewed people’s interest in it this year. Every year, the tournament has amazing stories. This year’s include Oral Roberts (apologies to Ohio State fans), who was a #4 seed in the Summit League conference tournament before making the Sweet 16, Jason Preston, Ohio University’s best player, who averaged a whole 2 points per game as a high school senior, and of course Sister Jean, who is back helping Loyola Chicago on their tournament run. . While those stories are great and serve to inspire, there is also a darker side that comes with March Madness (and all sporting events).
Oral Roberts defeated Ohio State in the round of 64, and Loyola Chicago defeated Illinois in the round of 32. In both cases, “fans” of the losing teams took to social media to attack and harass key players from Ohio State (EJ Lidell) and Illinois (Kofi Cockburn), going so far as to send death threats and racist messages. While this time of behavior is despicable, it should not be surprising. Many people who watch the games from their living room, or even in the stands, tend to forget that it is people who are playing these games, not robots who are talented in one specific area. As a result, they feel entitled to criticize them for what they feel is subpar performance. This phenomenon has been accelerated by the proliferation of social media, where these “fans” can hide behind anonymous handles and say things they would never say to these people in person.
While sports are and should be fun, it is important to remember the risk that student-athletes take. Every time they step on the court or field, these athletes open themselves up to criticism. While you could argue that criticism is fair at the professional level where the players are well paid, it is harder to justify at the amateur level. Unfortunately, some of it even takes place at the high school level. There is no excuse for that. I have seen student-athletes teased by classmates when a team loses a game. Some can laugh it off, but others are hurt by those comments. (I should note that this is a minority of fellow students – most are very supportive). I cringe when I hear parents in the stands yelling at players, whether it’s their own child or a teammate. (To go further, it bothers me when it is directed at an official. In an era where official shortages are becoming more common, we should be grateful that we have people willing to work the games, and also realize that they are almost always right and almost always know the rules better than anyone else).
In the aftermath of the tweets directed towards EJ Lidell, I was uplifted by the response of Ohio State football coach Ryan Day. He sent a tweet to EJ with one of my favorite quotes, said by Teddy Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
What a beautiful thought. I applaud all those athletes who have the courage to step on the court or field and give their best, knowing they might come up short. To know that and still persist is what sports and life is about. Young men like EJ Lidell and Kofi Cockburn deserve far more credit than the cowards who attack them on social media. At the high school level, those who play with great effort and selflessness deserve our praise and respect, win or lose. I hope that going forward we pay tribute to those who are in the arena, that our student-athletes continue to dare greatly and learn from their failures, and that in all our lives we know great enthusiasms, have great devotions, and spend ourselves in worthy causes, both on and off the playing field!