Conflating on field results with character can lead to abusive acts in the “real world”
Our admiration for winners often leads people to look the other way when our “heroes” behave badly off the field. Seeing a sports star treat a peer, business partner, or spouse, with contempt can lead to cognitive dissonance—a state where our minds struggle to reconcile events that conflict with our world view.
Consequently, our brains shut down and we pretend that the uncomfortable act didn’t happen. We say or do nothing when one of our athletic heroes acts out, even with our “body English”.
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This behavior can lead sports stars to develop an increasing sense of entitlement, until it culminates into awful behavior that extends way beyond the pale: such as O.J. Simpson seizing sports mementos by armed force after a jury acquitted him of his wife’s murder, or Ray Rice beating his then-fiancee in a hotel elevator.
On the flip side, failure on the field exposes athletes to the raw cruelty of crowd behavior. Angels reliever Donnie Moore killed his wife, and committed suicide in 1989, in part due to his inability to deal with blowing a save in game 5 of the 1986 ALCS. An enraged soccer fan even murdered defenseman Andres Escobar after he scored an own goal that eliminated the Colombian national team from the 1994 World Cup.
Sports figures failing to fulfill our need for vicarious victory can make us angry. Connecting results with character justifies punishing the players that disappoint us.
Associating success and failure with character isn’t limited to sports. We do the same thing in the real world when people, or groups, don’t meet expectations at home, school, or work. Even when problems are the result of poor choices, conflating success and character can lead us to continue snubbing co-workers, friends, and family as they try to dig themselves out of a difficult situation.
The convenient myth that achievement reflects character harms us in more ways than we can really quantify.
The problem is, success in anything—including baseball—is about more than capability. For the KC Royals to thrive in 2016, they will have to train hard during during both the winter and regular season, they will have to play team baseball, and catch some luck.
So, yes, we can talk about “character” in terms of baseball, or any team sport. But that term is strictly limited to the discipline necessary to train the body, the diligence to develop playing ability through practice, and the social skills to fit within a team framework.
None of these traits necessarily make you a “good” person.
We can see this truth when we realize that convicted felons like Lenny Dykstra and 31-game winner Denny McLain were part of championship squads. Conversely, does anyone really think that KC Royals starter Jeremy Guthrie posted a 5.76 ERA in 2015 because he developed a sudden character defect? How many truly good people have been booed off the field when they couldn’t succeed?
Fans have no way to know.
None of this means KC Royals fans shouldn’t enjoy the 2016 season, or get emotional about games. Every baseball season offers nail-biting finishes, crazy reversals of fortune, and plays no one has seen before. Major league players are marvelous athletes who invest an enormous amount effort, training, and thought into every game. The KC Royals can indeed win the 2016 World Series. They’re a really good baseball team that just might catch enough luck to repeat.
Shouldn’t that be enough? Can’t we do away with the morality-play narratives?
The world will be a happier place if we can manage it.