The Mountain Times

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Others must fail

Gore Vidal once said, "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail." He said it at the funeral of another writer; I can't find the exact context of the quotation, but I can imagine.

What he said is true for everyone, in the sense that success is relative - any of us can seem triumphant or inadequate depending on whom we're standing next to. This is particularly evident in sports, where every victory is someone else's defeat, and no matter how many shots you make, you aren't going to win unless the other team misses a few.

Lately I've been watching the NBA Playoffs. The Philadelphia 76ers haven't made it past the first round since 2003, and this year it seemed certain that my team would die a quick death once more - until the first-seeded Bulls lost their MVP point guard Derrick Rose to an ACL tear. Now, suddenly, the Sixers have a chance to win (or at least it seems like we do at the moment) although I guess by the time you read this column my hope may have proven false - in which case, please don't mock my innocence, future-dweller.

If we do win, it won't mean so much that the Sixers succeeded as that Derrick Rose's ACL failed. But, man, it'll be sweet to get out of that first round! Why, we could win the whole thing, as long as every other good player in the NBA gets injured too. What I'm saying is: when I heard that Derrick Rose had torn his ACL at the end of the 76ers' first game in Chicago, I was kind of excited, or maybe even more than "kind of."

Tearing your ACL is really painful, by the way. My mom tore her ACL while skiing three years ago, and the recovery process was just miserable, and even now her knee hurts sometimes.

When I think about that, it seems pretty terrible to be happy about someone else's ACL tear, even if that person has committed the unpardonable offense of playing basketball against the team I like. This is something Philadelphia fans, we boors, are famous for: when Michael Irvin sustained a career-ending spinal injury at Veterans Stadium, everyone in the stands cheered as though the Eagles had just scored a touchdown.

Yet injuries are a part of sports, and more often than not, the team that ends up winning the championship in any professional league is the one that happened to stay healthier than the other elite teams. In an ideal world, nobody would get hurt, but in our world you can't win without winning the injury game. And we want our teams to win. We can talk all we want about "winning the right way," without an asterisk or a footnote, but the truth is that every Super Bowl needs an asterisk; every Stanley Cup deserves a footnote.

To smile at someone else's misfortune, though, is taboo. Well, it's OK to cheer when the opponent misses a potential game-winner, but to cheer when he breaks his arm - you'd have to be a sociopath. Basic human feeling should prevent us from enjoying another person's physical pain. But think of this: remember when Butler lost to Duke in the 2010 NCAA Championship because Gordon Hayward's last-second three-point heave rimmed out? Well, imagine, in that situation, he could have chosen from two options: 1) the shot misses, or 2) the shot goes in, but he somehow breaks his arm in the attempt. My guess is that he'd pick number two - missing the shot is more painful than bodily harm.

When an NBA player gets injured, is it a serious enough issue to warrant engaging our humanistic impulses, rather than our sports-fan impulses? Derrick Rose is a multimillionaire who plays a game that, as he knows, involves getting injured. I'm sure he's frustrated right now, but his life, by an objective measure, is still really awesome, and he'll probably be fine ultimately. With all the real suffering in the world, am I a bad person if I save my sympathy for someone else?

Yes, possibly. Once you begin to value the success of your sports team over the health of another human being, you're on a slippery slope.

In the last game of the Rochester Royals' 1957-'58 season, their star, 23-year-old Maurice Stokes, hit his head on the floor, sustaining a brain injury that would not only cut short his career but destroy his life, permanently paralyzing him. He would die at age 36. But back in the spring of 1958, when the seriousness of his brain damage was not yet clear, and the Royals were set to take on the Pistons in the first round of the playoffs, did any Detroit fan rejoice as Stokes went down?

Boston sportswriters talk all the time about how heartbroken they were when Len Bias, the Maryland star who was supposed to carry the Celtics' 1980s dominance into the next decade, died of a cocaine overdose just after he was drafted. You can debate the extent to which their heartbreak was about the death of a young man or about a devastating blow to their favorite team (is this what our tender sympathy really consists of when athletes fall?), but here's what I'm wondering: were any Lakers fans secretly relieved when it happened? None would ever admit it.

Those tragedies are a world away from Derrick Rose's ACL tear, but they're worth thinking about. For all the touchy-feely articles by Rick Reilly, watching sports is a dehumanizing affair: we applaud and boo people not for who they are - they may be rapists or they may be saints - but for what they do. We don't know them. What we care about is how well their bodies perform. Maybe we have to keep our fandom and our humanism separate; if we mix them, they both become diluted. Or maybe not.

Tagged: Gen Y