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Greg Jordan | February 27, 2013

The hardest thing in sports

“It’s easy to do anything in victory. It’s in defeat that a man reveals himself.” ~ Floyd Patterson

In a clear example of how much more difficult it is to do something than say something, Ernest Hemingway, in trying to define the word "guts," called it "grace under pressure." The line became a truism, got twisted into the more formal "courage is grace under pressure," and eventually Hemingway’s suicide undermined his authority on the topic altogether. But Hemingway, the great admirer of gutsy sportsmen, was on to something with his three key nouns. They flow together in the same breath quite effortlessly; they achieve a symmetry lined up in the same sentence. In terms of sports, at least, a better sequencing might be: grace is courage under pressure. And in the day of surround-camera sports, the greatest pressure comes after the game, not before it. It comes when you lose.

The greatest pressure comes after the game, not before it. It comes when you lose.

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Athletes, and some musicians, and the rare actor, who still does theater on the side, remain the only celebrities who merit authentic celebration for their talent in a world in which so much entertainment is staged. I believe this to be true because, unlike actors or recording artists, athletes lose right before our eyes. They can get shellacked, or get cheated by a game-ending call, or simply come up just inches short, and in front of a zillion cameras we get to see how they react. That’s real theater. That’s real entertainment. Sports surpasses show business, or, better said, sports is show business at its best, precisely because there ain’t no acting. And when the game ends, or when the call goes wrong, the cameras inevitably show the truth about someone in defeat more than in victory.

Eager to watch the post-game Super Bowl handshake, or, I supposed at the time, hug, between the Harbaugh brothers, I, well, let’s just say... I bet their mother was proud of John and a bit perturbed with Jim, even though John belichicked a cameraman as he hunted for his brother at midfield. As the game ended and the Ravens darted all over the field, the Superdome was, yes, electric with the energy of the predominantly Baltimore-bred spectators. Confetti was spilling out everywhere, and John Harbaugh still had the tact, or tenacity, or self-control, or perhaps simply the sense of mortality, to say to his brother, I love you. Congratulations. For saying, I love you. John, in recounting the moment, seemed stunned. I can’t figure out if it was his brother’s response which stunned him, or his own ability to articulate a brotherly sentiment at such a camera-driven moment. Nevertheless, congratulations.

Jim, though supposedly beloved by his players, won few fans outside of San Francisco on his inglorious night and in the days afterward.

First, the camera’s display of him, bug-eyedly beseeching a holding call on the Ravens corner, Jimmy Smith, gave a glimpse of behavior to come. The call evoked debate, but not the vehement sort, among respected commentators afterward. But Harbaugh’s reaction – existential disbelief – demonstrated that he had something way more at stake in this game than the average competitor. His ego was so consumed with winning that one of many iffy calls on the field that night threatened to topple his sense of place in the world. He ran out onto the field. He stomped and shook his head, and suddenly I saw a kid in rec league, the same kid we all played with or against who always won save that once he, suddenly, astoundingly, lost and didn’t know what to do about it.

As it turns out, the NFL this week is creating a new rule that keeps coaches in their box. Then there came post-game presser, proving that the box is boundary-less.

"You know, I really want to handle this with class and grace, and we had several opportunities in this game," Harbaugh said. "We didn't play our best game, and the Ravens made a lot of plays and battled back. They competed to win. But there's no question in my mind that it was a pass interference, and hold on [Michael] Crabtree on the last one." In contrast, Crabtree himself, ranking a bit higher on the class and grace Big Boards for next year’s draft, said: "When somebody grabs you, you always expect a call, but you can't whine to the refs," Crabtree said. "It is what it is."

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Harbaugh, while his brother was across the country transforming Muhammad Ali’s uber-ego cry of "What’s my name?" into a city-animating refrain of "What’s our name?" to rally a Baltimore previously acclaimed for its sordid presentation in The Wire, continued the whole week with his complaint. Disbelief and affront go hand in hand, and disproportionate affront belies deep-seated issues that one of the numerous shrinks hanging shingles in fair San Francisco will no doubt never be asked to explore by a man so consumed with winning.

Mike Ditka famously once called Harbaugh the most competitive player he ever coached. But there are two kinds of competitors – graceful ones and graceless ones. The word you typically hear associated with winning and losing is "class." But that word reeks of PBS’ Downton Abbey or Upstairs/Downstairs, colonial England, colonized India, and monarchical silliness worldwide. Grace is the superior description for sterling human behavior in sports for two reasons. First, the word replicates the idea of athletic grace. Movement is a form of grace, and we tune in to be dazzled by it every night of the week. But carriage, a kin of movement, is what we’re talking about when we’re talking about coaches’ behavior. How did he carry himself? How did he carry the loss?

But there are two kinds of competitors – graceful ones and graceless ones

Second, grace inherently has a beneficial or even contagious quality. It grants a minor magnificence onto us as we watch. Viewing graceful performance and behavior, I find more and more, provokes remark. Not as much as poor behavior, like Bill Belichick’s various shoves of intruders onto his post-game path. But, nevertheless, I often watch games in groups and am struck by the way graceful behavior, well, graces us. We take note, we register it together, and, once in a while we learn from it, appropriate it.

I was ceremoniously – think a bunch of movie buffs imitating the operatic offings of traitors in the Godfather series – canned from a job by a famous filmmaker once in New York. And were my graceless reception of the news to have been televised, those very few who would have wanted to watch would have criticized me as much as I am criticizing Harbaugh right now. The event now, years later, I laugh off. But my response to the event haunts me still. And it most acutely haunts me when I watch athletes and coaches reacting gracelessly to losses on television. I have learned from this watching of sports, I think, to self-critique and improve. Great theater instructs, and I watch the Super Bowl or La Liga games or women’s volleyball or golf in no small part for this instructive element. And often the most entertaining dimension of that theater is not the demonstration of athletic prowess but rather of graceful, or graceless, human behavior. How a guy wins, how a guy loses. The latter is the harder rub, sucking it up when the suck has arrived.

A second memorable losing moment this year provided me with an odd variant on the theme of grace and losing. At halftime of the BCS game between Alabama and Notre Dame, Irish head coach Brian Kelly had to perform the only thing more difficult than the post-game interview after a loss – the halftime interview after a loss. ESPN reporter Heather Cox, who did her best to pitch her question with a mix of empathy and high seriousness despite the tragicomedy on the field, asked Kelly, "Where do the fixes need to come in the second half?"

"Uh, maybe Alabama doesn't come back in the second half," Kelly said, so matter of factly that all my skepticism towards him diminished in the instant. "It's all Alabama. We can't tackle them right now and… who knows why. You know, they're big and physical. I guess I do know why. It's just that our guys have not tackled the way they have all year." I couldn’t tell if he was trying to be funny or not at first. Nor could anyone else in the room with me. But as Kelly continued, we Irish fans relaxed and appreciated a guy who knew he had met his better.

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"And then we've got to get off press and man coverage, we haven't been able to do that. Credit Alabama. They played a great first half. We gotta go in there and get after it and play with some pride in the second half and try to get this thing closer so we can try to find a way to win."

The final clause, we knew and he knew, was tacked on pro forma. "Play with pride," was the quote that counted, and it had to chop up his liver to have to say it at halftime in front of however many million people watching.

Kelly’s grace reminded me of another all-time low moment in Notre Dame football history, one I didn’t think I would ever remember. But memory, particularly when it is a result of a child witnessing peculiar adult behavior, has a funny way of sticking in the hippocampus. On November 30, 1985, toward the end of the game in which Jimmy Johnson’s Miami team would beat Notre Dame 58-7 (an essay on winning gracefully now comes to mind), I watched with my father as Gerry Faust stood on the sideline with his arm around the great running back Allen Pinkett’s shoulder. But it wasn’t a case of fatherly affection and sonly deference. Even at age 15, I could sense Pinkett’s awkwardness and awareness of the camera. Faust wasn’t really hugging him, you see, but grasping him, keeping Pinkett there for a prolonged look-how-we-nobly-go-down-with-the-ship-together shot. It was a lesson for me, nearly 20 years later, that losing gracelessy does not necessarily entail behaving like Jim Harbaugh.

Winning and losing aren't imposters; they’re sweet and bitter realities that can reveal the core of a person

The rarest and most grace-bestowing athlete wins and loses, of course, with equanimity. The English in their colonial heyday were masters at producing inspiration poems for groups of men, usually soldiers oppressing faraway peoples, couched as high art. Tennysons’ "Ulysses" is one of my favorites, though a fine runner-up is "If-" by Rudyard Kipling. You no doubt have seen the poem, embroidered or exquisitely penned in calligraphic black on a wall in someone’s imitatively English den or library. "If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same... " Kipling rousingly wrote. The rub is he was full of it. Winning and losing aren’t imposters; they’re sweet and bitter realities that can reveal the core of a person.

My favorite athlete of all time is the late boxer Floyd Patterson. He lives on in Muhammad Ali’s very big and all-consuming shadow, and his legacy will no doubt not endure past this generation. But the glory of the man in his wins and losses and sports afterlife redeems sports for me whenever I think they have reached their sordid, monetizing, and commercialized worst.

In his recent book, Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing's Invisible Champion, W.K. Stratton revealed the facts of the first fight between Patterson and Ali that gave us the ego-drenched challenge, "What’s my name?" As one might suspect, Ali manipulated the cameras and press with his racializing of his relationship with Patterson. His insistence on proper nomenclature, his calling Patterson an Uncle Tom, his denigration of Patterson’s own civil rights leadership were all show. In that sense Ali understood Kipling in the 20th century, capitalist sense. The imposters, winning and losing, are there only to crank up the box office take.

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But it was Patterson in defeat who draws me to this day. Watching the footage on YouTube, you see and feel and on a good day are nourished by Patterson’s elegance and wisdom. Staggering, with his wife clinging to him, he ignores Ali’s nonsense, almost as if foreseeing their common fate dementia pugilistica.

To get more direct insight into Patterson’s grace, I recently called his adopted son Tracy Harris Patterson, himself a two-time world champion.

"Guys get overwhelmed by the camera and attention and feel they have to act a certain way, like they see most other successful athletes act," Tracy said.

Grace in front of the camera has become the most daunting of behavioral tasks

"Unlike Ali, he was just himself, nothing staged for the camera," he went on. "I know from my dad that Ali was a good guy. My dad did tell me there was an Ali who was very different from what we saw on the camera. All the events surrounding that fight were overblown. That’s what happens in sports today, and the more it happens the more guys think they have to act like the guys they watch on TV. They don’t see that what they do when they are fighting or playing is enough. Somewhere along the way it all got confused."

The camera, all-seeing and, once it elicits a behavior, all-knowing, has raised the stakes of grace even more. It provokes the acting out of the emotional best or worst in our sports actors once they have left their athletic best or worst on the field. Grace in front of the camera has become the most daunting of behavioral tasks. Easy to talk about it, as Hemingway proved. Hard to do, as Floyd Patterson proved, consistently inside the ring and out.

An essential, more and more I think the essential, reward or benefit of being a sports fan is trying to apply our judgments about what we see on the screen to our own lives. I’ll never be able, and never was able, to cut like Ray Rice, catch like Randy Moss, concoct a scheme like either Harbaugh, or throw the deep ball like Joe Flacco, but it’s enough to enjoy watching what they do and then how they react afterwards, and then, in moments of winning and losing in my own life, remember how they acted after they did what they did.

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About the Author

Greg Jordan's most recent book was Safe at Home, a biography of Willie Mays Aikens, the fallen slugger who became the face of mandatory minimum sentencing reform. His screenplay about the first circumnavigation of the globe was recently optioned by Mono Films in Spain. He is at work on a book about the troubles in Juarez, Mexico.