Monday, January 27, 2014
The clock is ticking down. With determination and sheer will, the ball ricochets off one player to the next until a player — knowing that time is nearly gone — strikes the ball with blind hope. In legendary “he shoots, he scores” fashion, it sails past the keeper and into the back of the net. The celebration erupts. Players pile on the scorer, and the fans go crazy.
We’ve witnessed this scenario play out in every sport. Auburn did it to Alabama this season in football, retrieving the ball in the end zone after Alabama’s field goal attempt fell short, then running it back for a game winning touchdown as time expired. Baseball fans love a walk-off home run and love a walk-off grand slam even more. The first post-season walk-off grand slam didn’t happen until October of 2011 when Nelson Cruz of the Texas Rangers hammered one out against the Detroit Tigers in the American League Championship Series. In August 2007, Georgia won with a walk-off home run against Japan in the Little League World Series. In each of these triumphs there was an eruption of joy from fans and fellow players. In other cases, the last second victory takes a bit longer to evolve. Take for example, a first round match at the 2010 Wimbledon tournament. American John Isner met French qualifier Nicolas Mahut in a contest that wasn’t considered worthy of being broadcast until it promised an unprecedented match length of 11 hours and five minutes stretching out over three days. The match began at 6:30 p.m. on June 22. The third and fourth sets went to tie breakers, bringing play to a halt due to darkness before the fifth set could begin. When the match resumed, the eyes of the world were on a pair of battling players. The fifth set began at 2:05 p.m. on June 23 and as the set evolved into another long tie breaker at 59-59, it had to once again be suspended due to darkness. They continued on June 24 and drove the score to 68-69 in favor of Isner. Then, with a passing shot, Isner secured the necessary two point margin to win the tie breaker 70-68, the fifth set and the match. Isner collapsed to the ground and Mahut seemed genuinely glad, despite his loss, to have the trial ended. These squeaker victories encourage wild and rough celebrations by players and prompt spectators to surge onto the field of play to congratulate their team or player and to share in the emotional moment in a stampede of joy.
Sometimes in the course of a celebration, disaster can strike. Just this September, Georgia wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell leaped to chest bump Todd Gurley after the latter scored a 75-yard touchdown against rival Clemson. Mitchell landed awkwardly after his leap and ended up with a season-ending ACL tear. Rafael Nadal leapt over the net during a practice match for the 2004 Roland Garros tournament, tripped and injured himself enough to have to withdraw from the event. That same year, tennis player James Blake caught his foot on the clay surface, lurched forward into the net post and broke his neck. Despite the rough guy reputation of hockey, Ryan O’Reilly was injured by a hug. Just last week the Colorado Avalanche player was celebrating a goal with his teammates. During the group hug his shoulder became dislocated, and he had to leave the ice missing the rest of the game and the next one. Soccer isn’t immune to celebration injuries. After Steve Morrow scored the game winner for Arsenal in the League Cup final against Sheffield in August 1993, teammate Tony Adams lifted him up in celebration and broke Morrow’s arm. Morrow was out for the rest of the season, including Arsenal’s FA Cup victory that year. In 2010, Kendry Morales of the Angels hit a 10th-inning walk-off grand slam against the Dodgers. The exuberant team rushed to home plate to congratulate their hero and celebrate their win. The ensuing dog pile quickly turned from joy to concern as Morales’ lower left leg suffered a season ending fracture due to players falling all over him after he landing awkwardly.
Injury shouldn’t be a reason to stifle celebration as those injuries are rare. We do see fewer tennis players leaping over the net as they consider the possibility of catching a toe or foot on the fly. But players will continue to do their chest bumps and the even more risky head butts following a great score or tackle. Baseball players still pile on when a contest is won by a teammate’s great hit or strong defensive play. Players throw their shirts, shoes, sticks, balls and helmets as they experience the exuberance of a victory. While a celebration can result in injury, everyone seems to take it in stride as an unusual but not unheard of outcome from the physicality of these fetes.
That is until a few weeks ago. A Little League coach has sued one of his players for injuring him during a celebration. The Sacramento area team needed one run to win their game. The runner rushing towards home plate realized he would score the game winner and couldn’t contain his enthusiasm any longer. As he crossed the plate, he threw off his batting helmet. Apparently the helmet bounced off the ground and then struck the coach in the heel rupturing his Achilles tendon. In most reports, doctors agree that the bouncing helmet wouldn’t have caused the injury, although moving to avoid the helmet and turning his ankle in the process probably snapped the tendon. Nevertheless, the coach felt his injury was entirely due to the player’s actions and filed a lawsuit two weeks ago asking for $100,000 for medical costs and lost wages and $500,000 in punitive damages for pain and suffering. When he was served, the boy’s father at first thought the suit was a joke but quickly discovered the coach meant business. I suspect that a clever lawyer found out the family’s home owner’s insurance allowed for exactly the amounts in the suit for a plaintiff. In a sense, the excuse will be that only the insurance company will suffer. But naturally that won’t be the case. The costs will be passed on in the form of higher premiums for the family and other insured. Possibly, the family will have their policy canceled and be unable to secure a new policy putting their mortgage in jeopardy. Even if the boy’s family should win the case, they would have been put under the financial stress of paying for an attorney and the emotional stress of dealing with a trial. I can’t even begin to think how much guilt this young player will feel if his family suffers some form of financial consequences due to his actions. I’m also certain that any joy he found in playing baseball has been sucked out of him.
I’m not unsympathetic to people suffering medical problems at the hands of others. Two summers ago, I contracted a rare bacteria at an expensive seafood restaurant. I suffered from a serious loss of fluids leading to extremely low potassium far below that which can cause the heart to seize up. Luckily, I got great care and survived with no ill effects. My health insurance covered all my hospital costs and the doctors’ care, so I had no out of pocket expenses. The recuperation also kept me from returning to teaching that fall semester. But I made the decision just to be sure that this restaurant improved its hygiene and acknowledged that it had created the situation so that future patrons would be protected. I do think people can be made “whole” without going to excess. If this coach had out of pocket medical expenses, it might not be unreasonable for the boys’ family to cover those if it can be established that there was a direct link between the toss of the helmet and the injury. More than that is, as the boy’s father said, “absurd.”
Beyond the issue of the injury, I take another exception to this lawsuit from a coach. When people agree to the position, whether volunteer or paid, they are accepting the job of being mentors and role models. Teachers, coaches and caretakers experience some form of abuse during their careers and occasionally are injured, yet few will sue the kids seeking some windfall from these circumstances. They understand that part of the job includes some minor risks. This coach could just as easily have slipped while teaching a drill spraining his ankle, or breaking his leg, or tearing his Achilles’ tendon. I would expect a coach to put this incident in perspective and look to the more significant moral role he should be playing. There was no intent or belligerence. This player didn’t attack the coach because he was angry about playing time or the coach’s style. He was a 12-year-old caught up in a moment where he felt suddenly significant. I’m certain that when he realized the coach was injured he felt terrible in sudden, huge emotional nosedive. A good coach would recognize that he or she needs to bolster a child in that circumstance. The coach is the adult who by the nature of his or her commitment has agreed to be a teacher, not just of the sport but of life’s lessons.
The injury was definitely painful as anyone who has had an Achilles’ tendon rupture knows. But it’s not a life-threatening injury and has a good long-term outcome after healing. I understand that we don’t know all the facts in this case, but the excessive amount asked for in the suit doesn’t lend itself to a positive point of view from outsiders. I’m worried that if this coach wins anything more than unreimbursed medical expenses that it will set a serious precedent for further suits by coaches, referees, fellow players and spectators. We’ve watched basketball players who crash into photographers, cheerleaders and fans behind the basket, sometimes causing physical damage and property loss. The same holds true on the sidelines with football players and soccer players sliding into team benches and referees. Baseball players regularly send line drive foul balls into the stands occasionally striking a fan. Pitchers can seriously injure a batter with a misplaced throw. We don’t even need a celebration to have injuries occur during a game that are accidental. But when these injuries come as a result of a celebration we need to take a step back and view them in the light of good spirits and unintentional fallout. I fault this coach for not taking his role seriously enough to overlook a possible financial bonanza from his player in favor of making this a teachable moment of forgiveness. He could have asked and expected the player to apologize and offer support like volunteering to mow the coach’s lawn until he can get around on his own. Celebrations should be a way to validate a player’s and team’s performance, giving them a sense of self-worth and pride. They also should be a way to teach players to learn humility in victory. But they shouldn’t turn into a lesson in crass materialism. I don’t see that behavior as anything to celebrate.