On Making Excuses

(From a writing for Referee Magazine. It touches upon some of the thoughts which led to Jim’s wanting to compile Chicken Soup for the Sports Fan’s Soul.)

I have a difficult time giving sympathy to people who make excuses for their bad behavior by denying they made the decisions that took them there.

You’ve heard the gamut: “…It was the booze talking … I didn’t think anyone would find out…” The number of copouts is endless. Each is a blind alley.

After spending a while in denial and offering all sorts of excuses that few people believe, a syndrome of self-abuse develops. This happens so often I wonder if a person feels in some perverse way that self-abuse is an acceptable penalty, self-imposed, for giving up self-control.

Self-defeating patterns
When thinking about how to correct self-defeating patterns, it helps to ask yourself: “What would I think of the choices I have been making if a teenager I loved were making the same ones?”

We don’t allow our children to adopt habits that are damaging to themselves or others. All too often, though, we are more lenient with ourselves than we would be with our children. Perhaps this is because we have the mistaken idea that self-defeat is a victimless crime.

One lesson we learn from football is that the more self-discipline you apply to yourself, the better you will be and the better off those around you (crewmates, teammates, etc.) will be. That interaction works in life as well.

The better the example parents give to children, the easier being a parent will be. The better the example a supervisor gives his or her staff, the better the internal communication and outward success of that team will be. The better each spouse tries to meet the “give 100%” rule, the more likely it is that both spouses will reflect the inspiration.

It is a tough truth to comprehend when you are in the mood to be self-indulgent. When self-indulgence wins over self-management, our perspective becomes increasingly narrow and inward. We lose sight of the “big picture.”

To prolong hiding from a situation that looms larger than our sense of self, we often miss seeing how small episodes of self-indulgence add up to self-abuse. We don’t see how erosion of our will and joy in life can be detrimental to the supportive people around us. Or, if we do, we tend to discount the reason for the fading or increasingly fractious relationships. It’s easier to blame our friends instead of our own behavior, even though our behavior is nothing more than the result of our choices.

The ability to continually invent excuses is a clever mind trick.

Back to the basics

When the issues of bad behavior arise in questions from fans or the media, usually concerning the demeanor expected from officials, I toss it back to the basics: Officials are athletes, too. We are in the game because of the ancient code of brave competition and true excellence. It would be a disservice to those standards of discipline and durability for anyone claiming to be an athlete to make an excuse for “losing it.”

Now, it’s true. Players (and occasionally officials) have been known to display bad behavior. You catch a story about drunk driving, a paternity suit or bar fights. The varieties of bad behavior are as numerous as the options for a copout.

Some say an occasional black sheep in the flock adds excitement and is to be expected, as if that kind of excitement makes a better contest. I don’t buy that. It makes no sense to argue than an episode of no-control prepares one for sure control the next time.

Not a matter of style

Some claim their bad behavior is a matter of “style.” Not so. Whether it is Dennis Rodman, Bobby Brown, your neighbor or yourself, each of us bears responsibility for the choices we make.

Personality dictates individual modes of dress, work, loving and choosing. If your “style” includes staying in control of yourself and out of the way of others, practically any style is tolerated. No form of abdicating control, however, neither drugs, nor fighting, nor dumping on yourself, nor running away, is “style.” Abdication is a deed, an act. It carries consequences, and no pride, no future. An athlete worthy of the tradition chooses not to do that. Mens sana in corpore sano: a sound mind in a sound body.

It is especially paradoxical that self-destructive behavior hits even in sports where fitness and mental control count for so much. One would think that the discipline and patience necessary to make it into the NFL would provide insurance against the easy-out decision. Yet the NFL doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Drugs are a problem in sports because they are a problem in society. There’s no way to keep them out of NFL locker rooms any more than you can keep them out of the schools.

It is a modern tragedy that a wide receiver, say, who uses his God-given talents to out distance a defensive back and catch a touchdown pass with the screams of 77,000 fans in the air, might then go out after the game and resort to drugs to “take the pressure off.” That says, if nothing else, that adulation and money aren’t enough. Sometimes, only self-respect and self-esteem will do.

There’s no rational explanation for a person seeking cocaine instead of self-esteem, for downing liquor instead of learning to love, or of gorging instead of running an extra mile. Self-abuse develops in many different personalities and for a variety of reasons. Self-abuse isn’t the only way man is irrational, but it is in vogue. Still, self-abuse is no excuse.

I suggest we go back to the basics and remember the athlete’s maxim: “The harder you are on yourself (that is, the more self-discipline you apply to yourself), the easier the game (or life) will be on you.

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