So back in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Kyrie Irving—the Cavaliers’ other good player—went down with a knee injury at the very end of the game. As it happened, he was unable to return for the rest of the series, but after the game it wasn’t clear how serious it was, and everyone expressed hope that he might be able to return. Steve Kerr, the coach of the Warriors, anticipated some skepticism regarding this sentiment: “You probably don’t believe me, but I mean that.” To which Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky responded, “I definitely don’t believe him, because the LeBron and Mozgov Show [i.e., the only effective players on the team other than Irving] probably isn’t enough to hang with the Warriors.” In other words, this was a godsend for Golden State, so it was a bit rich to think that Kerr didn’t appreciate that.
For what it’s worth, I did and do believe Kerr was telling the truth. Kerr’s a former player himself, so I think he can appreciate the physical and emotional anguish of that injury better than we can as fans. More than that, since the Warriors were favored in the series anyway, it’s not hard to imagine that the idea of beating a full-strength opponent for the championship was more satisfying than the idea of steamrolling an injured squad.
At the same time, Petchesky’s cynical response is understandable, because the “I hope he’s okay” quote from a player or coach from the other side is kind of a cliche at this point. And not just the people on the field: the announcers and fans will generally come out with a “You hate to see that” whenever an opposing player is hurt. I can only speak from my own experience, but if that experience is at all representative, the “You hate to see that” response is almost rote.
So why do we put so much emphasis on not wanting opposing players to be injured? This might seem like a no-brainer—even having to think about why we don’t hope for someone to be painfully incapacitated might look like the sign of a stunted conscience—but I think there’s a “protest too much” element to the insistence. It’s precisely because “I don’t want a person to be injured” is such an obvious stance that our continually repeating it is evidence of some inner conflict. To put it another way, I don’t think many fans say “You hate to see that” when a player from their team goes down hurt, because that’s when it doesn’t need saying.
I’m going to go out on a limb here: I don’t think I’m the only decent-minded sports fan who from time to time has caught himself reacting with relief to news of an injury to a rival player. Not all the time, but sometimes, particularly in moments of great fan stress, like a pennant race or a playoff game. On one play in Game 3 of the Finals, which the Cavaliers won to give them a 2-1 series lead, Lebron James came down from the basket limping, and my heart surged with hope before my conscience could say anything about it. Whenever this happens, I rap my own mental knuckles and remind myself what all right-thinking fans know, that injuries are never okay to root for. But I can’t wish away that initial reaction. And my discomfort with what that reaction says about me, and (assuming I’m not just a lone sociopath in this) about sports fandom, brings up some of the conflicts any thoughtful sports fan is bound to come across now and then.
Of course it’s uncomfortable to be reminded that our chosen entertainment is so harmful to the bodies of participants, but I think this is only part of it, and I suspect our consciences are rarely bothered by an injury to one of “our” players: something bad happened to them, and we felt it as a misfortune, so there’s no cognitive dissonance. It’s not just that injuries are painful and inevitable, but more that we’ve aligned our interests such that we benefit from some of those injuries: when another player goes down injured, we can’t help but be aware that by the zero-sum logic of sports, this is good for our side. (Our benefits are intangible, not material, but it makes little difference.) Outside of war, it’s hard to think of an endeavor where you’re hoping for the other side to be physically injured; and who but a psychopath would root for war?
But our bad conscience goes deeper than that. Because while we won’t root for someone to be injured, we’ll happily root for them to fail—and in professional sports, it doesn’t take much failure to end your career almost as surely as a serious injury can. A couple of months ago, the Giants were losing to the Braves, and the Braves brought on a relief pitcher I’d never heard of, Donnie Veal. A graphic on the Giants’ broadcast showed that he’s been having a rough year—his ERA was over 10, meaning he’d been hugely ineffective—and my heart surged with hope. Sure enough, the Giants knocked him around and tied the game, and I cheered…and then was brought up short when the camera cut to Veal’s sad, weary face. I knew that he knew his job was on the line; he was running out of chances and that had probably been the last one. (Sure enough, he hasn’t pitched in the majors since that game, and was sent back down to the minors soon afterwards.) He’s a thirty-year-old man (not that I knew that then) with one narrow skillset and long odds against being able to hold a job in his field, which as it happens is exactly where I was when I was thirty. And I’m rooting for him to walk the professional plank because he wears the wrong color jersey? It’s absurd.
I know I’m being kind of overwrought about this—Veal’s minimum salary is $500,000, he’ll get a pension, and even if he washes out of the league, that potentially makes room for an up-and-coming minor leaguer. No one is entitled to be a pitcher in the major leagues just because he’s been doing it a long time. But that doesn’t lessen the feelings of defeat and humiliation, the disorientation of completely changing teammates and coaches and possibly having to change cities, and the general fear that the final bell of your career is getting closer and may already be here. Even politics doesn’t involve rooting for someone’s downfall like this: a politician who loses an election can go to lobbying, or whatever they were doing before they got into politics, but most pro athletes have been focusing on nothing else for almost their entire lives and have to start from square one when they leave sports. And all of this, to some small but definite degree, is what we’re rooting for when we root for the opposing pitcher to give up 8 runs, the opposing hitter to go 0-4 and make a crucial error, the opposing point guard to turn the ball over a dozen times and shoot under 40%.
The thrill of victory requires the agony of defeat; injuries are the simply most direct expression of that agony. We root against them (or at least tell ourselves not to root for them) not just because we’re decent people, but because we want to reassure ourselves of that, given the evidence to the contrary.