The end of each prep season brings a period of reflection for me.
It’s rarely the scores or stats that stand out, although there are those magical performances that become as much a testament to the human spirit as they are a statement of athletic accomplishment.
But it is, far more often, about the people I’ve met, the stories I’ve witnessed, and the lessons I’ve gleaned from the twists and turns of each season.
This postseason I’ve had one lesson on my mind, as it seemed to be a recurring theme — fairness. From the drill team championships to the five basketball tournaments I covered all or parts of during the last six weeks, there seemed to be various questions of fairness in each one.
From behavior that wasn’t forbidden but maybe should have been to mistakes made by the officials on hand to ensure fair play, there were multiple instances where coaches, parents and players were frustrated by a situation they found inherently unfair.
Is calling a foul that leads to game-deciding free throws an overzealous mistake or protecting the integrity of the game? Should officials stop a game and correct an error they’ve made, even at a point when it’s unclear what outcome that would have on a game? Is it unfair to ask rural schools to compete against schools without boundaries (private and charter schools)?
Those are just some of the questions I heard and had after five weeks of playoffs.
This column will not answer those questions or settle those arguments.
In fact, I decided, after several hours of attempting to revisit specific incidents, that discussing them in any detail stole the focus I was desperately trying to maintain on this idea that we want sports (and life) to be fair. And really, the greater question of how we handle its inherent unfairness.
So I gave up.
I will not rehash the details of each of these incidents, although, I do feel it’s important to say that I understand both the desire to ensure fairness as much as humanly possible and opposing the reality that none of us will ever compete on that elusive but always-sought-after “level playing field.”
That’s because it doesn’t exist.
Now, please do not mistake my acknowledgement of this reality as a concession to unfairness or cheating. Quite the contrary. As my parents can attest, I have been and always will be an advocate for fair play.
But I have learned, most of the time in as painful a way as possible, that life — on the court or off — is not fair. And my desperate desire to change that will not make it so.
While I do think it is incredibly productive as leagues, governing bodies, teams and families to spend time seeking ways to make things as fair as possible, I do not think that is the question that serves us best as individuals.
The question that I have found best serves me in my daily struggles is how do I handle unfairness?
It is not a question of if unfairness will impact your life, but when. So when you find yourself in a situation that you feel like you do not deserve, ask yourself what response will best serve your continued growth? And then, conversely, what actions will keep you stuck in the very nightmare of an unfair situation, usually at the mercy of decisions that are not yours to make?
It probably isn’t hard to summon a situation where you felt you were treated unfairly. I recently interviewed an Olympian who took fifth in the 2012 Summer Games in a track and field event, only to find out two years later that two of the medalists tested positive for steroids.
Now she waits for officials to decide if those medals should be taken from the cheating victors, which would give her a bronze medal. Even if that happens, however, she understands that she was robbed of the experience of standing on the podium and relishing the reward for her years of hard work and sacrifice. There is no way to calculate if earning a medal would have made a difference in sponsorships or opportunities. There is no way to know if the outcome would have been different.
So, rather than ruminate, she's focused on training for the 2016 Games, while she is also an outspoken proponent for better testing and more severe punishments for cheaters.
So how do you handle it when someone else’s bad decisions impact your life? How do you respond when someone else’s mistake changes your life? What if that decision or mistake steals your moment of glory?
And is there a way to continue to do your best, even when it seems the situation will not reward you with success?
For me, the last question is the most important. I have heard athletes say over and over that there are only two things one can control — attitude and effort.
While many athletes exhibit this truth in how they compete and how they carry themselves off the field of play, many only pay lip service to this admonishment. It is easy to say this was a guiding principle when you end up with the goal achieved, the championship won.
It is a much different story when these words come from a player or coach who suffered because of a bad call, a bad rule, or an unforeseen difficult situation.
We are not surrendering when we acknowledge that life is unfair. Quite the contrary, in my opinion.
In admitting unfairness is just part of the challenge or adversity we will face as competitors or people, we give ourselves a chance not to get lost in the futility of believing that if we try hard enough, we can make life completely fair.
We can advocate for better rules, for equal opportunity, for ways to correct mistakes, but we cannot eliminate unfairness.
Like a headwind on race day or a bad draw in a tournament, sometimes the only way to win is to triumph in spite of the circumstances. Winning in sports may be decided by a scoreboard, but it’s much more nuanced in life. In life, there are may ways to win.
One thing to keep in mind is that sometimes a disadvantage is completely dependent on one’s perspective.
While a rural school may see an urban charter school’s lack of boundaries and transient population as a competitive edge, an urban school may see a rural school’s life-long chemistry and community support as an enviable advantage.
The reality is that in addition to our attitude and effort, we can control what gets our energy. We can decide where to focus our anger, frustration and passion.
Sports is preparation for life.
So when the foul seems unwarranted, remember that someday you will get passed over for a promotion that you feel you earned and deserved.
It is in those moments you have an opportunity to decide how — and if — you move forward in the wake of that disappointment.
Acknowledging life's unfairness isn't accepting defeat. It's simply understanding that how we focus our energy determines whether we triumph in spite of our circumstances or remain a captive of unfortunate circumstances.