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Amy Donaldson: Acknowledging life's unfairness isn't defeat — it allows us to focus

Published: Sunday, March 13 2016 10:05 p.m. MDT

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.