Sports columnists are having a field day. When Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra disclosed during his post-game news conference Sunday that several Heat players were crying in the locker room, in the aftermath of the team’s fourth consecutive loss (a heartbreaking and gut-wrenching one-point home defeat to conference rival Chicago), the gates opened to a flood of criticism.
The team is soft and lacks leadership, critics said. Many opined that Spoelstra would not survive this latest crisis, just as they questioned his job security when the team opened the season with a less-than-stellar record of 9-8.
The Heat followed their early-season struggles with a string of victories that elevated them to elite status in the Eastern Conference, briefly surpassing Boston as the top team in the East before this latest losing streak saw them drop to third in the Conference (yet still atop their division). The players are clearly frustrated by their inability to defeat the better teams in the league, and Spoelstra’s honest comments, while ill-advised, simply highlight the competitive nature of those players.
The sporting press reacted to Spoelstra’s revelation with combined incredulity, cynicism, outrage and ridicule. Their unsympathetic (and, in some cases, mean spirited) comments brought to mind Tom Hank’s rant in director Penny Marshall’s 1992 film A League of Their Own. Hanks, playing Jimmy Dugan, a down-on-his luck, alcoholic ex-baseball player who has been made manager of a women’s team during World War II, has just reamed one of his players for sloppy execution when she suddenly bursts into tears. Hanks looks on in horror and exclaims: “Are you crying? There’s no crying! There’s no crying in baseball!”
This belief that professional sports are somehow above human emotion has been almost universally embraced by media commentators after Spoelstra’s comments. Yet the commentators are wrong.
Crying is very much a part of competitive sports. Just ask Jim Leyland, the fiery manager of the Detroit Tigers and former leader of the 1997 World Series champion Florida Marlins. Despite his rugged tactics and macho bravado, Leyland will sometimes cry at the drop of a hat, succumbing to emotion when faced with emotional moments. Long-time players retiring from their sport are also regularly reduced to tears when confronted with the realization that their careers are things of the past. Brett Favre’s breakdown during a year-end news conference, when he announced his retirement (the latest in a series of such Favre announcements, believed by many to be his last) is the most recent example of end-of-career tears.
Sports are emotional activities played by emotional people. Success by some is always achieved at the expense of failure by others, and such failure is regularly followed by second-guessing, “what if” scenarios and, in many cases, tears. That is why I question the overwhelming negative reaction to Spoelstra’s comments.
LeBron James and the Miami Heat set themselves up for ridicule when, after James’ ill-conceived ESPN special, “The Decision,” the team held an over-the-top event at the American Airlines Arena likened by many to a championship celebration. I therefore do not begrudge anyone the right to root against the Heat or gloat when the team falls short of expectations (although I will say that it is far too early for such gloating, with the Heat in first place and assured of a spot in the playoffs). But I do take issue with the reaction to Spoelstra’s comments.
Spoelstra’s disclosure that his players gave in to emotion humanized the team. And we should not ridicule anyone’s efforts to put a human face on athletic competition, even when the face is dampened by tears of frustration.