November 29, 2021 | 3:19 am
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Injuries, fairness, and randomness in sports

“Life’s not fair.”

Some version of those words has likely been said to you before when you were growing up, probably because it’s true to a large extent. Everywhere you look, there are examples of people randomly being given a better station in life than others. For example, studies have shown that with everything else equal, taller people and physically attractive people generally earn more at their jobs than those who are shorter and less attractive. Simply being a man, even in 2014, confers a lot of institutionalized advantages compared to being a woman. And we know about the role that race can play in many situations, including dealing with law enforcement, applying for loans, or getting job interviews.

At some level, almost everyone eventually realizes that life isn’t fair and that there’s very little that can be done about many instances of it. But when it comes to sports, we seek to escape, if only temporarily and partially, the types of injustices that happen in the rest of the world. Sports are often considered the ultimate meritocracy because it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you look like – if you have skills, then you can play and you’ll have a fair chance to win. As spectators and fans, we’d like to believe that in the end, the teams and players that are best at their respective sports are the ones that win.

Sadly, that is too often not the case, and we can be reminded in sometimes horrific fashion how random and arbitrary sports can be. Paul George’s recent injury to his lower leg was shocking enough just on the basis of its gruesomeness, but you can bet that part of the shock value for the national team players was some thought along the lines of “wait, that could have happened to anyone, including me.”

In the wake of the injury, people have been grasping for someone or something to blame because humans are hardwired for pattern-seeking reasons (some pointed to the placement of the stanchion), but when something is random and arbitrary, trying to make sense of its patterns is a futile exercise. Granted, injury prevention is a facet of training that athletes can put more or less effort into, but many injuries, including the one George suffered, are not escapable with any number of injury prevention exercises. Injuries are more or less random and the physical laws of the human body have no agenda.

So the Indiana Pacers, even in a weak Eastern Conference, find themselves looking up at the conference favorites now (especially after losing Lance Stephenson in free agency). A team that was supposed to battle for one of the top seeds in the conference this year might struggle now to even have home-court advantage in the first round. And if this injury to George ends up robbing him of his athletic gifts, it’s going to affect how we think of not only his legacy but that of many of his teammates. For an example of how randomly a legacy can change, think about how many people hold the belief that Dwight Howard isn’t a championship-caliber centerpiece: A fairly large number. But what if Jameer Nelson, an All-Star during the 08-09 season, was instead healthy for the Orlando Magic’s NBA Finals series against the Los Angeles Lakers? Nothing is guaranteed, but the Magic would have clearly stood a much better chance (Nelson played very well against the Lakers in the regular season, and the series was much closer than the 4-1 result would indicate). If Howard never manages to play for a championship team during his career, a random shoulder injury in February 2009 – that happened to someone else – will play a large role in defining his NBA legacy.

That an injury is affecting sports outcomes is obviously not a new thing. Almost every NBA postseason in recent memory has had its star power diluted by injury. But around the water cooler, when it comes time to evaluate teams and players of years past, random and arbitrary injuries that had a very real effect on things are often shoved aside. Deep down, perhaps it’s because we want to believe that at least in sports, if not in life, the right people win at the end of the day (like in most cliché sports movies). That is, it doesn’t matter if someone gets injured because if he’s really that good, he’ll eventually reach the promised land.

But life isn’t like they show it in movies. Things can be unfair, even immensely so, in sports. The reality of this world is that it’s a lot more random than we’d like to think it is. After something happens, it’s always easy to rationalize whatever happened as inevitable (this kind of reasoning is influenced by what’s called “hindsight bias” and is a staple of all post-game shows) and to ascribe patterns to our worldview thusly. In particular, people generally like to think that the people who do the “right thing” eventually get rewarded (and those who don’t do the right thing always lose at the end).

However, we know that it’s really not the case, as much as it soothes our collective conscience to think it is. Whether it’s the arbitrary bounce of a ball or a devastating random injury like the one Paul George suffered, sport is influenced by many chance events. And in that way, sport is just like life in general: not fair.

 


Dar-Wei finds it unfair that he never grew to be six feet tall, even though he was supposed to (according to his doctor’s projections from early on). Follow him on Twitter at @chendw.

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