The sports announcer gushes into the microphone, “What a courageous performance!” He and his colleague in the TV booth then proceed to extol the athlete for his gritty performance in the face of so much pressure, how he played through pain and illness, and in the midst of such personal turmoil, too. Truly this athlete is a hero.
If you are a sports fan like me, such a description brings back memories. You might think of Michael Jordan’s flu game in the 1997 NBA Finals or Willis Reed limping out onto the Madison Square Garden court to lead the New York Knicks to the NBA title in 1970. Maybe you remember Brett Favre’s emotional game after the loss of his father in 2003 or, just recently, Rory McIlroy winning the European Tour’s BMW PGA Championship mere days after he abruptly ended his engagement to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki. Others may think of athletes like Tim Tebow or Jason Collins, who competed under the scrutiny of a nation because of their personal convictions or lifestyle. At one time or another such feats have been described as “courageous.”
Does anything in sports truly qualify as “courageous”? Each of the above examples falls at a different place on the scale, and none of them compare to the courage of firefighters, police officers, or military personnel. The courage of anyone who risks his or her life stands alone, and many believe it is a dishonor to them to call something as trite as a last-second goal or a game played on a bum knee “courageous.” I don’t agree.
We have a language that gives us one word for a massive range of reality. To say that playing football after a personal loss is not courageous because “true” courage belongs to first responders is like saying that a little girl isn’t really sad when her pet ferret dies because “true” sadness is the loss of a parent. But both losses are real. One is just far more profound. Of course, sports announcers and pundits tend to go overboard with their gushing about the courage displayed in relatively trite moments (as all sports moments are compared with life and death). But that doesn’t discount the courage that was shown.
Rather than getting our hackles up at the overuse of the word, we would do better to be gracious and broad in our understanding. Writers, announcers, and media types aren’t trying to compare the courage of an athlete to the courage of an Army Ranger, and we shouldn’t skewer them for it. As in all communication, it is incumbent upon us, the listeners and viewers, to listen to what the communicator is trying to say, not just our preferred interpretation of the words. And when we are communicating we must be careful with our own choice of words, lest we empty them of their meanings.
Courage shows itself in sports, just maybe not as often as advertised. To celebrate it doesn’t demean those who have shown greater courage. There is value to be lauded in both small and big, and we should be gracious and discerning enough to do both well.