The Goat

    Kyle Williams, please meet Bill Buckner.

    Kyle Williams, by all accounts, had a bad day. The wide receiver and punt returner for the San Francisco 49ers first had the football glance off his knee on a punt, enabling the New York Giants to recover the ball and soon after score. Even worse, in overtime, he fumbled another punt, the Giants again recovered, and a few minutes later, the Giants kicked the winning field goal that landed them in this year’s Super Bowl.

That is a bad day. Ironically, the misplayed balls were both recovered by the same Giant, Devin Thomas. Those, in a nutshell, are the vagaries of football and of life itself, where there are good days and bad days. (Of course, for most people, the good days and bad days are not played out in front of an audience of tens of millions of people.)

Williams was clearly distressed during and after the game, but later said that all his teammates had consoled him, telling him that the loss was not his fault. All the old clichés were trotted out – we win as a team, we lose as a team, no one person is at fault, there was dozens of times when each team could have won or lost (imagine if Lawrence Tynes had missed the winning field goal, like his kicker counterpart on the Ravens missed his game-tying field goal), no one play wins or loses, etc.

There is something quite modern about the reluctance of people to assume responsibility for their own failures, and failures that harm others, and even more modern about the willingness of the group to overlook – at least publicly – the miscues of the individual. But it is more admirable for the individual to stand up and take the blame, to place the onus of defeat or failure – in sports, business, relationships, politics, war, etc. – on himself. Usually, there is more courage in the acceptance of personal responsibility than its denial, and a  lack of true dignity in hiding one’s own malfunctions under the cover of the group.

Did Williams lose the game for the 49ers? Is he to blame? Well, not entirely. It is fair to say that he ensured not that they lost, but that they lost the way they did. Every group effort relies on the contributions of many different individuals, and a breakdown at any point – whether in the backfield, the assembly line or the committee – will jeopardize the effort of the group. And every play presents the possibility of individual negligence – that is why repetition is the numbing, daily routine of the player, the soldier, the musician and others – so their particular role becomes second nature and is performed almost robotically. But whereas the musician does not have to deal with a bouncing trombone or a rolling violin, the athlete (and the soldier) encounters situations that are not easily anticipated, and thus demands immediate reaction in the face of potentially fateful consequences.

The “team effort” mantra is plausible, but not persuasive. As in any game, had San Francisco been more successful in other aspects of the game – third down conversions, for one – then the Williams’ failures would have become just a footnote to the game. But it was his particular blunders that caused the game to unfold the way it did, with the victory of our hometown Giants.

Are we a better society if we attempt to shield people from the logical consequences of their actions, or if we encourage individuals in a group setting not to own up to their personal failings? I think not. We have often been witnesses in recent decades to the almost-comical politician’s admission that “mistakes were made.” Note – not that he made them, would admit them, or even knew about them (even if they were his mistakes); rather than courageously say “I made a mistake,” the passive “mistakes were made” distances the wrongdoer from his own folly and brings innocent others into his orbit of failure. Or, in another example, we often hear these days of the common tripe of politicians grieving with homeowners “victimized” by “deceptive” banking practices that had them borrow money they could never afford to repay – as if the homeowners are not mostly to blame for their over-borrowing. That is where the votes are – the escapees from personal responsibility in their private lives run to vote for the politicians who pander to their immaturity – but neither benefits society.

Certainly, there is no shortage of adults in sports and elsewhere. Tom Brady, in victory but nonetheless, excoriated his poor play yesterday and thanked his defense for bailing him out; Lee Evans of the Ravens dropped the game-winning pass, and sat afterward in tears, clearly aware that his mistake had let down his teammates; and there are others. The aforementioned Bill Buckner was gracious in defeat. And the Talmud records several times that the great Rava lectured in different towns on different topics, and later sent word to his audience: “What I said to you was an error on my part” (Eruvin 104a, Bava Batra 127a, et al) – a complete retraction.

In a more perfect world, people would assume responsibility for misdeeds and misstatements immediately, forthrightly and unconditionally – politicians, parents, rabbis, teachers, athletes, bosses and workers. In fact, such integrity would immediately make our imperfect world a little less imperfect.

The best of all worlds would be an explicit assumption of responsibility on the part of the stumbler, followed by the graciousness of his teammates or co-workers who then assume their share of the outcome. These failures do not make Kyle Williams into a bad person or even into a bad athlete; it just means that he had a bad day. We need not be protected from our bad days – we only need to be protected from not being accountable for them.

To gloss over a bad day or blithely disregard its effects on others is to deprive oneself of the opportunity for redemption and the satisfaction of achievement and success. It transforms our lives into a constant “defensive” mode, always fending off attacks and trying to deflect blame from oneself. Too bad that today’s youthful “my bad!” is almost exclusively reserved for nonsense. There is majesty in the rise from failure to success, but just as much majesty in the admission of failure alone.

So let’s give the final word to President Nixon, who had his share of bad days, and said on the morning of his resignation of the presidency in 1974: “Only when you’ve been in the deepest valley, can you ever know how magnificent it is on top of the highest mountain.”

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2 responses to “The Goat

  1. Very insightful!

  2. Sichos Mussar by Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz:
    The true measure of a man is the degree to which he accepts responsibility for his actions.

    MICROBIOGRAPHY: Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz was born in 1902 and died in 1979. He was a member of the faculty of the Mirrer Yeshivah for more than 40 years, in Poland, Shanghai and Jerusalem, serving as Rosh Yeshivah during its sojourn in Shanghai from 1941 to 1947, and again in the Mirrer Yeshivah in Jerusalem from 1965 to 1979.

    SOURCE: Jonathan Rosenblum, http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2009/10/26/2456/