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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

August 16, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

ColumnsThe Hot Stove

The Hot Stove: Athletes’ pursuit of perfection flawed

The chance of picking a perfect bracket in this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament is 1:9.2 quintillion, and it’s made me curious about the odds of being perfect in both sports and in our own lives.

Perhaps the biggest storyline for this tournament is the University of Kentucky Wildcats’ pursuit of perfection. After going 34–0 in the regular season, the Southeastern Conference Champions are trying to become the first team since the 1976 Indiana University Hoosiers to go undefeated and win a national title in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. But let’s not forget Kentucky isn’t the only team with perfection on the line. The Princeton University women’s basketball team is entering the NCAA women’s basketball tournament at 30–0.

However, these two teams share more in common than just an undefeated record.

Technically, we can call both of these squads perfect so far, but even if neither loses a game this season, nobody is perfect. The pursuit of perfection is a noteworthy endeavor, and one that seems to be chased by exceptional teams every season in an attempt at what many think is immortality.

This becomes an issue because perfection goes against the human element that makes sport dramatic and suspenseful. But mix these on-field demands with athletes that are all imperfect in some way, and you get people who face unreasonable expectations of perfection.

Look at soon-to-be NFL quarterback Jameis Winston, who was in hot water when he yelled an obscene phrase on top of a table in Florida State University’s student union in September, 2014. Still, fans ignore these antics and simply focus on the quarterback’s skills and accomplishment of leading the Seminoles to a 13–0 season and a National Championship in 2014.

Even before Winston’s incident, because of their superior skill level, most big-time college and professional athletes came from a place where winning happened significantly more often than losing. When coaches and teams put expectations of perfection on these players and they fail, many don’t know how to handle it. We’ve yet to see how Winston will respond to losing on the playing field, as the only college game he lost was in his final game Jan. 1 at the Rose Bowl against the University of Oregon.

There’s a psychological element to all of this, too. According to research in the medical journal Nature, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision making, typically doesn’t fully develop until age 25. Every player in this year’s NCAA Tournament is under 25, yet so much of what these players do in the next few weeks will be second-guessed and scrutinized if and when something goes wrong.

But this prompts another question: What’s so great about being perfect anyways? We learn more from failing than we do from success. Former University of La Verne football coach Roland Ortmayer had an outstanding philosophy when it came to developing college athletes: Teams should win and lose about half of their games every year. This idea doesn’t demonize winning, but rather provides for a complete perspective of sports and lets teams focus more on fun and development than just winning.

If the point of big-time college athletes is to develop the next professional athletes, it needs to be done on a separate level. That way college teams can get back to having fun and challenging men and women not to be perfect, but to be better people. It’s a romanticized version of the NCAA, one we should strive for in the future.

Regardless of any changes over the next few years, development and behavior off-court is even more important than on-court work. Similarly, allowances for human nature, for mistakes, are intrinsic to our understanding as fans. I make mistakes every day, and though we’re trying to do things correctly, it’s impossible to do things perfectly.

So even if Kentucky or Princeton can pull off what many would call a “perfect season,” let’s not forget that these players are human and prone to the same mistakes as you and me.