For the Love of the Game

by Jonathan Gault | 4/7/13 10:00pm

Perhaps no word better encapsulates the highs and lows of sports than goat. The word actually has more meanings than you would think not only is a goat a four-legged mammal, but it's also a disgusting move used by the staff of Shenaniganz to prank each other in "Waiting" But neither of these apply to sports.

In the athletic world, goat means two things: you are either the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) or a goat (the guy who blew the game or scapegoat). I think both are fascinating, but since I only have 800 words to write something insightful, I'm going to set aside the GOAT for now and focus on goats.

Goats have been around for as long as sports have, and as sports continue to climb in popularity, goats become more and more famous. We spend so much time analyzing every big game that we inevitably need to assign blame to someone. This unfortunate individual is the goat.

I am not going to argue that calling someone a goat is wrong, but too often, we simply assign goat status to someone without fully contextualizing the situation. To use a recent example, kicker Billy Cundiff will forever be known as the player who blew last January's AFC Championship game for the Baltimore Ravens by missing a short 32-yard field goal at the end of regulation. Guy misses gimme field goal, Ravens lose. Pretty simple, right?

Except the summary neglects that the field goal would only have been to tie the game, not win it. And that, two plays earlier, receiver Lee Evans dropped what appeared to be the game-winning touchdown pass. And that Cundiff received a poor hold, with the laces in. And that Cundiff was rushed onto the field due in part to a scoreboard error. Not so simple anymore, is it?

It is hard for us as fans to remember all of those details, so in the case of Cundiff, or the most famous example of all, Boston Red Sox first-baseman Bill Buckner, we simplify the narrative and focus in one reason for a defeat. While it is true that Cundiff's miss directly caused the Ravens to lose the game, ignoring everything that led up to that moment, especially Evans' drop, is unfair to Cundiff.

What angers me most about labeling someone a goat is the derision a fanbase holds for that player. Red Sox fans hated Buckner for 18 years following his gaffe in the 1986 World Series, and many goats throughout history have received death threats. They are not always idle threats, either, as in the case of Colombian soccer player Andres Escobar, who was shot and killed less than a month after his own goal eliminated Colombia from the 1994 World Cup.

It's natural for fans to be frustrated with a player who makes a critical mistake, but we need to think about why it happened in the first place. In almost every case, it is because the player tried to do something to help his team and failed through lack of skill. At the moment of failure, it is likely that the goat wanted to succeed at his particular task, whether it was making a kick or cleanly fielding a grounder, more than anything else in the world.

If you think you're upset when a player messes up, how do you think he feels? Do you honestly think you want the team to win more than the man who has dedicated his life to the sport? No one wanted that kick to be successful more than Cundiff; Instead of mocking him for his failure, we should have commended him for his passion.

Moreover, the goat, as a professional athlete, spends a large portion of his time practicing his craft to not make a mistake at a critical moment. Nick Anderson missed four key free throws late in Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals, costing the Orlando Magic the game against the eventual-champion Houston Rockets. Anderson 0certainly practiced freethrow shooting on a daily basis; when he failed, it was not due to lack of preparation. He just made a mistake.

The lunatics who send players death threats are probably unstable to begin with. But I hope that the next time we single out a goat in the world of sports, everyone can stop for a moment and think about why it is they are so mad at that player. If you still hate someone who worked their butt off, tried their best and simply was not good enough, then they do not deserve our scorn. You do.

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