In the American sports culture, we have a tendency to pinpoint the losses of our favorite teams on a particular play, often a dumb mistake made during a crucial part of a game. We even take this scapegoating a step further by defining the careers of athletes, coaches and fans by their mistakes made on the big stage. Think of the first things that pop into your head when you hear the names Bill Buckner, Fred Merkle, Leon Lett, Steve Bartman and, more recently, Pete Carroll. (If you didn’t recognize the second name, go watch the section of Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary about 'Merkle’s Boner.')
This past Saturday, I nearly added University of Texas punter Michael Dickson to my personal list of players whose bonehead plays have caused great harm to my favorite teams. With under a minute left in the fourth quarter and the game tied with conference rival Oklahoma State University, the first-year punter botched a routine snap and nervously booted the ball out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage, essentially handing a game-winning field goal to the OSU kicker.
As a lifelong Longhorn football fan, the loss was a devastating blow as the team had controlled momentum over their nationally ranked opponent nearly the entire game. In the moments following the game, I felt myself frustratingly blaming Dickson’s mishap for the Longhorns’ loss. In my mind, Dickson had evolved from a relatively impressive Division I starting punter to the guy who dropped the snap against Oklahoma State. It wasn’t until a few days later that I realized I had conformed to the play-blaming inclination of our American sports culture.
In Dickson’s defense, he is a first-year—a first-year—playing major college football. To put that in perspective, he’s the same age as a CMC student who is only four weeks removed from a Wilderness Orientation Adventure trip and can barely find Collins Dining Hall. The guy should be allowed to make mistakes. Additionally, in hindsight, there are hundreds of plays in a football game, so blaming a loss on one particular play at the culmination of the game is just silly. This defense can also be used in the previously named cases of notorious sports figures such as Buckner, Merkle, Lett, Bartman and Carroll.
If the 1986 Red Sox hadn’t left runners in scoring position earlier in the game, or the 2003 Chicago Cubs hadn’t melted down in the remainder of the NLCS, or in this case, the Longhorns hadn’t turned the ball over earlier in the game, these incidents would never have happened. Although sports figures are often held to higher standards in these days of 24/7 media coverage, they put on their pants the same way we do. The bottom line is that sports fans like myself should quit defining players, coaches and fans by their seemingly key endgame mistakes because, like us, they are all humans, and humans make mistakes.