Simone Biles, Vince Lombardi and the courage to walk away

Simone Biles, Vince Lombardi and the courage to walk away
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Legendary gymnast Simone Biles is now officially part of the American culture wars, thanks to some heartless conservatives. 

After she withdrew from the women’s gymnastics team event at the Tokyo Olympics, Texas Deputy Attorney General Aaron Reitz said that Biles was a “national embarrassment.” (He has since apologized.) Talk radio hosts Clay Travis and Buck Sexton, who took over Rush Limbaugh’s early afternoon time slot, impugned her courage. “Why is this so brave?” asked Sexton about Biles’s decision to withdraw. “What’s so brave about not being brave?” British former TV host Piers Morgan claimed that her “mental health issues” were an excuse for a “poor performance.”

The cultural flashpoint is over what might be called Lombardi values. Vince Lombardi, the football coach of the 1960s championship Green Bay Packers, evokes a more patriotic, male-centric era. In the athletic context, his name is practically a synonym for triumphant masculinity, which is also a fair way to characterize Donald TrumpDonald TrumpUN meeting with US, France canceled over scheduling issue Trump sues NYT, Mary Trump over story on tax history McConnell, Shelby offer government funding bill without debt ceiling MORE’s ego. In fact Trump admired how Lombardi could get away with screaming at his players because, as Trump put it, “he won.” 

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In all likelihood, Lombardi would have been scornful of Biles’s decision to withdraw from the team competition. He once famously said that “winners never quit and quitters never win.” He had no tolerance for injuries, physical or otherwise, and once told an injured player lying on the ground in agony from an injured knee, to get up. “You’re not hurt. You’re not hurt.”

Simone Biles, a four-time Olympic gold medalist and the most accomplished gymnast in history, just demolished Lombardi values. She is a winner who quit, and in doing so, demonstrated with singular grace that it can take as much character and courage, if not more, to walk away as it does to keep going.   

“It’s been really stressful, this Olympic Games,” said Biles, citing her mental state when she withdrew from the women’s gymnastics team event. (It’s unclear whether she will compete in next week’s individual events.) She knew her limits, including the risk of serious injury if she competed in a dangerous sport when her focus was in the wrong place. “I didn’t want to do something silly out there and get injured.”

Since Buck Sexton asked, recognizing one’s limits while pursuing a dream is a brave thing to do. Ignoring them is stupid and self-destructive. An example of the bravery that Sexton ridiculed was British explorer Ernest Shackleton’s 1907-09 attempt to win the race to the South Pole. He got heartbreakingly close, less than 97 miles away, when he prudently turned his men around rather than go on a suicide mission. He wrote to his wife, “I thought you would rather have a live donkey than a dead lion.”  

Contrast Shackleton with his rival British explorer, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who went all the way to the South Pole in 1912, when he should have turned back earlier. He and his men died on the return trip. (A Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen actually got to the South Pole weeks before them.) 

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To take another example of knowing when to walk away, experienced mountain climbers don’t say, “winners never quit.” To quote the great climber Ed Viesturs, who summited all of the world’s 14 peaks over 8,000 meters without oxygen, they say “getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”

In 1996 a disaster on Mount Everest, the basis for the movie “Everest,” cost the lives of eight climbers. Two of the deaths resulted when a guide and his client ignored the guide’s own mandatory “turn-around” time of 2 pm and continued on to the summit. Both men died high on the mountain trying to get down. 

Simone Biles has given us a smart definition of bravery to replace the mindless Lombardi mantra. 

Gregory J. Wallance, a writer in New York City, was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations, where he was a member of the ABSCAM prosecution team that convicted a U.S. senator and six congressmen of bribery. He is a long-time human rights activist and the author of the historical novel, “Two Men Before the Storm:  Arba Crane’s Recollection of Dred Scott and the Supreme Court Case That Started The Civil War.” Follow him on Twitter @gregorywallance.