Sportsmanship’s Luck

In a college course on the literature of the Renaissance we read Montaigne’s essay “That to philosophize is to learn to die.” Talking with me about it outside of class, the professor remarked that he thought participation in sports taught the wisdom of Montaigne. He recalled watching a Dartmouth team being trounced on the field, yet continuing to perform intensely with a kind of detachment reflected in Montaigne’s teaching. He thought that the athletes had learned something important about life from their sport. Sportsmanship, he seemed to think, is to learn to die.

Wall Street Journal reporter Kevin Clark poses a mystery he leaves unresolved in “Andrew Luck: The NFL’s most perplexing trash talker.” Luck was a renowned player at Stanford before he went into professional football. Now he is the Indianapolis Colts quarterback who, in his third season, has led his team into the playoffs for the third year in a row.

Clark introduces the mystery of Andrew Luck. “[A]mong NFL players,” he writes “the gossip around Luck concerns a peculiar brand of on-field chatter so confusing and brilliant that no one knows quite what to make of it.”

Clark quotes one of Luck’a defensive opponents, Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan: “In all the years I’ve played football I have never heard anything like it. Nothing even close.” Clark explains:

Luck has become famous for congratulating—sincerely and enthusiastically—any player to hit him hard. Any sack is met with a hearty congratulations, such as ”great job” or “what a hit!” He yells it after hard hits that don’t result in sacks, too. It is, players say, just about the weirdest thing any quarterback does in the NFL.

Clark explores the mystery, hypothesizing that the praise constitutes “trash talk” intended to mess with the minds of his defensive opponents. What is this guy up to? Clark shares the results of his research:

The Wall Street Journal contacted 12 NFL players who recorded a sack or knockdown of Luck, and each player said he received the same message from Luck. Some were different than others—Kerrigan’s sack resulted in a fumble, so Luck, who was scrambling to retrieve the ball, could never offer his congratulations. So he looped around later in the game to tell Kerrigan how great he was doing.

“You want to say thank you but then you say ‘wait a second–I’m not supposed to like you!’” Kerrigan said.

Luck did not respond to requests for comment.

Clark also leaves open the possibility of another explanation (Clark invokes the concept of “a really nice guy”), but readers are left to their own devices to sort out the mystery. Clark unloads the rest of his research, revealing that Luck’s mysterious practice extends back in time to Luck’s high school days:

Those who know him best say the most likely reason behind his comments is that he’s just a really nice guy. Former Stanford teammates, for instance, say there’s likely an element of gamesmanship, but that’s secondary to his sincere respect for a good play—even one that resulted in him getting knocked off his feet.

“My wife and I raised all four of our kids with appropriate values, with respect for other people and to be kind and generous and I guess that carried over to the football field,” said Luck’s father, Oliver, a former NFL quarterback who is now the athletic director at West Virginia University.

Oliver Luck said he first heard that his son was congratulating those who sacked him when Andrew was playing high-school football in Texas. Oliver said Andrew had played so many sports in middle school throughout the Houston area that he knew most of the opposing players he faced, so saying “great job’” was natural because he was among friends.

Washington Redskins linebacker Trent Murphy, Luck’s teammate at Stanford, said Luck would interrupt film sessions to praise an opponent’s hit of him. The harder the better.

“He’s yelling ‘nice hit, nice hit!’ and we’re like ‘uh, no one else does this.’”

Murphy said Luck’s “over-the-top positive” demeanor has never included genuine trash-talk. “His idea of trash talk is complimenting people,” he said.

Former Stanford tight end Zach Ertz, acknowledged Luck is probably playing head games to some extent. But Ertz said that’s not Luck’s main concern. For evidence, he submitted that if Luck himself makes a great play, he usually says nothing—no matter the situation. Ertz said Luck, who is 6-foot-4, can dunk a basketball “pretty effortlessly.” And even when dunking on teammates, he never howled in delight. “He’d just giggle and jog away chuckling because he knew he got the better of you.”

The hypothesis that Luck’s practice represents trash talk is extraordinarily thin. Moreover, it is inconsistent with evidence Clark presents including Luck’s comments on game film in private outside the presence of his opponents.

Based on the evidence Clark presents, I’m going out on a limb to solve this mystery. I’m guessing that that’s not trash talk. Like the classical concept of virtue (i.e., human excellence), the concept represented by Luck’s conduct has fallen so far out of favor that no one even offers it up. I believe it’s called sportsmanship.