The Fairness Trap: Don't Confuse "Should" with "Is"

Fairness is an admirable quality in people. But it’s a dangerous belief to hold about the how the world works. Particularly in the realm of basketball. 

Expecting basketball to be fair is a mistake that can ruin your career (cue eye roll). You may think I’m being overdramatic but I fully believe it. Your career won’t implode on sight. It won’t happen overnight. But it will erode bit by bit in imperceptible increments. 

Before I explain how the expectation of fairness can have devastating consequences, check to see if you have an expectation of fairness. Here are some of the thoughts that might pop up if you do. 

  • You should be getting minutes but you’re not.
  • You should be getting scholarship offers but you’re not.
  • You should be playing point guard instead of shooting guard but you’re not.
  • You should be on a team of players who pass the ball but you’re not. 
  • You should be playing better than that other guy because you work harder than him but you’re not. 

I struggled with this last one during my professional career. I feel confident in saying that I was the hardest worker on the teams I was on. In a fair world, I would be rewarded for that hard work. In a fair world my performance would be a direct reflection of how hard I worked. But the bitter truth is that it doesn’t always work like that. 

I had teammates who never came to the gym to get extra shots. They never went to the weight room on their own. They goofed around during drills and lacked discipline during team practices. And you know what, sometimes they played better than me. For a long time, I had a hard time accepting this. It felt unjust, it felt unfair. And self pity started to creep in. Why should I even go to the gym if he’s going to be better than me no matter how hard I work? 

Fortunately, I recognized these feelings early on and was able to head them off. Otherwise, I could’ve easily fallen into a spiral of self despair and perceived futility. 

Preparation Does Not Guarantee Results

In my example, I felt like I deserved to get better results because I worked harder. But that’s the funny thing about results, they don’t always go to the well prepared. Sometimes, they go to the fortunate, or the bold, or the delusionally confident. 

Preparation doesn’t ensure success, it just gives you a better chance of achieving success. And neither should it, I might add. If preparation correlated perfectly with success, life would be pretty boring. There would be no surprise. 

The Victim Mindset

The most dangerous part of assuming basketball should be fair is that it can lead to adopting the victim mindset. When we begin to pout and pity how unfair everything is, we become victims to the world around us. 

As soon as you enter the victim mindset, an important shift in how you think occurs. Instead of believing that you have control over your life, you begin to believe that life happens to you. You view yourself as a leaf blowing in the wind without any power to change your course. 

Losing a sense of control in terms of basketball can lead to diminished effort and enjoyment. It’s no fun to play the game when you feel like your efforts are futile. 

It’s all Unconscious

The scary part is that you might not even realize your inherent expectation of fairness. For many people, it’s a belief that's held below the level of conscious awareness.   

Expecting basketball to be fair is just a protective psychological mechanism. It justifies your relative underperformance and protects you from the harsh reality that bad things happen to good people. It’s much easier to think the world should be fair rather than admit that you might do everything right but still fall short of your goals.

It’s an uncomfortable reality to face up to, but it’s worth the effort.

The Solution

Instead of living with this illusion of fairness, you can choose to uncompromisingly accept that basketball is inherently unfair. In choosing to do so, a few things happen:

1) We better prepare ourselves for future hardships. When we assume fairness to be the norm—whether that’s playing time, points per game, or recognition—we expect things to go as planned. But without that expectation, we are forced to prepare ourselves for the possibility of unexpected difficulties. 

2) We develop resiliency in the face of obstacles. When those unexpected difficulties arise, we learn to attack and overcome them and, in the process, develop perseverance and determination.

3) We gain a better understanding of what's in our control and what's out of our control. Once we accept that bad things will happen to us even when we do everything right, we learn to better focus our energy on the things we can control.

When coach takes you out of the starting lineup, it can be tempting to get angry at him. But anger at the coach is a misplaced use of your energy. Once you release the idea that basketball should be fair, you become more mentally prepared for bad things to happen. Over time, you'll learn to channel your energy into productive activities like being a good leader from the bench or revamping your practice habits to earn more playing time.

It’s important to reiterate that this slippery slope is a product of a seemingly harmless belief in fairness. To avoid this, view the game of basketball through the lens of how it actually is, rather than how you feel it should be.