Zidane’s Headbutt

Glorious or foolish?

Zidane’s headbutt in the 2006 World Cup arguably cost France the title that year.  This Very Bad Wizards podcast episode is now over two years old, but I still think of it from time to time.  I’ll summarize some of Sommers and Pizzaro’s discussion here which most stuck with me:  There’s a contradiction at play with how we judge emotional acts.  Consider two scenarios. 

Scenario One:  Imagine you are at a friend’s boathouse party.  It’s a family event and dusk has fallen, evening in twilight.  Everyone’s having a good time, there’s BBQ on the grill, the liquor is flowing fast and freely.  There are children shrieking and running around the deck having fun and you’ve knocked down probably one too many tequila shots, but whatever– life is good.  Suddenly, one of the kids accidentally fall overboard and it’s complete pandemonium.  Your immediate gut reflex is to jump overboard and save the child from the dark watery depths.  But then you catch yourself– you’ve consumed so much liquor… can you even swim?  In your moment’s hesitation, your drinking buddy, Ed –the neighbor next door who’s probably knocked back twice what you have– kicks off his shoes and jumps in after the kid.  Luckily, despite being so drunk, Ed manages the save the child and they’re both eventually hauled back topside, shaken but otherwise fine.  Ed is heralded a hero.

In this split-second moment, Ed made a flash decision to “do the heroic deed”– a selfless act that bypassed all rational thought and is celebrated for his decisive action.  Imagine a tragic outcome where both Ed and the child perished, sucked under by treacherous currents.  Ed would still be celebrated as a hero, I think?  That in the moment, when the chips were down, Ed revealed his true nature— he didn’t think.  He just acted with zero regard for anything else.  He didn’t think about his own family, his own wife, or his own kids.  He just jumped in to try to save an innocent child from drowning.  You could perhaps call Ed’s immediate action reckless and maybe even foolish.  But undoubtedly, people would memorialize him fondly, as having died trying to do the right thing.  In the moment when it counted, he acted with heart.  Despite whatever consequences eventually followed.

Scenario Two:  Zidane’s headbutt at the 2006 World Cup.  Reportedly, Materazzi insulted Zidane’s sister– that was the instigating incident.  In that immediate heat of the moment, Zidane just didn’t care.  It was a transgression that simply could not pass.  And thus, the headbutt.  France went on to lose the title in penalty kicks, 3-5.  Earlier that same year, at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, American Lindsey Jacobellis also lost the gold medal in the Women’s Snowboard Cross when she fell trying to show off in the final 100 meters on the last jump.  Despite the fall, Jacobellis still managed to grab silver which is just testament of how massive her lead was.

In all of these examples, the people involved acted on emotion in a moment of passion.  And yet, Ed is celebrated while Zidane and Jacobellis are largely criticized for their reckless foolishness that ultimately cost them the gold.  To me though, this distinction in attitudes doesn’t make sense.  They’re all flipsides of the same coin– if you want to celebrate the Eds of the world, we need to also accept, and even celebrate, the Zidanes and Jacobelli.  Reacting solely based on emotional response isn’t a choice.  There is literally no rational thought behind the action– it’s pure reaction.  It’s also, IMHO, what makes us human.

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