Histrionics and Honesty

The tennis player breaks serve to even the match and drops to one knee, pumps his fist four times and turns to his “players’ box” and gives out a primal scream that makes the birds for hundreds of feet around leave their trees in a panic. The defensive end makes a routine tackle, leaps up, turns his eyes skyward and points to God after thumping his chest like a great ape. The golfer makes a three-foot put that places him in a playoff with another golfer and he, too, pumps his fist and turns to the gallery with a look of triumph as though he had just discovered penicillin.

And so it goes. In every sport and at all levels it seems the athletes act like fools every time they make a relatively routine play. One longs for the days of Johnny Unitas who routinely threw a touchdown pass and casually trotted off to his bench. Or one waits, in vain, for another Rod Laver who always gave credit to his opponent, even if his loss was due to an injury that he never mentioned to anyone but his closest fiends and his trainer, and who celebrated his Grand Slam wins with a smile and a handshake.

But those were the days before the JumboTron, the giant TV screen on nearly every playing field and court which shows the player his greatness in high-definition. No sooner is the play or the point over then eyes go to the big screen and the player waits to see if his feats of athletic prowess have been captured in full color. Perhaps they will be played again on Sports Center’s “Top 10” tomorrow! All of this, the TV and the replays on the field and court, have contributed to the histrionics that now must be regarded as a necessary part of sports. Presumably it shows us raw emotion, the athlete being totally honest. If one dares to complain about the show of raw emotion  (the rawer the better) one is considered a bit of a jerk. So the TV cameras get close-in and show it to us again and again…and again. In super slow-motion. (Can we get a close-up of the tears, or the look of agony on the face of the halfback with a torn ACL??)  We love this stuff!

Raw emotion in our culture has become identified with honesty of character, the more the better. But if we stop and think for a moment, we realize that as a whole we are not all that honest. Honesty is not about what we see on TV or the JumboTron. It’s about telling the truth. And we know that sports is just like everything else in this culture: we tell people what we want them to know. Nothing more.

Just consider the cover-up culture which I have discussed in an earlier blog: the college campuses across this country where it is a matter of course that coaches and administrators tell the public little or nothing about what really goes on before and after the  big game on Saturday. We don’t want to tarnish the reputation of the institution, after all. And besides, everyone else is doing it. In ethics this is called the “two wrongs fallacy.” We commit it all the time.

So don’t let me hear all that nonsense about how honest we are as a people. We aren’t. Next to politics and the local used-car salesman, sports is only the most obvious place where our dishonesty shows itself — right there with the athlete who takes out a pen from his sock and signs an imaginary autograph after a touchdown, or pounds his chest just after the routine tackle. It’s not honesty, it’s pretense, putting on a show. The emotions may not even be honest. At times they, too, seem staged.

It might be wise to stop and think for a minute about what honesty really means. It’s not about cover-ups and keeping a lid on things. And it’s not about chest pumping and letting it all hang out on the field or the court. It’s the little boy who admits to his Mom that it was him and not his friend who threw the rock through the window; it’s the golfer who tells the umpire that he grounded his club in the sand trap even though it costs him a stroke and the match; it’s about the tennis player who tells his opponent that his shot was in, even though it costs him the game; it’s about the woman who admits to herself that the lump in her breast is something she needs to tell the doctor about; it’s about the baseball player who “goes public” and admits that he took performance enhancing drugs, even though he knows it could cost him a place in the Hall of Fame; it’s about the college sophomore who insists on writing the term paper herself rather than buying it off the internet like several of her friends. It’s about facing up to things and telling it like it is — and accepting the consequences, which are not always pleasant. It is frequently very private and it requires courage. And, sadly, it will never be replayed on the JumboTron or on “Sports Center’s” Top Ten, even though it is well worth shouting about.

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