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 player’s 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, raises his head and points to the skies 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 pumps his fist like he’s trying to start an imaginary lawnmower 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  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 record number of Grand Slam wins with a trot to the net and 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 all 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. We are told it shows us raw emotion, the athlete being totally honest. And it seems to be the thing that “sells” the sport these days. If one dares to suggest that this whole thing is a sham and even a bit sickening one is considered something 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?? Show that hit again and do a close-up on the celebration afterwards! Play it again!)  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, and a show of raw emotion may have nothing whatever to do with honesty. Honesty is not about what we see on TV or the JumboTron: it’s about telling the truth. It is about character which is formed in the home by parental example, for the most part. And we know that professional (and semi-professional, i.e,, collegiate) sports are just like everything else in this culture: they are a diversion that shows us what we want to see. Nothing more. Sports, at least at the highest levels, are not a breeding ground for honesty and character-building. (Think: Johnny Football.)

Just consider the cover-up culture: 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 in order to keep the big stars eligible to play the game on Saturday. We don’t want to tarnish the reputation of the institution, after all. But despite the cover-ups, the word occasionally leaks out — as it did at Penn State not long ago. But, they say, “everyone else is doing it” (which may indeed be true). In ethics this is called the “two wrongs fallacy.” It’s quite common. But the felonies that are committed are still wrong, no matter how  many people commit them. And the cover-ups can hardly be considered “honest.”

So let’s not hear all that nonsense about how honest we are as a people. We aren’t. Next to politics and the local used-car lot, sports are only the most obvious place where our dishonesty shows itself — from the big-college cover-ups to where the athlete 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 her opponent that her shot was in, even though it costs her 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 so many of her friends. It’s about facing up to things and telling it like it is — and accepting the consequences, which are frequently unpleasant. It is often 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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4 thoughts on “Histrionics and Honesty

  1. Hugh, a truly terrific post. I was thinking about all the players or people who fessed up and said I screwed up, even if it cost them that moment’s glory – like Dustin Johnson missing a PGA playoff for grounding his club in a sand trap and fessing up once he realized his error. I was also thinking of the “Say it ain’t so, Joe” line from the Black Sox scandal or the TV games show fix, where a scholar got caught up in the cheating. Back to Johnny Football, I grew up believing when you get to the endzone, you should act like you have been there before. Thanks for sharing. BTG

  2. Your examples of real class in professional sports–Unitas and Laver…and I would add Ashe, Staubauch and others (men and some early women tennis professionals)–against the current environment of individual athletes screaming for attention shows the distance we have tumbled from that ideal. As the New York Times so cogently reported recently, ESPN has made some universities (Boise State and Louisville were profiled in depth) widely recognized and rich. This fall, for the first time, there is high school football on national television. Perhaps it is time to separate football (and perhaps basketball as well at the college level) from the university environment and allow academic institutions to again be home to amateur athletes, and to let high school students be just that without the negative influence of national television exposure “elevating” individual students to stardom.

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