A Better Place

The Tennis Channel recently aired a tribute to Arthur Ashe, one of my heroes and a truly remarkable athlete and human being. It reminded me not only of the man himself and the trials and tribulations he faced with exceptional courage and dignity throughout his life and especially toward the end when he was diagnosed with AIDS. He had contracted the virus during the second of his two bypass surgeries. One wondered how this athlete in top condition and thin as a rail could have a heart condition, but knowing that the hospital where he had the surgery introduced the AIDS virus into the man’s blood during one of the transfusions was even more difficult to imagine.

He had to deal with the looks and snickers that all black men had to face growing up in the South while playing what many regarded an effete sport at posh country clubs; but what he faced during those final years was even more demanding and showed more than anything else what character means and how little we see of it these days. How much we miss not only Arthur Ashe but people like Arthur Ashe: people of character and people who have dedicated their lives not only to their craft but to making the world a better place.

Ashe was the man to build bridges — not walls — between folks who differed in skin color and their basic beliefs about what it means to be human and what it means to be successful. He  attacked such evils as apartheid in South Africa the same way he attacked a short ball on the tennis court. He once refused to play a tournament in South Africa if blacks were not only allowed to attend, but allowed to sit anywhere they wanted. You may recall that at the time blacks in Johannesburg were allowed in town during the day but were forced to leave at day’s end and not be found in town at night. As bad as racism is today, and it is still bad, it was even worse when Ashe fought against it. But if it is even a bit better today, it is because of the efforts of people like Arthur Ashe — and his friend Nelson Mandela.

We hear talk about “heroes” these days — I even heard it bandied about recently while watching one of my favorite situation comedies featuring a man who sought to be a hero to his kids by showing his willingness to sacrifice his favorite sports package on television to help his family pay some bills. We struggle to understand what the word means because we find it so difficult these days to find examples we can hold up to our children. We wonder if those who fight for their country or who play games for large amounts of money could possibly be the ones, but we don’t stop to ask ourselves just what heroism involves.

It is sad that we need to search high and low these days to try to find a person of one gender or the other, of one color or another, of one religious belief or another, who is deserving of the label “hero.” The word denotes a person who is dedicated to making the world a better place in whatever way he or she can, knowing that responsibilities come before rights, the common good before the demands of the individual. It doesn’t mean simply standing up for what one believes unless what one believes really matters. It does not demand a grand show or widespread applause; it only demands that a person be willing to do the right thing no matter how difficult that may prove to be. The remarkable thing about Arthur Ashe is that he was that man and his life stood as a tribute to the fact that it is possible to live in this crazy world and be true to oneself and true to those things that really matter.

In the end I applaud the Tennis Channel for broadcasting a tribute to the man who won over so many hearts and who walked among us always concerned that he do the right thing and who knew that his successes on the tennis courts (which were many) were so much less important than reaching out to people who were determined to war against one another in one way or another; who know only how to fling mud at others — or, worse yet, fire guns in their direction.

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P.B.F.

The initials in my title stand for the words: “Post-Birdie-F%$kup. They are words taught to me by a friend I play golf with and they describe a pattern one finds in a great many sports —  not just golf. But in golf they describe the tendency of players to score a birdie and then, on the next hole, to get a triple boogie. “Can’t stand success,” they say. It happens a great deal. In tennis, for example, I noted that many of the people I played with (never me, of course) double-faulted after an ace. Great shot then PGGFFFFGH.

The saying goes: “Pride goeth before destruction; a haughty spirit before a fall.” This is usually shortened to “Pride Goeth Before a Fall,” which is a lazy way of saying the same thing. But whether we are talking about pride or a haughty spirit, we are referring to the tendency which has been around for a great many years apparently, to blow a lead, choke in a crisis, get a big head, get cocky after a good shot. Take your pick.

One of the aspects of this phenomenon is the tendency of highly rated players — say a top seed in a tennis tournament — to choke under the pressure (the air is thin at the top). When I coached tennis and used to take my players to the National Tournament in the Spring after the regular season I realized (years later) that the players I managed to get seeded never did well. The ones who did well, including three All-Americns, were always unseeded. They “flew beneath the radar.” If I had noticed it early on I would never have allowed my players to get the seed in the first place. It put undue pressure on them and they felt it and had difficulty making their bodies obey they commands of their minds. In a word, they choked. As all athletes know, it is easier to play when behind than when ahead — or favored to win.

Arthur Ashe once said that all athletes choke. The great ones learn how to play well even under the pressure. This is what separates the great athletes in every sport from the average to good ones: they handle the pressure better. This would include people like Tiger Woods in his prime, Jack Nicklaus, Chris Evert in her prime, Rod Laver, Roger Federer, and teams such as  the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan, the 1950s Yankees, the current Golden State Warriors, and other teams and players noted for their winning ways — regardless of the pressure. No P.B.F. for them, though even the great ones have problems at times.

As an example of this is Dustin Johnson the golfer was recently named the #1 player in the P.G.A.  In a recent W.G.C. match-play tournament he built a large 5-hole lead in the final match and then saw it whither away and had to hold on to squeak out a win by one hole. Even the great ones feel the pressure.

So what do we learn from this — those of us who aren’t involved in athletics at the higher levels? We learn that it is best to remain silent and fight the tendency to get smug when things go well for fear that it “will come back to bite us.” A president, for example, who is convinced that his personal prestige and bullying tactics are sufficient to move a bill through Congress may discover that his smug attitude is the very thing that turns those very Congressmen against him and he may lose the fight. P.B.F.

Beware the bug that comes back to bite you. Beware of P.B.F. It can strike anywhere and at any time!

Earning Respect

I didn’t watch this year’s ESPYs where a number of overpaid and self-involved athletes are placed in the spotlight to receive even more attention and applause. I did, however, get a glimpse at the highlights.  Some of the awards make sense and are well deserved, but in general it’s just one more chance for these athletes to be seen on television. One of the awards this year, the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, went to Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, Olympic decathlete who won a gold medal in 1976 and at the time was reputedly the greatest male athlete on the planet. He (She) has changed mightily. You wouldn’t recognize him (her). During her tearful speech, looking for all the world like something dragged backwards through a bush, she thanked her children for their support during her ordeal; she wanted our respect.

I have no problem whatever with Ms Jenner’s sex change. I applaud it. Perhaps it did show courage, though I would look for someone who fought off a seemingly fatal disease if I were making the choice, or perhaps Ray Rice’s wife. What Caitlyn did was something she says she simply “had to do.”  But the problem I really had was when she looked at the camera, mascara running down her face, and insisted that anyone who makes the choice she made should be shown “respect.” At that moment, the little devil on my left shoulder told me, she looked and sounded like someone who absolutely did NOT deserve respect. But that was him speaking, I won’t quarrel. Well, maybe a bit. I want to tighten up the word “respect.” I think she was using it rather loosely.

The word “respect” has reference to rights which have a colorful history. The Greeks never talked about rights, perhaps because they thought themselves superior to all other peoples on earth. Perhaps they were. But the medieval theologians, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, spoke of rights as “God-given” to all humans at conception. This, of course, is the root of the ongoing fight about abortion. But the notion was picked up in the age of Enlightenment by such thinkers as John Locke who dropped the theological overtones and referred to what he called “natural rights,” which were attributed to all persons at birth simply because they are human. Persons don’t earn them and, as Thomas Jefferson was to note, they are “unalienable.” They cannot be taken away. These rights must be respected by each of us or we have no grounds whatever for claiming rights for ourselves. And the notion that certain groups have rights that apparently do not pertain to others, such as women, blacks, or native Americans, is nonsensical on Locke’s view. All humans have rights simply by virtue of being human. Some thinkers have maintained that we could forfeit our natural rights through heinous crimes, such as murder, but in general they are “unalienable.”

But then there are also civil rights, which we have when we become citizens and which we can have taken away by the government, presumably in consequence of a criminal act whereby we are locked up and lose the right to vote or lose our driving license after repeated DUIs. During the years when hell was breaking loose in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany, no one had any rights, civil or natural — not even those in power. Anyone at any time could be sent to concentration camps where they were simply annihilated, erased from memory. Anyone who claimed to remember those who were sent away found themselves in the same boat. Welcome to totalitarianism in spades!

In the end, respect, which those with natural rights are deserving of, is a given. We must respect the natural rights of all persons: that’s a moral imperative, the cornerstone of Kant’s ethics. But there is also the respect we earn through our efforts and abilities and which can turn to contempt if we make little effort or squander those abilities and become somehow unworthy of respect. This sort of respect might be attributed to the teacher in the classroom because of her position, let us say. It can be turned to contempt when she shows herself ignorant of the subject or unable to communicate with her pupils. This is the respect we must earn. The question is does Caitlyn Jenner deserve this sort of respect?

The angel on my right shoulder says “yes,” because she had the nerve to go public and share with others her ordeal — and an ordeal it must have been from the look of her. The devil on my other shoulder (yes, he’s still there) tells me she doesn’t deserve our respect because she is making a fool of herself, and in drawing attention to herself — including, so I have read, wearing revealing apparel in public, apparently designed to show that, yes, she does have breasts  — she is simply on an ago trip.  Such people are not deserving of our respect because they have done nothing to earn it. I’m of two minds on this one, but I tend toward the devil’s view.

And as for receiving the Arthur Ashe Award for courage, that galls me a bit, because there was a man of true courage who did whatever he could to promote the rights of his people, who attacked apartheid in South Africa, who was an exemplary human being, and in the end fought with the aids that had been injected into his bloodstream by mistake with dignity and class. Now, there was real courage. Let’s not be taken in by the imitations.

Arthur Ashe

In the current issue of Inside Tennis there is an extraordinary interview with Arthur’s widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, that takes us back to the days when there were occasionally exceptional human beings who excelled on the courts and playing fields — and in their lives. Those were the days! I had the good fortune of seeing Arthur Ashe up close once in my life in Florida when I went to spend a week at Sanibel Harbour to receive a coaching award. And he used to stay with one of my closest friends when he came to River Forest, Illinois each year to play in the National Clay Court Tournament. I have always admired the man and I suppose he is the standard against which I hold current athletes who invariably fail to meet that standard. He was not only an exceptional athlete, he was an exceptional human being who cared about others and who had a strong sense of duty.

You may recall that Ashe died of AIDS soon after he received contaminated blood during a heart bypass. He was still young and much-loved and his passing was noted by people around the world. One of his close friends and one who regretted his passing was Nelson Mandela who, upon coming to New York after being freed from prison after 27 years wanted to know where Arthur “my brother” was.  Upon Arthur’s death, Mandela called him “a citizen of the world. . . an extraordinary individual who has given me and millions hope at a time when we needed it most.” Arthur had gotten to know Mandela in South Africa at a time when apartheid was at its height and Mandala and Arthur, each in his own way, were determined to bring it down. After breaking many racial barriers as a young man growing up in the Jim Crow South and a minority student at UCLA, Arthur helped break down racial barriers in South Africa as well by playing tennis there only on his terms: in a non-segregated stadium, where blacks would be invited to attend and allowed to sit wherever they wanted. Young blacks in that country, like author Mark Mathabane, said later on that Arthur Ashe was the first free black man they had ever seen.  He later asked, “How could a black man play such excellent tennis, move about the court with such confidence, trash a white man, and be cheered by white people?”  Ashe was for them, and indeed for all of us, a remarkable example. It’s too bad more contemporary athletes don’t follow the example he set.

I recall sitting around our tiny 12″ television on a hot, July day in 1975 watching Arthur beat Jimmy Connors for the Wimbledon title. At the time it was easily the most prestigious tennis title in the world and it may still be so. But Arthur, after the win, simply came to the net, shook hands with his opponent — who was one of the inventors of histrionics on the tennis court — and waved to the crowd. Arthur didn’t fall to his knees, or leap in the air, point to the sky, fall on his back, or leap into the crowd to embrace his “team.” In fact, I don’t recall that he had a “team” who supported him through the travails of a Wimbledon fortnight. He simply played superb tennis, won the match, went to the net, and shook hands. Always the calm, collected gentleman.

And that’s what set Arthur Ashe apart: he was cool, calm, and collected. His widow tells us that beneath the calm exterior burned a heart of fire, intense hatred of racism and a determination to make the world a better place. But he never let us show. He read copiously and he thought a great deal. And he stood up for what was important not only to himself but to others of his race and kind. He practiced that ancient art of self-control, patterned after the Greeks, one might imagine. As South African writer Don Mattera said to Arthur in a letter he wrote to him, “I love you not for the rage in your soul, but how it’s been trained to be rebuked and summoned.” What a great tribute, though it is an art that has been lost — especially so in our day when rage is all the rage and raw emotions are the tune all delight in playing. Arthur would today be a severe disappointment to the media who crave the spectacular, who have substituted entertainment value for character because it sells the sponsor’s products.  He eschewed the spectacular for the effective. He stood fast against what was wrong in the world and quietly and with relentless determination did whatever he could to put an end to it. As Bill Simonds says in his article in Inside Tennis, “That was Arthur’s modus operandi — he was always controlled, but he spoke out, he got arrested in front of the White House and in front of the South African embassy. He convinced the ATP not to have tournaments in South Africa.” Senator Bill Bradley said of Arthur, “Ashe was not loud, he did not boast, he thought before he spoke. Like a good poet, he used silence to his advantage. He held back until he was ready, and he made that restraint his best advantage. His best smile showed no teeth.” Beautifully said.

Arthur did not approve of the more militant stand many of his peers took against the racial injustice they saw all around them. He was particularly upset when black gang members dragged Reginald Denny from a truck during the L.A. riots. That was just not his way, though he felt the injustice of racism just as deeply. He was considering a run at the U.S. Senate when his health made it impossible. And while he was criticized for his apparent quietism by people like John Thompson and Jesse Jackson, he was convinced that his way was the best way: it was the only way he knew. He liked to quote Martin Luther King who said of the Black Power movement, “I hope our thirst for freedom doesn’t make us want to drink from the cup of bitterness.”   I am convinced that if others around him had adopted Arthur Ashe’s approach in time more people would have come around to his way of thinking. But before he could give full voice to his quiet rage, he was silenced by a disease that entered his veins unknown to him. It is truly sad that there aren’t more like him.

Social Conscience

Not long ago I made passing reference to the apparent fact that a great many athletes who make millions of dollars playing a game and getting endorsements seem to lack any sort of social conscience. I realize that there are notable exceptions — such as Billie Jean King, Magic Johnson, Kevin Garnett, and Adrian Peterson — to name a few. But on the whole, many athletes are reluctant to speak out about the problems around them and to lend their considerable weight, money, and reputation to movements that might actually help rectify many social ills — such as poverty and the lack of opportunity for so many people. The medieval thinkers would have called this the “sin of omission,” the failure to act when an evil is clearly perceived. The problem is that many of these athletes simply don’t perceive the ills that surround them in this society.

Billie Jean King(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Billie Jean King
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Indeed, when many athletes retire the best they can think of is to open an academy or a school where they will teach youngsters to play the games that made them famous. I blogged about Andy Roddick not long ago in this respect. That is not a bad thing and it is nice to see these people “giving back” to the games they play, but they are after all just games. There are more serious problems  that need attention, to be sure. This simply shows us how small the world the world is in which these people live.

But when you think about it, what are we to expect? Take golf, for example. Sports Illustrated does a poll every year among the American male golfers, and except for David Duval (who has recently been relegated to golf’s minor leagues), there isn’t a single American golfer who would be caught dead voting for a Democrat. This is not to say that only Democrats are socially responsible; that is surely not the case. But so many of those golfers are simply concerned to make sure they keep a tight grip on as much of their money as they possibly can, and they seem convinced that the best way to assure that is to vote for Republicans. If they do get involved with charities it is usually ones that touch them in a close, personal way. God forbid the state or country should take some of their money and do some real good with it.

These men tend to identify the Democratic Party with Socialism and while they have no idea what that means, they know they don’t want to have  anything to do with it. But again, what are we to expect? They fly all over the world, but they have no idea what is going on in that world. They live in gated communities; fly in private jets or first class accommodations; stay in high-priced hotels or rent a condominium during their current tournament; play at the world’s poshest golf courses and are taxied back and forth in the latest expensive SUV;  and they engage in conversation only with like-minded, wealthy Republicans. They are the pawns of their corporate sponsors — as suggested by their clothing which is covered with corporate logos. In fact, the only people with more logos on their clothing are the Nascar drivers and they aren’t really athletes, as George Carlin reminded us years ago: they are rednecks driving around in circles.

In any event, golfers resemble so many of the other wealthy athletes living in a shrunken world talking only to others who think as they do, and worried that “the government” is going to take away some of their easy money (witness Phil Mickelson who recently threatened to move out of California because they passed a bill taxing wealthy citizens at a higher rate. Goodness!)

But, while we can only regret that socially aware athletes like Arthur Ashe are no longer around, when all is said and done we really should be thankful for the handful of wealthy athletes who do give some of their money and time to deserving causes — such as children’s hospitals and hurricane relief, for example. It’s remarkable that they rise above the level of awareness that seems to be the norm in the sports world where narcissistic men and women are chasing their dream in the form of a palatial home, expensive cars, and safe investments. But as they would be the first to tell me: it’s their money. Who am I to say what they should do with it?