Propriety

In watching a recent episode of ESPN’s sports show, “The Jump,” I was struck by the following exchange. During a game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and an unnamed opponent the Cavaliers had a fairly substantial lead when a time-out was called. Just after the whistle blew, when all play had stopped, one player from the winning team dashed to the basket and did a “360 dunk” just for fun. The commentators at the game remarked that the move was out of place, uncalled for. It did appear that the winners were rubbing salt in the wound.

But those discussing the clip faulted the commentary on the grounds that the player was just having fun. He had recovered from a broken leg the previous year that threatened to keep him out of the game for the rest of his life and it was good to see him loose and having a good time. In addition, the leap showed he was back at full strength and he was merely reflecting the joy he had in once again playing the game he loved. Or some such thing. In any event, they thought the original commentary was out of order.

I thought about this. (I am retired and have a tendency to reflect on the ordinary, for my sins.) It occurred to me that the original comments were expressing a sense of propriety, something — along with a sense of restraint — that has been all but lost in our climate of immediate gratification and the public exhibition of whatever we happen to be feeling at the moment. The media obviously prefer to focus in on expressions of extreme joy or, preferably, great sadness, especially with tears. Can we have some tears, please? Just consider for a moment the previews we are shown for upcoming shows, or the highlights of past shows, stressing violence and the raw expression of emotion. We have pretty much forgotten what those commentators were trying to express: putting on a show when your team is leading and the other team is trying to keep it together is not called for. It is out of order. It shows lack of respect for the losing team that is already looking forward to another loss at the hands of a team with one of the best players on the planet.

In a more recent broadcast, the very verbose Stephen A. Smith saw “no problem whatever” with Labron James in street clothes, coaching over the head of the team’s coach while he was supposed to be taking a day off for a rest before the playoffs. He saw no impropriety whatever, since James has, in Smith’s view, “one of the greatest basketball minds of this generation.” The latter is true, I gather from the available evidence, but irrelevant to the question of whether James’ conduct was appropriate. It showed a lack of respect for the coach — who was chosen at mid-season at James’ request, apparently.

Propriety is knowing what is and what is not appropriate. The Greeks understood this, as they saw tragedy emerging whenever folks, especially those in power, lost their sense of what is appropriate. The cautious person tries to grasp the situation and knows what the appropriate response is. Sometimes it is complete silence. At other times it is applause, or possibly even shouting with glee. At yet other times it is deep-felt sadness. The situation makes demands on the sensitive spectator and the wise one is the one who knows just what the situation calls for. That is propriety; that is self-restraint.

We are learning during these dreary days of political preliminaries how unrestrained some of the main characters are in this melodrama we are all sick of by this time. The men on television commenting on a basketball game recognize that exuberance at a time when your team is ahead and the other team is feeling the pressure from an impending loss is inappropriate. They showed a feeling for propriety that is missing in so much of what we see and hear these days. Those clowns who faulted them for not applauding the show of exuberance on the part of a player who has recovered from a debilitating injury merely reflected the general lack of sense of what is and what is not appropriate, what the situation called for — as did Stephen A. Smith. It was fun to see a man dunk the basketball after such a serious injury. But it was inappropriate in the circumstances. Awareness of the difference is disappearing in this culture along with the moral compass that points us to the high ground.

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Genie Out Of The Bottle

You have doubtless heard about the sex scandal involving the basketball team at the University of Louisville. It is reported (again and again) that for a number of years a woman by the name of Katina Powell procured prostitutes and exotic dancers to attend to the needs and urges of basketball recruits in order to entice them into enrolling in the university. Reportedly this has cost the university “tens of thousands” of dollars and involved numerous high school recruits and their fathers or guardians over a number of years.

This is sensational and the media love sensational stories so it will become the hottest story around —  at least until interest wanes. But the real questions lie at the heart of this sort of thing, because we must suppose that Louisville is not the only school to be involved in doing whatever it takes to win. They are simply the ones that got caught, because Powell wrote a book about it and the police and the NCAA are investigating the reports, which appear to be well founded.  The real question is how this sort of thing can be stopped. And the answer, I fear, is that it cannot be stopped. There is simply too much money involved in Division I basketball and football to put an end to the sordid activities that coaches will resort to the get a “leg up” on the competition. And while  Rick Pitino. the coach at Louisville, has denied any knowledge of these going-on, it beggars belief that the man would not be fully aware of these activities. As a recent Yahoo News story notes:

Pitino has repeatedly denied any knowledge of strippers being paid to dance for or have sex with recruits, but in Powell’s first interview since her book was published, she reiterated to ESPN she finds that hard to believe.

Said Powell: “Four years, a boatload of recruits, a boatload of dancers, loud music, alcohol, security, cameras, basketball players who came in [to the dorm] at will … ”

What will be interesting now will be how Louisville responds. Will the school try to get ahead of potential NCAA sanctions and self-impose penalties or encourage Pitino to step down? Or will it do nothing besides continuing to insist it’s still investigating the veracity of Powell’s claims?

The standard response, of course, is that “everyone does it” and that is supposed to count as moral justification. But, even if true, it does not. I have written about the scandals involving athletes before (some would say endlessly) and this one really doesn’t differ in kind from the rest; it is simply more sensational because of the role played by prostitutes and the involvement of high school students — and their fathers or guardians. Louisville will almost certainly be found guilty as charged. The coach and perhaps the athletics director might be fired and there will be NCAA penalties. Whatever does occur, the whole thing will soon go the way of Ohio State, Penn State, Minnesota, and scores of other schools involved in scandals. It will be forgotten. What matters here is the success of the teams and, of course, the revenue they bring in.

I have suggested in the past that all athletes at Division I universities should be paid a decent salary and treated as professionals. If they then want to attend college they can pay tuition like everyone else. If not, they can spend it as they like and gamble on the remote possibility that they will be selected in the NFL or the NBA and become Professionals with a capital “P.” But this would not begin to solve the problems that surround college athletics because, they involve such huge amounts of money and, as in this case, they also involve young people who aren’t even enrolled at the school. There is simply no way to put a stop to this sort of transgression. The demand for sports on television — where the bulk of the money is generated — is insatiable and the networks couldn’t stop broadcasting the contests even if they wanted to. And, clearly, they don’t want to. They also make huge amounts of money.

Didn’t Jesus warn us all long ago that avarice is the root of all evil? These issues, along with many others too numerous to mention, seem to bear this out. In any event, moralizing aside, the genie is out of the bottle and there really doesn’t seem to be any way to put it back.

Contrasting Heroes

One of the most famous of the “Great Books” that educated people read for centuries — and which has been dumped on the garbage heap recently with the rest of the books by  “dead white European males” — is The Noble Lives of the Grecians and Romans by Plutarch. The book, which in translation is about 1300 pages in length, attempts to draw parallels between the lives of famous Greeks and Romans to serve as a model of behavior  for young men growing up following the book’s appearance in the early years of the Roman Empire. Plutarch was born around 50 A..D. and while many of the biographies he wrote are now considered inaccurate, he is nonetheless praised for providing us with “a  faithful record of the historical tradition of his age.” In a word, we are given a very detailed picture of what it is that people in those days, and for generations that followed, regarded as exemplary conduct. Most of the men Plutarch wrote about were regarded as heroes, men like Solon and Pericles of Athens, Alexander of Macedon, and Julius Caesar of Rome.

Plutarch, we are told by his modern editor, was “a moralist rather than an historian. His interest is less for politics and the changes of empires, and much more for personal character and individual actions and motives to action; duty performed and rewarded; arrogance chastised, hasty anger corrected; humanity, fair dealing, and generosity triumphing in the visible, or relying on the invisible world. His mind in his biographic memoirs is continually running on the Aristotelian Ethics and the high Platonic theories which formed the religion of the educated population of his time.”

In the year of our Lord Two Thousand and Thirteen, or the year of “His Airness” as they call one of this country’s greatest heroes, Michael Jordan, we are provided a study in contrasts. This week’s Sports Illustrated is about 40% full of pictures and stories that provide us with ample evidence of the degree to which this man is revered in this country. If we hadn’t seen the magazine, our eyes and ears could have provided ample evidence after a few moments of watching ESPN which seems to run on and on….(and on) about Jordan. The reason? We are nearing the 50th birthday of His Airness.

And how does Jordan compare with Pericles, Alexander, and Caesar? Not very well, sad to say. He is clearly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, basketball player who ever set foot on the court. Just ask him and he will proudly show you his six N.B.A. Championship rings. But as far as character is concerned, Jordan leaves something to be desired to say the least. His focus does not appear to be on living the good life, except as that is defined by Madison Avenue and the American population at large. He is worth a fortune and most, if not all of that fortune, he spends on himself. Consider the “newly built $12.4 million, 11 bedroom mansion in Jupiter, Florida on three acres of land” where Jordan and his 34 year-old fiancée recently moved — as we are told in Sports Illustrated. The home is near a golf course and also near his close friend Tiger Woods. Jordan loves to play golf and gamble, we are told, and he is part owner of the Charlotte Bobcats of the N.B.A. — a team which badly needs a player of near-Jordan caliber. To be near the team, Jordan also owns a “$3.2 million penthouse in a condominium in downtown Charlotte.” He paid $50 million of his own money to buy into the Bobcats. His money comes from endorsements, mostly: Nike pays him handsomely to put his name on basketball shoes which cost the kids of this country $250.00 a pair — an amount of money that mothers of young boys and girls in the inner cities must somehow come up with in order that their children get the very latest in foot gear. And if you are hungry you can enjoy a meal at one of the steak houses that bears his name and even delight in a five-course meal “inspired by his life and career” for only $125.00.

In a word, Michael Jordan represents in so many ways the ideals and achievements admired in this country which stand in such sharp contrast with the ideals and achievements of the “Grecians and Romans” Plutarch wrote about. In case you wondered, this is called “progress.”

Is Federer the Best Ever?

I mentioned in an earlier blog that I thought any knowledgeable sports fan could recognize the great players in their sport just as an avid reader could identify the great literature that has been written. But I also noted that when it came to comparisons we were on shaky ground. Federer is a great male tennis player, all would agree, but is he the greatest who ever played? Talking heads and drunks in the bar love to argue about such things — though in the bar they would most likely be talking about the greatest football or basketball player, not the best tennis player! But it is all hokum. It is what we might call idle speculation.

To begin with, we would have to agree on the criteria of greatness. Which ones are relevant? In Federer’s case, is it the number of major titles he has won? The length of time he was ranked #1 in the world? His consistency? His records against the other top players? His skill? Clearly, in the end there is a great deal of subjectivity involved, just in determining which criteria to select. But even if we agree that, say, skill is one of the criteria how do we agree who is the most skillful player who ever played? That is precisely the key question: how do we decide? In the case of comparisons of players from different eras, it cannot be done. Would Laver in his prime have beaten Federer in his prime? Who knows? Rankings differ from year to year, depth of the field and relative abilities of the other players also vary. And so it goes. It’s apples and oranges, as we like to say. That won’t stop the speculation, but it should allow us to recognize that it is idle and will lead us nowhere.

It was supposed that computers could put an end to idle speculation in sports, but not so. There is considerable discussion in women’s tennis, and in golf, as to whether the world’s #1 player could be such without ever winning a major tournament. And just look at the mess in college football with computers determining rankings. Computers have not put out the flames of speculation; they have tossed fuel on the fire. Whether we use computers or count on our fingers, if we cannot determine what would make a claim true, then it is idle to speculate — though it might be fun to do so over beers with your friends.

But there is speculation that is not idle, and we must acknowledge the difference. Let’s call it “reasonable speculation.” We can speculate what will happen in the years to come if the human population continues to explode and the earth’s resources continue to diminish in the light of global warming. These sorts of speculation are not idle: they are essential to our survival. They are the sorts of speculation the Club of Rome engages in to determine when the earth will reach its carrying capacity, something we need to know. In this arena we not only have innumerable relevant facts, which we can determine as relevant, but we can form a basis for probabilities. In the arena of sports, we have disconnected facts but we cannot say which are germane and probabilities cannot gain a foothold. The differences are important.

When it comes to Federer, I would say that he has the most major titles of all time, and that is a fact — one of the few we could agree on. But, as a lifelong student of the sport, I would also add that he is the best ball striker I have ever seen, the most graceful payer with the best footwork. But do these factors make him the greatest male player who ever played the game? I cannot say, nor can anyone else.