What Matters?

In the recent college basketball game between Duke and their in-state rival North Carolina, Duke’s star player “blew out” one of his expensive Nike shoes, tripped and sprained his knee. He left the game and didn’t return. Duke, predictably, lost the game. It appears as of this writing that the sprain is minor. But it raised a number of questions that got the talking heads talking.

On the television the next day the air was filled with opinions left and right: since the injury is not season-ending, should he just “shut it down” and not play lest he seriously hurt himself and ruin his chances to make big money (VERY big money) in the N.B.A.?  The consensus was that he should. After all, that’s what intercollegiate athletics at the highest levels are all about these days: money. But Jalen Rose — who played basketball for Michigan and later in the N.B.A. and now comments on ESPN’s lively morning show “Get Up!” — held to the opinion that the man signed a letter of intent to play for Duke and owes them the rest of the year and a chance to win the National Championship — a real possibility with this man playing, a long shot without him.

I applaud Jalen because he was the only one I heard in all the drivel (and I gather there were a few others, but very few)  who seemed to be the least bit aware that those who play intercollegiate athletics do have an obligation to the institution that gave them a “free ride” and to those teammates with whom he or she played. It’s not all about money, though the weight of opinion “out there” is clearly that it is about money. Period!.

I have blogged about this before and I will not hash over the points I made earlier, but I will only add that it is heartening that at least one or two people in the entertainment world are aware that there is such a thing as a moral obligation (though Jalen didn’t use those words) and that athletics is not all about money. Or it shouldn’t be.

Athletics at every level should be subsumed under the highest goals of the universities where they are housed. The highest goal, obviously, is to educate the young. There is a serious question whether athletics at the NCAA Division I level have anything whatever to do with education, but we will let that also pass as I have posted about that ad nauseam. In their place, however, athletics can play an important role in educating the “whole person” who attends a college or a university. It can help the participant learn to put the team above the self — a lost art in a culture that dwells on the “selfie” and wants only to be “liked.”

Sports can also teach the player about the valuable lessons to be learned from losing, another lost value in a culture where “self-esteem” is the goal of the schools and entitlement is the result — with everyone expecting a reward with little or no effort whatever. All of us who have lost or failed from time to time remark about the valuable lessons we learned from those losses or failures. It helps us grow and mature. It makes us work harder next time and enjoy the satisfaction that comes from finally succeeding.

Sports in their right place are important and valuable, despite the fact that there are folks who will insist that they are frivolous and a waste of time. How better to spend our time than with healthy exercise that also helps us learn about failure and the joys of winning while at the same time we also learn that our success at times depends on others? We need to keep these lessons clearly in mind in a culture that tends to cover them with mud and money. But it is not clear that football and basketball at the highest collegiate levels are sports any more. They have become a business — like education itself.

In any event applaud Jalen Rose for seeing beyond the immediate focus on greed and self-advancement to the wider picture that also involves important values, values that are slowly sinking into the mud.

In A Word

I caught the tail end of a weekly show on ESPN called “Jalen and Jacoby” in which two former athletes exchange what are supposed to be barbs but which come across as a high school sketch gone terribly wrong. In any event, David Jacoby mentioned that Jalen Rose loved “etos” chips — any chips ending in “etos,” especially Cheetos. He was reminded that Cheetos are made with palm oil which comes from the rain forest and that every time he eats a Cheeto he is killing one more branch of a tree in the rain forest (grin). Further, he was asked: knowing that we depend on trees to breathe don’t you care about life on earth or the earth itself?

Jalen responded that he does care about clean air and the planet but “I’m not sure I can give up my Cheetos.”

This was supposed to be funny, I suppose, tongue in cheek. But it tells us a great deal about the man Jalen Rose and about so many other people on this planet who are just like him. We don’t want to give up what we want in order to benefit later. We focus on short-run pleasure and while we may pay lip-service to the long term, we really don’t give it any serious thought.

I am reminded of the story going around about the frog. If he is placed in water and it is brought to a slow boil, he will die. If you try to place the frog in boiling water he will make every effort possible to escape. It’s all about the here and now for me and not at all about the future. Not just for frogs and not just for Jalen Rose. But for so many of us.