Lacking Perspective

Andy Roddick is retiring from professional tennis at the age of 30. This is big news on the tennis scene, though it has been apparent for some time that he cannot compete with the three or four top players in the world. His game is one-dimensional: it’s all about power. In any event he is reportedly going to build a tennis center and that will be his focus in the years to come. This is what the world needs: another tennis center. Andre Agassi and John McEnroe have tennis centers as does Vic Braden and heaven only knows who else. One notes that it has almost become a cliché for the retired athlete to build an athletic center — in his own name, of course — to teach the skills (and “life lessons”) to younger players.

The bothersome thing is that the world really does not need more tennis centers! It needs people with excess money to think about real human needs and attempt to address some of them. Think of the good that Roddick, for example, could do with the money that will go to another tennis center to teach kids how to play tennis. 45 million people in this country go to bed hungry; the number of homeless people who live with their kids in a cheap motel or sleep in their cars grows daily; the planet itself demands our attention since, as Diane Keaton (of all people) has noted “climate change, like gravity, doesn’t give a damn whether you ‘believe’ in it or not. It’s happening regardless.” Now there’s a woman with perspective.

I have commented in a previous blog about the apparent lack of perspective of so many wealthy professional athletes, specifically Billie Jean King who did remarkable things to help give women a foot up in women’s tennis but also seems to be unaware that there are things besides tennis that really matter. As I noted in writing about Billie Jean’s appearance before a Congressional Committee to promote tennis: “Billie Jean King is on my rather short list of sports heroes, along with Phil Mickelson and Magic Johnson — folks who are keen to do the right thing, not just their own thing. But I have always thought Billie Jean stands too close to the trees to see the forest. Like so many professional athletes, she lives in a small world, though she is admittedly an exception in exhibiting any social awareness whatever. She has repeatedly spoken out for tennis and for women’s rights — important issues, to be sure, especially the latter. But despite her “platform” she has also been silent throughout her life on the larger issues that affect us all, issues that take priority over even women’s rights and especially the success of this country’s tennis programs. One must applaud her for wanting to “give back” and promote worthy causes. But one must also question her perspective and lack of a sense of priorities.”

It might be asked: this is their money why shouldn’t they do whatever they want with it? This is true, of course. But the question is whether there is something they should do with their money. There’s a moral principle involved here: when we know there is a wrong being committed and we are in a position to ameliorate that wrong we have an obligation to intercede. The wealthy — athletes included — are in a position to do great good given their wealth and their position in this culture. They cannot claim ignorance of the wrongs that are being done on a daily basis all around them. Therefore they have an obligation, as do we all, to intercede and try to rectify that wrong. These people travel the world but they don’t seem to see what is going on around them. Their world is the size of a tennis court or a golf course or a football field — with a few exceptions, as mentioned. The world could be such a better place if all of us could see the wider canvass — but especially those with tons of money they apparently don’t know what to do with!

Athletes as Heroes

I have written about heroes before, suggesting that heroic people are often the most ordinary folks who show exceptional courage in the face of adversity or are simply willing to swim against the tide of popular opinion. I have also mentioned the very few athletes I regard as heroes — not because of their athletic prowess, but because of their humanitarian tendencies, their desire to make the world a better place. I also wrote that I thought America’s hero, Tiger Woods, was yesterday’s news, a man who has had his day and should now disappear into the darkness.

But this has not happened, of course. While Tiger has failed to win a major tournament in years, he has recently won his second PGA event of this year and seems to have his MoJo back. He’s a favorite to win the upcoming U.S. Open. That is good for the golf enthusiasts (and the TV networks) because the man can play golf better than anyone else on the planet when he is “on” his game. But as a human being the man is a mess. And for over a year he has stumbled and lost on the golf course as well. The interesting thing is that through it all American sports enthusiasts never lost their love of the man. Even when he was losing his name appeared with remarkable  regularly on ESPN and when he appeared on the golf course — even when he was playing badly — he received the loudest applause, and the highest TV ratings. It is strange, indeed. Why do we worship great athletes who are flawed human beings? We did it with people like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe in tennis as well. It’s not new. But in Tiger’s case it is extreme, since his popularity didn’t wane even when he was struggling.

The answer comes in the form of a statement in a recent Sports Illustrated article (June 4, 2012). The comment is made by Dan Naulty a baseball player who was very much caught up in the steroid scandal and topped off his steroid use with alcohol abuse. At one point after he had been traded from the Minnesota Twins to the Yankees he was taken to jail following a brawl in a bar which took six bouncers to quell (so strong were the steroids raging through his system). Once the cops found out who he was, he was released by the men who all wanted his autograph. No charges were brought. Naulty tells the story: “I barely graduated high school. . .I probably graduated college with about an eight-grade reading level. And when you play major league baseball, society is at your beck and call. They don’t care if you have character.. .. They don’t care if you ruin your life. They care about performance.”

In a nutshell, I think Naulty got it right. Tiger Woods’ sustained popularity with golf fans is almost certainly attributable to the promise of the return of his old self on the golf course, the brilliant shot-making together with curses, frowns, violent fist-pumps, mutterings at the crowd, and the rest of his ugly performance behavior. But a new Tiger began to emerge along with the skills that seemed to be returning: a Tiger who smiled more often and even stopped and signed autographs. This was apparently the new Tiger: anxious to reward the loyal fans who knew he would be back with all his skills intact. He has learned what side his bread is buttered on.

We don’t ask much of our athlete-heroes: just that they perform at a high level. When the men themselves (it’s seldom the women) screw up we only ask for a brief apology and then it’s back to business as usual. As long as they continue to perform at a high level, or show promise of returning to that level soon (not too long, we have short memories, after all) we will continue to adulate them and keep them on their pedestal, whether they deserve it or not as human beings. That tells us something important about ourselves and our culture: we identify with success and great wealth, not with character.

In Dan Naulty’s case, he turned his life around. After retiring from baseball he went on to get a degree in applied theology (from Oxford University of all places) and is now a minister helping other people work their way around the traps and pitfalls of a seemingly meaningless life. Now that’s true heroism: doing what he can to make the world a better place. But since he no longer performs on the field, he has disappeared from the public eye; his name no longer appears on ESPN’s bottom line. Now that he is admirable we no longer hear about him. There’s irony for you!