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?

What About Lizzy?

I’m sure you have heard more than you want to about Manti Te’o and his make-believe girl friend. The story has been told again and again about the fictional girl the Notre Dame linebacker fell in love with online whose “tragic” death inspired the man to play at the highest levels — and thereby (coincidentally) improve his chances of winning the Heisman trophy and going higher in the NFL draft. In any event, the story has been beaten to death — which is not to say we have heard the last of it. But one very interesting feature of that story was brought out by Christine Brennan in USA Today on January 20th when she noted the amount of ink that has been spilled telling Manti’s story while at the same time the story about the death of Lizzy Seeberg, a former (real-life) Freshman at St. Mary’s College, is widely ignored.

It turns out that Lizzy was assaulted by a Notre Dame football player in 2010. She filed a formal complaint with authorities against the advice of a friend who warned her that she shouldn’t “mess with Notre Dame football.” Her complaint was ignored and the football player was never even contacted by campus police; a week later Lizzy committed suicide. Her written complaint was later regarded as inadmissible: since she was no longer alive to testify it was mere hearsay. The player has never been charged. Further, the story was completely ignored for 2 1/2 months until it came to light as a result of a Chicago Tribune story. And yet we still hear nothing from the University about Lizzy’s death and the events that might have brought it about, while we hear endlessly about the death of a fictional girl who may well be part of a hoax designed by Te’o and even condoned by the University — which has been very public in defending the football player while it kept mum about Lizzy’s death.

What we have here is a combination of two things: (1) a new double standard which demands that college athletes be treated differently from other students, and (2) the culture of secrecy that surrounds and protects major college football and which came to a head recently in the Penn State scandal. It is clear that football players and even the coaches themselves, are held to different standards of conduct from the rest of the student-body at the major colleges. Football and basketball programs prefer it if the administration doesn’t get involved in their business, and they pretty much get their way.  After all, they bring in huge amounts of money and that is rapidly becoming the name of the game — if it hasn’t been right along.

The double standard we are all too familiar with encouraged many to brag about men like Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain who had illicit love affairs with hundreds of women — or so they claimed — and those same people would tar a young woman and cover her with feathers if it was said that she had slept with half that many men. Martina Navratilova pointed that out at the time and she was spot on. But while we still seem to expect women to behave better than men, the old double standard has been largely replaced by the new one that is seen mostly on college campuses, but is also evident in the culture at large. It reflects the hero-worship talented athletes enjoy as the law seems always to allow them more leeway than the rest of us. In our colleges and universities it translates into the high comfort-level enjoyed by the athletes as they are assured the protection of their coaches and administrators no matter how outrageous their behavior.

So in the end Lizzy’s death goes unnoticed while the airwaves are filled with the gossip about Manti Te’o and his fictional girlfriend. It’s enough to make a person take up strong drink — if he hadn’t already done so long ago.

Random Acts

There is a part of me that gets very angry when I read and hear about the failings of my fellow human beings, their tendency toward self-absorption and lack of concern about the world around them or about other people. But every now and again I tumble across random acts of human kindness and genuine love and I take heart. I have mentioned Phil Mickelson who shares some of his immense wealth with others less fortunate than himself. That is certainly admirable. I am also aware that Magic Johnson has been tireless in his efforts to help the people in the inner city in Los Angles. He is certainly one of my heroes, especially when we read about so many professional athletes who spend their money on more cars, larger homes, piercings and tattoos, and so often seem to be violent and abusive.

I recall with special fondness the sight on TV of a man reaching up in the stands to catch a foul ball at a baseball game. His 4 or 5-year-old daughter is sitting next to him and after he catches the ball he hands it to his daughter — who promptly tosses the ball back on to the field! Rather than toss the little girl onto the field after the ball in anger and frustration, as one might expect, the man reaches down and embraces the little girl, who seems so pleased with herself, and gives her a big kiss. A lovely moment indeed, and shown repeatedly on ESPN for several weeks thereafter — as it should be.

But I have friends, we all do, who take time out of their lives to give to others, to volunteer in soup kitchens, or the hospital, or even at the golf course. It helps out, it involves sacrifice and giving of time and effort to make the lives of others more pleasant — or more endurable. I have a blog buddy, Jennifer, who takes time out of her busy life not to regale us with personal anecdotes, as so many bloggers seem to be doing, but to share news with her readers in an effort to make them more aware and get them thinking about some of the more pressing problems in our world — because she cares. I also have a close friend who has had his own terrible times and spends hours now counseling others who face the same traumas and fears he has managed to work through himself.

Indeed, there are good people on this planet along with those who simply don’t see beyond their own noses and who ignore others in their pursuit of pleasure and wealth. The latter group is the larger one, I am convinced. But they share this increasingly crowded planet with others who really care and who are given to acts of random kindness. I must keep reminding myself.

Tennis Everyone?

Billie Jean King appeared before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., as reported recently by Yahoo sports, and asked for help promoting tennis around the country. The story reads as follows:

WASHINGTON (AP) Hall of Famer and women’s tennis pioneer Billie Jean King is asking members of Congress to help the U.S. Tennis Association with community outreach efforts. King is in Washington to meet with lawmakers and further the USTA’s efforts to develop local partnerships around the country. Speaking at the National Press Club on Wednesday, the owner of 12 Grand Slam singles titles and 27 more in women’s or mixed doubles said: ”Tennis has given me my platform … to continue my lifelong quest for equal rights and opportunities for boys and girls, men and women.” King says the USTA ”is more committed than ever to make tennis more accessible,” and has built or refurbished more than 25,000 courts in public parks or schools since 2005.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have always been a fan of Billlie Jean King and tennis has been a big part of my life. But, seriously, doesn’t she realize that these people are supposed to have important business to conduct? Making America more tennis friendly doesn’t seem to me to be a high priority with a Congress that has a full plate — though they do seem to lack the silverware to tackle what’s on it. I readily confess I share the opinion of many of my fellow countrymen about the abilities and skills of members of Congress. Most of them seem to be small-minded, preoccupied with their own reelection, and taking advantage of their golden opportunity. Where else, for example, could you find a job where you vote yourself a raise whenever you feel the need; you make contact with corporate moguls who can get you a high-paying job as their lobbyist after you leave office; and you can pretty much waste your time and the taxpayer’s money because the taxpayers themselves are too busy trying to make a living to pay any attention whatever to what you may or may not be doing? Be that as it may, one would like to think rebuilding America’s dominance in tennis cannot be high on the to-do list, whether or not this group will ever get around to doing anything.

To be sure, the story doesn’t say Billlie Jean is asking for money. It says she wants Congress to help with the U.S.T.A.’s “outreach efforts.” I dare to say that this is simply a polite way of asking for funding. In any event, if Congress were to offer the U.S.T.A. some money, I suspect they would be only too happy to take it. But let’s face it, the growth of tennis, or any other sport for that matter, is not a problem the U.S. Congress should be asked to worry about. Really, Billlie Jean, though I hate to say it, there are more important things than tennis.

Billlie 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 Billlie 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 taking any stand at all. 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. After all, the state of tennis in this country won’t really matter if we don’t begin to control the population, address the energy crisis, and take the necessary steps to preserve the environment in which tennis is played. Neither will the legal rights of women.

Gender Equity

Edith Wharton was an early champion of gender equity, though I am not sure she gets the credit she deserves. One of the numerous targets she has in her sights is the infamous “double standard,” which applauds men for sexual prowess while at the same time condemning women for the exact same thing. In Age of Innocence, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, she tells us that “All the elderly ladies whom [the hero] knew regarded any woman who loved imprudently as necessarily unscrupulous and designing, and mere simple-minded man as powerless in her clutches. The only thing was to persuade him, as early as possible, to marry a nice girl, and then trust her to look after him.” In this particular novel, the tale winds in a compelling way around the theme of a woman who “loved imprudently” — Wharton’s compelling way. But the double standard is only one of the problems the women in Wharton’s day had, living as they did vapid lives in a man’s world. And Wharton is eager to point them out. She led a movement in its earliest stages of development. The movement has grown and now has a great many zealous followers.

There’s no question that the feminist movement has good grounds for their fervor and enthusiasms as women were silenced far too long. And they have drawn attention to a great many unacceptable, and even unethical, practices in our culture. Many of these practices still remain even after sustained attacks, however, as does the double standard. Martina Navratilova noted when Magic Johnson bragged about his “thousand infidelities” that a woman would have been tarred and feathered for making such a claim publicly. Further, there aren’t many women among the 1% of those who control the wealth in this country. However, painfully slow as it has been, there has also been some progress.

But with the progress there has also been the seemingly inevitable exaggeration as the notion of “equity” has been identified in the minds of many with “sameness,” and important differences are slighted over or shunted aside; certainly disallowed. This has occurred on many fronts, of course, and not just in the camp of women’s rights. The claim that women (in this case) have the same rights as men — or ought to — is based on a moral grounds, involving moral and civil rights. There can be no question that this argument is well founded. But when the notion of “equity” expands to include “sameness,” we are venturing into the realm of the absurd. There are important social, intellectual, physical, biological, and cultural differences among all human beings, not only between men and women. All of these differences should be duly noted while at the same time we acknowledge the rights of all. We should celebrate differences, not brush them aside in the name of “equity.”  Wharton certainly knew this.

There are many intriguing differences between males and females and it is one of the sad consequences of the feminist movement, and so-called “political correctness,” that we have become afraid to mention them for fear of the wrath of the Commissar of Culture. Noting differences between the sexes is dismissed as “stereotyping” and noting differences in general suggests that nasty word “discrimination,” which we forget was once a good thing. We have become oversensitive to the legitimate grievances of those who have been chronically disadvantaged. And in our concern that someone’s feeling might get hurt we become tongue-tied and intellectually impotent. It is wrong to hurt anyone’s feelings, but it is also wrong to hamstring those who have important things to say.

Fortunately, Wharton was not caught up in the gender equity frenzy, though she was wide awake to the plight of women. She most certainly was not tongue-tied nor intellectually impotent. Her main objective was to draw attention to the follies and injustices of her age. In doing so she was able to discriminate between pretense and honesty, the way the world was and the way she knew it should be.  She was aware of the slights that were being perpetrated daily against women in her culture and saw the reality that was buried beneath social protocols and propriety. And she was unafraid to speak about them. Most importantly, she didn’t have to look over her shoulder to see if she was being watched by the Commissar of Culture. That made it possible for her to speak her mind most eloquently.