Why Sports?

I have a number of friends who tend to look down their noses at sports and those who “waste their time” viewing or participating in sports. What’s the point, they ask? Why so much fuss about hitting that ball back and forth over a net or rolling that tiny white ball into the small hole in the ground?  Clearly, they cannot see it. And many who do see it are unable to see much of anything else. But there are reasons, good reasons, for participating in sports and while watching athletic events in person or on television might not be the most productive way to spend time, it beats such things as drinking or smoking pot — though, perhaps, it’s not as much fun. (I wouldn’t know [wink, wink]).

In any event, I do think there is a defense that can be made for participating in sports at all levels, from the lowest to the highest.  As others have pointed out, they tend to develop “character” and that is something that seems to be on hold pretty much anywhere else. I’m not talking about Division I sports at the University level, especially football and basketball. We know that character is the least of the concerns of those involved in those activities. The scandals that break out almost daily drive home the point that those sports are corrupt at their core and leave many former athletes dazed, discarded and wasted on the sidelines, victims of alcohol or drugs, out of work, frequently penniless, and full of pain.

But at the junior levels, in the schools and even in college at the Division III level where sports are played for the fun of it — for the most part — character is developed through self-denial, discipline, and the frequent experience of failure.  In no other walk of life these days, least of all in the schools, do we allow kids to fail, ignoring the well-known fact that failure is a very valuable life-lesson. In this regard, I hasten to add, the strange new practice of awarding trophies to all young participants and refusing to keep score defeats the purpose of sports — those aspects  of sports that are worth preserving.

Sports are also one of the few remaining places where it is not only appropriate but encouraged to discuss “greatness.” Is Michael Jordan the greatest basketball player ever to have played the game? How about Bill Russell? And is Rod Laver the greatest tennis player to have ever wielded a tennis racket — or is it Federer (or, perhaps, Martina Navratilova)? And so it goes. The Commissars of Culture who dominate the scholarly citadels have disallowed the notion of greatness in the arts, literature, and even behavior since it is now the case, apparently, that it is all a matter of taste. Period. There are no great writers, only those we prefer. There is no great art because it’s “all in the eye of the beholder.” We cannot talk about Great Books because there are no such things. They have been tossed into the bin waiting to be burned by professors who prefer to hold forth about postmodern theories and discuss the latest tome by a minority figure who has been wrongly ignored.

I have held forth on this topic many times because it seems to me to be so intellectually lazy and wrong-headed. There are clearly great writers, painters, and sculptors as there are great dancers and musicians. Not only can we discuss over a beer (or two) whether Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever, but also can also discuss over a glass of wine (or beer) whether Mozart was a great composer, perhaps the greatest ever, and whether or not Elizabeth Wharton was a great writer. I’m not saying that the discussion won’t get heated at times, or even that there is an answer that we would all agree upon. But the issue can be discussed, because there is greatness in our common world. It is rare, but it is there along with real beauty, ugliness, fear, spitefulness, and generosity. Indeed, our world is full of richness in all shades and colors. And we can talk about that world and come to some sort of agreement about the things that go on in it, even with those who see things entirely differently. Out at least we used to be able to do so.

In any case, the argument in favor of pursuing sports at all levels has to do not only with the fact that it does build character through self-denial and discipline, and, of course, acceptance of the lessons of failure. But it also teaches us about greatness. It opens our eyes to things going on around us and prepares the field for an intelligent discussion not only of greatness in sports but anywhere else as well. Furthermore, it helps participants to develop coordination and strength, a healthy body to accompany our healthy minds. The Greeks knew it, like they did so many other things. But many of us seem to have forgotten it, or are determined to look away and snigger at the horrible waste of time on the part of those who participate as well as those who simply watch and marvel at the beauty sports sometimes display, the sheer magic of what the human body can do, and the vicarious release of passions that might otherwise lead us in the wrong direction.

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Beyond The Protest

As we all know, Colin Kaepernick has drawn the ire of thousands of people around the country for having the audacity to kneel during the National Anthem before football games because of what he sees as social injustice in this country. Lately, we are told, he has even received death threats, as have others who have followed his example; this underlines the fact that most people are more upset about the protest itself than they are about the injustices that the protest is designed to call to our attention.

That there are serious issues between the black communities and the police forces of many cities is beyond question. Recently a black man in Charlotte was shot because his car broke down and the police who arrived on the scene thought he had a gun (doesn’t everyone these days??). Countless other examples could be pointed out, including the recent shooting in Tulsa. And this suspicion and fear between the people and those paid to protect them is the root of the problem that Kaepernick’s protest is supposed to highlight.

It does appear, fortunately, that finally there is some movement beyond the protest itself to bring the two parties together for dialogue and an attempt at mutual understanding. Clearly, there are two sides to this issue, as there are to any complex problem. And the only way the problem will be solved, if indeed it can be solved, is if the parties who fear one another come together to present each other with their legitimate (or illegitimate) complaints  — Donald Trump’s mindless stop-and-frisk suggestion to the contrary notwithstanding.

As has been well said, we do not need fences to keep us apart; we need bridges to bring us together. Above all else, we need to bring the fear out into the open and try to understand the grounds for it and determine whether or not there is a way to uproot it and replace it with trust. This will not happen unless the two sides, in this case, come together and talk.

I never thought much of Kaepernick’s gesture in itself. It is disrespectful of our flag and this is insulting to a great many people. But as a symbol I thought it praiseworthy. If, as appears to be the case, it has made real dialogue possible then we could defend the protest not only on the grounds of the First Amendment, but also on the grounds that it has opened lines of communication that appeared to have been blocked by unreasonable fear and distrust. There would, then, be two reasons to applaud Kaepernick’s actions — as well as that of the other athletes who have had the courage to demonstrate with him.

Too often in the past athletes have refused to get involved in social issues when they are in an excellent position to speak out and act with courage. I will not attempt to speculate about the motives that have kept people like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods silent in the past, but it is good to see that others are willing to stand up (or kneel down) in the face of serious social issues that affect us all. And Jordan is finally putting his money where his mouth should have been all this time.

The heart and soul of moral responsibility is that those who are in a position to effect change act and not remain silent. Kaepernick has shown great courage in taking this step. Let us hope this leads to real solutions and that those who would pillory the man turn their attention away from the protest itself and reflect on the actions that have brought that protest about.

Sweat Shops

I must confess I thought the whole sweat shop thing had been long since eradicated. But not so — not in Jakarta any way. A recent story  gives us some of the disquieting details of the treatment workers receive on a daily basis while making 50 cents an hour for a shoe company that is reportedly worth $49 billion and spends $3.2 billion in sports endorsements alone:

They’re one of the world’s top sports clothing brands, but for years Nike have been dogged by allegations of sweatshops and child labor.

Now workers making Nike’s Converse shoes at a factory in Indonesia say they are being physically and mentally abused.

Workers at the Sukabumi plant, about 60 miles from Jakarta, say supervisors frequently throw shoes at them, slap them in the face, kick them and call them dogs and pigs. . . .

At the PT Amara Footwear factory located just outside Jakarta, where another Taiwanese contractor makes Converse shoes, a supervisor ordered six female workers to stand in the blazing sun after they failed to meet their target of completing 60 dozen pairs of shoes on time. “They were crying and allowed to continue their job only after two hours under the sun,” said Ujang Suhendi, 47, a worker at a warehouse in the factory.

The deeply unsettling thing about the story is not so much the description of the treatment of those workers — though that is certainly enough to disturb the sleep of any sensitive person. But what about the fact that none of the athletes who endorse Nike shoes for millions of dollars has spoken out about the abuses? One might argue that they don’t know, but ignorance is not an excuse when you are getting the kind of money these people are getting to endorse a pair of shoes that Moms in the ghetto have to shell out $200.00 for so their sons or daughters can keep up with the neighbor kids.

I note such names as Hope Solo, goal keeper for the American soccer team, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Michael Jordan, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Michelle Wee — you know, the big names in sports. None of these people has said a word and Jordan, for one, has been with Nike since before Noah filled his ark with all those noisy, smelly animals. It does make one wonder why we adulate these people — because they excel at a sport, I suppose; certainly not because they have exemplary character. In fact, as I have noted in previous blogs, we don’t admire people for the “content of their character,” as Martin Luther King put it, we admire them because they can shoot a basketball, hit a golf ball, kick a soccer ball, or win a tennis tournament. Hardly reason to admire anyone. It suggests that we are indeed a shallow people.

One might argue that we cannot expect athletes to have a social conscience, that their job is to perform at a high level in their sport: they have no responsibility to their fans to set an example. Indeed, this is a hot topic among the talking heads on such TV networks as ESPN. But it does seem that when a person agrees to take millions of dollars — and we are talking about millions of dollars — for endorsing a product these people would first make sure the company is one they would want their names associated with. And Nike does not pass muster on that score. They have been running sweat shops for decades to make the outlandishly expensive shoes that kids simply must have. And they treat their workers like dirt. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t wear a pair of Nikes if you paid me.

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.”