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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Great Art

One of my pet peeves — and I have many — is the rejection of the notion that art and literature can be great. The academic community, especially, has taken the lead in reducing all evaluation to feeling. But, as I have told my aesthetics students for years: art is not spinach! It cannot be reduced to a question of whether or not we like it. Instead of concentrating on the painting, let us say, its imaginative technique, its harmonies and perspective, subtle nuances of balance and imbalance, exceptional style of coloration, we look and say something like “It just doesn’t do it for me.” In a word, we stop talking about the painting and focus instead on our own personal responses. We do the same thing in ethics, of course, where we insist that good and evil are merely words we attach to our acceptance of rejection of certain types of actions — such as rape and murder. “That’s just not the way we do things here in Peoria.” How absurd.

Robert Persig wrote a cult novel years ago titled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in which he concluded that no one can define “value,” but everyone knows it when he sees it. The same holds true of great art and literature, it seems to me (though experience helps). It also holds true in such mundane things as sports where we all recognize the greatness of a basketball player such as Steph Curry or a tennis player such as Roger Federer. Greatness, like value, cannot be defined, but it is putatively THERE in the world. It cannot be reduced to feelings — though feelings are certainly part of the equation.

There are great writers and great painters, just as there are great composers, dancers, actors, and, yes, basketball players. They stand out from the rest and they invite us to revisit their performances or their works. A great novel — such as Middlemarch by George Eliot — invites repeated readings. It has well defined and interesting characters who remind us of people we know, even ourselves, and thus gives us insight into our our minds and hearts, and of those around us. It is beautifully written, with elegant dialogue and suggestions of irony and humor. And the plot draws us in and takes us on a trip we are sad to see end. A great painting invites us to look at our world again and try to see what the artist saw, adding depth and dimension to the ordinary world. In fact, this is the great crime, if you will, of the reduction of all artistic response to personal reaction: it closes us off to the world around us.

I regard this as part of what I have called in print our “inverted consciousness,” our collective determination to turn away from the world and focus attention on ourselves. It reaches its pinnacle with the aspergers patient who is unaware of the effect he is having on others. But we all seem to be subject to it in differing degrees. However we label it, the phenomenon translates to a shrunken world, lacking in color, sound, and dimension.

I have always thought that this is the real value of great works of art and literature. They open to us a world we would otherwise ignore in our fascination with things personal. Doubtless we should have strong feelings in the presence of great works, but those feelings should not be allowed to close us off to what is going on in the work itself. And it is what is going on in the works that discloses to us added dimensions of our world, makes of it a three or even a four-dimensional world instead of a flat sheet. We need to look, hear, and see the world around us. And this is what great works or art invite us to do.

Learning From Great Books

I admit I am one of these odd people who thinks we can learn a great deal not only from history but also from great literature. There are many, of course, who would deny that there is any such thing as “great” literature — just literature that some like and others do not. But I would argue that great literature is recognizable because it provides us with insights into the human condition in a way that makes us marvel at the power of words.  I agree with Robert Persig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which he said that “quality” is one of those things no one can define, but everyone recognizes it when they see it.

For example, all sports fans recognize the great athlete. They are rare and stand out above the others. We may not know what it is that sets them apart, but they jump out at us. We might quibble about who was the greatest tennis player, football player, or basketball player. And the current series on ESPN that seeks to single out the “greatest athlete ever,” comparing such athletes as Roger Federer and Bo Jackson,  is bogus. But those who know the sport know who the great ones were. Great literature is like that. It stands out and commands our attention. But if we don’t know anything about the sport involved, we cannot separate out the great players. Similarly, if we are not well read we cannot recognize the great books, those that exhibit exceptional writing and insight into the human condition.

I recently came upon a passage in E.M. Forster’s The Longest Journey that helps me  make my case. Forster is a poet in the true sense of that term: he creates with words. His creations happen to take the form of novels. This novel is one of those books that tells a story, but which also makes us stop and think. In that novel we find the following passage:

“the city [Salisbury] has strayed out of her own plain, climbed up her slopes, and tumbled over them in ugly cataracts of brick. The cataracts are still short, and doubtless they meet or create some commercial need. But instead of looking towards the cathedral, as all the city should, they look outwards at a pagan entrenchment, as the city should not. They neglect the poise of the earth, and the sentiments she has decreed. They are the modern spirit.”

The stunner, of course, is in the final sentence. I’ve been to Salisbury and have seen precisely what Forster points out. He is pointing to the human tendency — which has grown stronger since he wrote his novels — to put itself in opposition to the earth, to ignore its “sentiments,” and demand that it satisfy human cravings.

Farmers sit in their twelve-wheel tractors polluting the air and ripping into the soil in the Fall of the year to expose the dark topsoil to the eroding Winter winds; miners tear apart the earth and leave it exposed as they look beneath its surface for spoils that will make them rich; deforestation in tropical regions leaves the earth bare and parched and unable to provide future growth; we take precious oil from deep beneath the earth and burn it up in our gas-guzzling automobiles and trucks; we topple trees and cover the exposed earth with concrete parking lots and malls so we can shop for goods we don’t really need; and so it goes. In so many ways we do, indeed, “neglect the poise of the earth.” If we ever knew what stewardship meant, we have forgotten it in our haste to beat the world into submission to our will, to meet our endless demands for creature comforts, and continue to meet the demands of growing human populations.

Forster’s passing remark strikes chords and makes us pause and reflect. That is a mark of great writing.

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.