Giving Back

Much ink has been spilled and much air has been let out of bloated lungs regarding the decision over a year ago but Colin Kaepernick to kneel during the national anthem before one of his football games. Many have attacked the man himself and he has been virtually ostracized by the NFL because of his stand — despite the fact that he is an able quarterback and could help a number of teams who will have nothing to do with him.

I defended him in a post early on and I still think he has been largely misunderstood by those who can only see his actions as insulting to flag and country. But the bottom line, as an article in this month’s Sports Illustrated makes clear, is that he has had a positive impact on the issues he wanted to raise, namely, human rights, equality and fairness — all worthy concerns, indeed.

Kaepernick’s ostracism has already cost him a small fortune in lost salary and endorsements, but he has given $900,000 of the $1 million he has pledged to various charities around the country that focus on repairing some of the damage done by our long-time lack of interest in the plight of those who are chronically disadvantaged. At a time when professional sports figures are pilloried for their lack of social conscience — much of it deserved — it is heartening to be informed that not only Kaepernick himself but numerous other athletes are doing something more than kneeling at sporting events. They are doing what they can to help eradicate social injustice.

Among those who have given of their time and money are the following:

Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long who gave $375,000 so far to fund scholarships in Charlottesville, Virginia and has promised more than $650,000 to his “Pledge 10 for Tomorrow campaign which will help make education more easily accessible to underserved youths.”

Steeler’s Left Tackle Alejandro Villanueva is donating proceeds from his jersey sales to “military nonprofits — just as he has done in the previous three years.”

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning has helped raise more than $35 million for “New York March for Babies ” to fight premature birth. And his work with “Tackle Kids Cancer campaign has led to more than $1 million in fund-raising.”

Seattle Seahawk’s defensive end Michael Bennet has pledged half of his jersey sales profits to inner-city garden projects “and all of his endorsement earnings are tabbed for s.t.e.a.m. programs [science, technology, engineering, arts, and math] and charities focused on empowering minority women.”

And Cliff Avril, another Seattle Seahawk, has promised to build a house on Haiti for each sack this season — of which he has had 11 1/2 so far this season. “He and a group of NFL players built a dozen homes in the offseason, provided clean water to an orphanage and renovated a school.”

In addition, one of the two “sportspersons of the year,” J.J,. Watt of the Houston Texans has raised over $37 million for hurricane relief after a hurricane ravaged the city of Huston earlier this year. This included a $5 million donation from a billionaire and an average of $177 from over 209,000 donations.

At a time when we hear so many negative things said about professional sportsmen, this is good news indeed. We can only hope this is not a “one-off” as the Brits like to say and that it will continue as we all become more aware that there are people in need and many who are disadvantaged in a country that prides itself on its “greatness.”

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Resentment

There’s an interesting Special Report in this week’s Sports Illustrated about Johnny Manziel’s downfall from the heights he had attained as a football player. The report suggests that his problem stems from the fact that he came from a wealthy family and never really had to work for anything. Nor was he denied anything, apparently. The author of the report, Emily Kaplan, suggests that he is the product of entitlement, the sense that so many young people have as a result of being spoiled.

In Johnny Football’s case, this came to a head in his second year with the Cleveland Browns of the NFL when he was put into a game after the starting quarterback was injured and brought the team back to one of their very few wins in what had been an inglorious season. He expected to be named the starting quarterback but when the starter recovered and was restored to the highest post, Johnny Football “lost it.” He has had a history, apparently, of sulking and feeling sorry for himself when he doesn’t get what he wants and he goes on a binge, drinking himself silly. He frequently makes mistakes while drunk and later apologies and expects to be forgiven. After several attempts to help Johnny with his problem, the Browns finally gave up and Manziel’s future as a professional football player is in doubt.

I have written about the entitlement issue before and I have argued that it stems, in part at least, from the “self esteem” movement that has swept the lower grades in our schools and has also been bought into by a great many people in the culture at large where trophies are now given to kids simply for “participation” in various events.  The movement reinforces the tendency that parents have shown to try to give their kids the things they themselves lacked while growing up. Everyone wins. No one loses. This, of course, is bollocks. There are winners and there are losers and all of us are one or the other at some point in our lives. Indeed, we almost certainly learn more from our losses than we do from our wins. In any event, the issue goes deep into our collective psyche.

Christopher Lasch has written extensively about what he calls out social “narcissism,” our self-involvement, which, he insists, stems from the lack of an authority figure in our lives. When the child is told he is terrific and begins to think he can walk on water because he has been told he can be anything he wants to be; when fathers and mothers fail to draw lines and punish their children when those lines are ignored; when everyone is given a trophy and high grades; when these sorts of things start to happen the child becomes disoriented. He doesn’t know where the lines are — if there are any. He starts to do whatever it takes to draw attention to himself in order to see if there are any lines. When he discovers that there are none, or at least none that are clearly drawn, he starts to draw his own. When this behavior is augmented in school by teachers who tell him he can do no wrong, that all his projects are A+, he begins to have a very large idea of himself. This scenario, unfortunately, is becoming more and more common. In Johnny Manziel’s case it is simply writ large and we can see that his sense of what Joseph Butler called “resentment” led him to believe that when he doesn’t get what he wants he should respond by “getting even,” paying back those who have denied him the treasure he thinks he deserves. As Butler noted in this regard:

Although moral evil gives rise to pain which can strengthen this settled resentment, the object of the resentment is not the pain or harm done but instead the design or intention to morally injure, harm, do wrong and injustice. And the goal of resentment is to cause appropriate injury in a wrongdoer. . .

This is the “I’ll show YOU!” syndrome of the spoiled child; it is the first step down a slippery slope toward certain disaster. Ironically, in Manziel’s case the “wrongdoer” turns out to be himself.

One worries about Johnny Manziel. One ought also to worry about those others who are in his shadow and are following the same path downwards. There are many more of them than we might want to admit even though their stories don’t make Sports Illustrated.

Money Well Spent?

As one who has complained from time to time about the role the Department of Defense has played in helping mold the minds of Americans into a shape more malleable to those with deep pockets in this country, I was delighted to read “Point After” in this week’s Sports Illustrated (Nov. 16, 2015) that helps me to make my case. I agree that the point of the SI article was not to take the DOD to task. Rather, it was to take the NFL and other sports groups to task for “paid patriotism” at professional sports games. The teams apparently collect millions of dollars every year.

The article mentions that the DOD paid $879,000 last year to the Atlanta Falcons to put on displays of patriotism before and during games. They also paid the New England Patriots $700,000 according to the article. We can assume other teams received similar amounts of money for the same reason. It goes without saying that this is our tax money, the money the Republicans desperately want to keep flowing in the direction of keeping our nation strong, defending us against ….. what? Disloyal football fans?

We all know about the obscene waste of taxpayer money when it comes to the Department of “Defense.” For example, when I was coaching tennis we shelled out a precious $30,000 for two “Omni” tennis courts as an experiment. If we liked them it was said that we would get four more. This was exciting, since we were playing on six weathered lay-kold tennis courts that saw their better days in 1968, though I never really believed we would ever see four more Omni-courts at that price. In any event, the men who were laying the courts told me they were headed to the Offutt Air Force base just outside of Omaha where they were going to put down 15 of those courts for the officers at the base. That’s nearly a quarter of a million of our tax dollars so the military brass could whack a tennis ball back and forth — when they weren’t playing golf on their own 18 hole golf course. But I digress.

As I say, we all know about such cases of waste of tax monies at a time when Congress cannot find a way to balance the national budget and the Republicans will simply not allow anyone to touch a penny of the “Defense” spending.  But let’s reflect on the waste of this money on fly overs and other examples of “paid patriotism” at professional sports games. What are the implications?  For one thing, it leads to jingoism, which is often confused with patriotism. The difference is a love of country that leads to such nonsense as “my country, right or wrong.” True patriotism requires a citizenry at least enlightened enough to question what the government is doing and suggest from time to time that what they are doing, (if they are doing anything at all) is simply wrong. But the “paid patriotism” displays are a form of brain-washing that leads people to leave the game convinced that we have the most powerful and greatest country on earth when, in fact, there is much that needs to be improved both at home and in the way we conduct ourselves on the international stage. We have a penchant in this country for telling the rest of the world how to live when our own house is filled with dirt and broken glass.

So there is much to regret when finding out how our government spends our tax dollars. But it is really not that surprising, given the trend I have pointed out numerous times to dumb down this nation and people it with obedient citizens who will do what they are told and agree that what their government does is always the right thing.

The Tail of That Dog

I have written about the tail that wags the dog for many years and general awareness has increased; none the less, the problem isn’t any closer to being solved. I speak of the inordinate amount of money and time spent on athletics, especially in NCAA Division I schools, that seriously undermine the higher purpose of education. A recent article in Sports Illustrated about the scandal at The University of North Carolina focuses the issue nicely. The author, a graduate of UNC, turns his attention to the weakening of the academic program that is in direct proportion to the rise of the athletics programs at one of the most prestigious Division I schools. He raises the question”How Did Carolina Lose Its Way?”

It is especially disturbing to see the problem growing in the face of the inordinate costs of athletics, reflected in the fact that public universities, like UNC, now spend three to six times as much on athletics per athlete as they do on academics per student. Even more remarkable is the fact that the average amount of money lost, I repeat, lost, on athletics among Division I public universities is $11.6 million each year. So the myth that athletics brings in the dough turns out to be just that, a myth — except for those schools at the top of the pyramid, including the University of North Carolina where the cost of athletics has grown from $9.1 million in 1984 to $83 million last year, and the cost to the university in the reduction of the quality of education is beyond rubies.

The problem doesn’t end with the cost to the athletics program at that university. It extends into the classroom as well. At UNC where the recent controversy centers around the Department of African and African-American Studies, the main problem started to appear in 1993, the year that a woman by the name of Debbie Crowder headed up the AFAM department. The SI story describes the program she initiated in which

She began to devise “paper classes.” The “shadow curriculum” run by Crowder and department head Julius Nyang’oro “required no class attendance or course work other than a single paper, and resulted in consistently high grades that Crowder awarded without reading the papers,” the report said. (Crowder retired in 2009 and Nyang’oro was forced to retire in ’11). A disproportionate 47.4% of the enrollees in AFAM classes were athletes, mostly the football and men’s basketball players.”

The problem at UNC also includes “special admits,” the alarming number of students who are admitted to the university with “rock-bottom SAT verbal scores of 200,” scores well below the acceptable level, coupled by the placement of those students very carefully into special classes designed to guarantee their success — at the university if not in later life. One is put in mind of the parent who allows his child to continue to eat candy thinking they are doing the child a favor while, in fact, the child’s teeth are rotting out. In any event, as it happens, the problem at UNC goes beyond the AFAM program and included

“philosophy lecturer Jan Boxill, who was chair of the faculty and head of UNC’s Parr Center for Ethics (!), [who] was discharged last October for steering athletes into sham courses, doctoring students’ papers, and sanitizing an official report in an attempt to shield the athletics department from NCAA scrutiny. From 2004 to 2012, The Daily Tar Heel reported, Boxill also taught 160 independent studies — 20 in one semester. (The standard runs between one and three per year).”

Those independent studies courses, of course, were a joke. But apparently the fox was caught guarding the chicken coop! (A philosophy professor, I shudder to admit, and chair of an Ethics Center to boot!) But the problem extended beyond the playing fields and the gymnasium as students across campus became aware of the “cake courses” being offered by various departments. According to the report, those taking Crowder’s “paper classes” numbered  3,100 students, the majority of whom were not athletes.  This is not new — students will always find the easy courses to help their GPA — but it has simply grown by leaps and bounds at North Carolina, where some courses aren’t even real courses, but most are encouraged by the demands of the athletics department.

Thus does the infection begin to seep into the bowels of the university itself and infect the entire student body. A recent book by two professors at UNC, Cheated: The UNC Scandal: The Education of Athletes and The Future of Big-Time College Sports, focuses attention on the problems at that university, where “We show pretty persuasively that it all started with easy-grade-independent studies in the late ’80s for a handful of weak students on the men’s basketball team and mushroomed from there.” But as the SI article points out, the issue is broad and deep. The author of the article asks in discussing the current situation with the new chancellor at UNC, where things have reportedly been put straight, “. . . [whether] the money in college sports — at least $16 billion in TV contracts alone — [makes] ‘the right way’ impossible”? That is the $64 million question. In saying this, however, it is important to point out that it isn’t only at the University of North Carolina where these sorts of problems exist. They are becoming all-too common, not to say prevalent. The tail is indeed wagging the dog.

Deflate-gate

Unless perhaps you live in Ecuador, where such trivial incidents are rightly ignored, you have probably been aware of the controversy surrounding the footballs used in the AFC Championship by the New England Patriots. Eleven of the twelve footballs used in the game were found to be under-inflated by about two pounds, making them easier for the quarterback, who selects the balls before each game, to grip and throw, especially in wet and cold conditions. Each team uses its own footballs, so this apparently gave New England an edge — though they clearly didn’t need one, stomping the Indianapolis Colts in the game by some forty points.

In any event, there has been endless discussion about the incident, making the Super Bowl itself a bit of a sideshow while pundits discuss endlessly the pros-and cons of what they like to call “deflate-gate.” In itself, it’s a tempest in a teapot, but  it became interesting when both the coach and the quarterback denied any knowledge of the fact that the balls used were below the pressure specified by NFL rules. Most experts, including a number of former professional quarterbacks, admit that the coach might not know about the balls, but they all agree that the quarterback must have known, because he handles each ball before the game to make sure it is as he likes it. In a word, the issue has now shifted to the more interesting moral question: who’s lying? It appears to be Tom Brady, the New England quarterback. Indeed, according to many, it must be.

I recall an experiment conducted by a writer for Sports Illustrated years ago with Rod Laver, possibly the best tennis player to have ever lifted a racket. Laver told the reporter that he could detect any changes to his rackets and the reporter challenged him to a test. The reporter placed a small piece of lead tape weighing less than half an ounce on the frame of one of Laver’s rackets and, blindfolded, Laver picked it out of a group of a half-dozen. His rackets were his livelihood. He knew exactly how heavy each one had to be and how tight the strings were as well. Similarly, Brady knew full well that the balls he was using were to his exact specifications. And those specifications were under the limits set by the NFL. But things don’t stop there.

Soon after Brady’s press conference where he denied any knowledge of the fact that rules were broken (no matter how trivial they seem to us) ESPN took a nation-wide poll and it revealed that the vast majority of fans in every state, except Nebraska(!), believe that Brady is telling the truth. Seriously? Is it possible that the majority of people in this country are that blind? It appears so — assuming that the poll was a reliable indicator. Despite the testimony of a number of people of unquestioned credibility, including John Madden, whom fans have always loved and trusted, the majority of people believe that the only man who could be responsible is, in their minds, not responsible. Which now takes us to the next stage of the issue, namely, the stupidity of the average American football fan.

This is therefore no longer about footballs and whether or not they meet NFL specifications. It’s about the willingness of vast numbers of people in this country to believe what they want to believe and ignore the facts that have been clearly set before them. Brady is the only one who could have under-inflated those balls — or had someone do it for him. But this fact does not penetrate the minds of those who cannot open them. Please consider that these are the same people who vote on our next president and the members of Congress. In my mind, that is what makes this issue especially disturbing. It’s not about football. It’s about the inability or unwillingness of so many people to see beyond what they want to see.

 

Legal Advice

In a recent issue of Sports Illustrated, the Bible of sports fans across the country, an attorney by the name of Michael McCann wrote that Jameis Winston should quit Florida State and wait for the NFL draft where he will assuredly be a high pick and will then become another spoiled millionaire football player (I added the last caustic comment). You remember Winston, surely? He was investigated for raping a fellow student a year or so back and in the brief police cover up investigation it was determined that there was no case against the young man. He later stole some crab legs from a grocery store, claiming he “forgot” to pay and was summarily released. He then stood on a table in the cafeteria and shouted obscenities at the top of his voice — for which offense he was suspended one game by the football coach. He is a real jewel. Each time he screws up he faces the camera with an earnest expression on his face and swears it won’t happen again.

In any event, McCann’s professional advice is for the young man to quit school because the university has decided to investigate the alleged rape on its own and could bring charges against Winston, and possibly suspend him, on the grounds that he violated the rights of one of his fellow students. Indeed. McCann’s idea is that if Winston leaves the university, the investigation will never surface. If he remains enrolled evidence might come to light that would not only lead to his suspension from the university but also provide grounds for a possible civil case later on. As McCann puts it, it’s a question of what is in Winston’s “best interest.”

And there’s the rub: it’s what is in the young man’s “best interest” in the eyes of this lawyer. The young man should quit and not face the possible consequences of his actions. He should quit school and lie low, making sure he commits no further atrocities, until the NFL comes calling and he can sign on for the big bucks that surely await him. Given his past behavior this is more easily said than done, of course: he seems to lack self-control. But McCann doesn’t mention that. Be that as it may, the issue of what is morally correct is not considered by Mr. McCann, who chooses to focus attention on legal and practical matters. The fact that the young man would be ducking his responsibilities as a citizen and member of the university community is apparently irrelevant according to Mr. McCann. What is important here as this lawyer sees it is the issue of saving face and making big money later on.

In a follow-up issue of Sports Illustrated one reader wrote, with tongue in cheek, that McCann is right and that Winston should quit and go back to third grade where he would learn “that stealing is wrong, swearing is not acceptable, and that women should be treated with respect.” Another reader put is more seriously: “I was disappointed with McCann’s article. He basically wrote a blueprint for how Winston could avoid disciplinary action for his alleged heinous acts against a female student.” Spot on! What was it Shakespeare said? We should kill all the lawyers. He knew a thing or two, even if McCann doesn’t.

In any event, the entire episode underscores once again the rotten state of things at the heart of big-time college football and basketball. As I wrote years ago, the athletes should be regarded as semi-professionals and paid a decent salary to play — even allowing them to form unions to make sure they get a fair share of the millions of dollars at stake in college sports these days. Then, those who actually want an education can enroll in classes and pay like all the other students, thereby learning what those students are learning every day —  that after graduation it will be hard to find a job and there will be huge debts to be paid to the colleges and universities when they finally do find one. The things in this life that are most worth having are not those things that are simply handed to you: they are the things you work hard to earn.

Double Standard

I must confess that despite the fact that I support affirmative action in principle and realize that innumerable past injustices must be remedied, the playing field made level, and the glass ceiling shattered, I do find myself bothered when I read about a young man who appears to lose out on a job opportunity because he isn’t a woman or a member of a minority. I had a number of students and a son who ran into this sort of reverse discrimination and I was never comfortable with it on an emotional level even though I realized that past wrongs needed to be corrected. There is, however, considerable strength in the argument that today’s young people shouldn’t have to pay a price for the sins of their predecessors. I am happy to see the native people buying back much of their native land with the money they take from gullible white gamblers, but that is a bit different from seeing even deserving women and  people of color get the attention and rewards they deserve and have been denied over the years if there is the least suspicion that there was any sort of discrimination involved in the process. In such cases, there  is always the suspicion that this is not really fair to the people who must step aside in order for others to get ahead. I didn’t like it when it was happening to the minorities and I don’t particularly like it when it happens to those in the majority — though (again) I understand why it happens.

Along these lines I read in the current Sports Illustrated an editorial telling about the dismissal of a black woman coach in Texas for having a sexual affair with one of her athletes while at the same time a white male coach at the same university is reprimanded for having sex with a member of his training staff, forced to take a leave of absence, and then rehired later at a higher salary. The details of the story make it clear that there is a double standard at work here since the two cases are practically identical in most of the particulars; yet the punishment in the two cases is as different as can be: one coach lost her job and the other gets a promotion and a raise in salary. One is a black woman, who was not married at the time, and the other is a white man, who was married and who just happens to have been a star quarterback on the football team — which, in Texas, carries a great deal of weight. The university in question is the University of Texas, reputed to be one of the great academic institutions in the Southern part of this country which is not known for its outstanding academic institutions (though we will find the occasional Duke University, The University of North Carolina, and The University of Virginia which tend to stand out). One would expect more of such exemplary institutions of higher education as the University of Texas.

In the end the matter will be decided in court since the woman who was fired has decided to try to make things right after many years. I am pulling for her with both my head and my heart. I hope she wins and draws attention to the injustice that is so easily recognized. Double standards are always just plain wrong wherever and whenever we find them.

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.”

Violent Christians

The current issue of Sports Illustrated has a most interesting article on the topic of Christianity in football, focusing on such groups as “Athletes In Action” and “Fellowship of Christian Athletes.” The article nicely sums up the dilemma faced by players and coaches who profess adherence to a religious doctrine that preaches peace and brotherly love while at the same time their game measures success by wins and emphasizes violence on the playing field.

The article quotes Les Steckel whom Vikings fans remember as one of the worst coaches that team ever had and who is now President of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Steckel ran the Vikings training camp like it was a Marine Corps boot camp and used to teach his players to “cut-block” opponents — a ferocious block aimed at the knees of the opponent and one that could easily leave the opponent crippled. Steckel defends his tactics, even today, with the bromide “God loves us just the way we are.” Many readers will recognize this as a variation on the self-esteem mantra that drills into the heads of young children the conviction that they can do no wrong: it’s a sign of our cultural narcissism. I have expressed my disdain for this nonsense a number of times and will continue to cling to my conviction that we all show considerable room for improvement and self-esteem should come after accomplishments, not before. But I dare say, this would be lost on people like Les Steckel who are “true believers” if there ever were any.

And the world of professional footballers is filled with true believers as well — namely those players who are committed to playing a violent sport for millions of dollars while they thump their chests and point to the sky after a routine play and kneel every now and again to pay homage to a God who loves them “just the way they are” — and apparently wants them to win a game and buy jewelry, a large home, and a new Cadillac Escalade. Or two.

But what intrigued me most about the article was the way football, like our approach to business as usual, has co-opted Christianity, changing Christianity into a twisted version of the doctrine set forth in the New Testament in order to accommodate it to modern taste. Don McLanen, founder of FCA, was said to have “noticed in the newspaer that professional athletes were endorsing a product, and he felt if they endorse a product, why not a way of life?” The article then goes on to note that “Evangelicals gave up trying to transform the [football] culture and decided instead to use it.” Indeed. My guess is that this is the only way a religion like Christianity that demands sacrifice and stresses the need to love others can survive in a culture like ours that not only worships at the football stadium of a Sunday, but also embraces free-enterprise capitalism which rewards those who selfishly maximize profits at all cost. If Christianity is to survive, it must change — even if it becomes something quite different in the process from what its Founder envisaged.

The article concludes with a comment from Tim Hightower, a former professional football player, who notes that “A lot of the Christian thing is putting the you before the I, and in football you’re sometimes taught to be selfish, to do what you have to do to get ahead by any means necessary. You have to stop and ask yourself: Am I a football player who is a Christian, or a Christian who is a football player?” I don’t doubt the sincerity of many of these men. The question is how on earth they reconcile two doctrines that are diametrically opposed to one another. I think it is done with mirrors.

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!