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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The Wisdom of Aeschylus

 

I recently shared this on Facebook and it was well received. So I decided to share it with my blogging friends.

Acknowledging the audience’s emotions [following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.],  Robert Kennedy referred to his own grief at the murder of his brother, President John F. Kennedy and, quoting a passage from the play Agamemnon (in translation), said: “My favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’ What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness; but [what we need] is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black … Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

There’s really nothing to add.

The Spirit of Compromise

The son of my blog buddy BTG recently graduated from High Point University in North Carolina. The commencement address was delivered by Colin Powell. (This beats the recent commencement speaker at my alma mater who was Michael Wilbon — one of the talking heads on ESPN.)  In any event, Powell had some wise words to share with the graduates and he stressed, among other things, the need for the young people sitting before him to get involved and learn the art of compromise. He reminded the students that the founding of this country was made possible only because of the willingness of those remarkable men to compromise. Somehow, that spirit of compromise has died.

Reflection leads us to a number of possibilities as to why this has happened. To begin with the obvious, the country is considerably larger and the political process much more complex than it was in the eighteenth century. When the founders were trying to figure how to escape from the stifling embrace of England, they had a common purpose. To be sure, there were divided loyalties, since many feared the wrath of the most powerful nation on earth — and wanted its continued protection. Bear in mind that the Spanish and French had been on the continent for years before the Pilgrims landed and the New England colonies got organized. Together with the native people, they were viewed as a constant threat. So a number of the founders simply were willing to put up with a few minor inconveniences, such as taxation without representation, in order to have the assurance that the English army and navy was there to protect them. But thanks to the foolishness of the British in Boston, the wisdom of Washington and Jefferson, and the persuasive powers of people like John Adams, the representatives gathered in Philadelphia were willing to compromise and declare independence from England. Without a willingness to compromise, there could have been no Declaration of Independence.

But the notion of compromise today is equated in the minds of a great many people with “capitulation,” the willingness to sell out, a form of cowardice. Loyalty in the political arena is not to an idea, as it was in 1776, it is to the political party (which did not exist in 1776) and to the corporate interests that support the party and determines reelection or failure in political office. Things have changed considerably, and it it’s not only about the increased size of the country, it’s more about what really matters. To the colonial founders, what mattered was their independence and ability to determine their own future without the outside influence of a power across the sea that really took little interest in their future, other than to be sure of a steady supply of tobacco and cotton and continued income from taxes paid. Today, there is no idea, except the idea of continuing in a cushy office (hey, it beats real work!) with the assurance of great wealth after retirement, either as a lobbyist for one of the corporations, or simply from the wise investment of funds made available during the term in office.

Clearly, Colin Powell was addressing the current inability of the sitting congress to compromise and see the larger canvas — the national interest that was once referred to as “The Common Good.” He knows whereof he speaks. If the reasons for this inability are not clear, then it is because the person who fails to see them simply doesn’t want to look. It is self-interest, pure and simple, the very thing the Greeks knew would eventually destroy any political body no matter how strong and well conceived it might happen to be. I suspect Colin Powell knows that. He has something that so many others in the public eye seem to lack: clear vision and the ability to make sacrifices that are necessary in order to guarantee that the nation he loves and has dedicated his life to does not take the wrong turn. His were words of wisdom, and one can only hope that they are heard not only by those graduates sitting in North Carolina, but by all who have ears, and especially those in power who determine the future of this country.

A New York Minute

I thoroughly enjoy reading Sports Illustrated and have done for years. It is well written, timely, and insightful. I nearly always find food for thought as I am interested in sports and the numerous scandals that surround professional sports that I have myself written about and which SI always covers in depth. In the most recent issue, the editor holds forth on the short attention span of the American sporting public. No sooner have we experienced Tibomania than we are bored and move on to Linmania, which lasts until Jeremy Lin has a couple of bad games. This is assuredly true, though the exception is the sporting public’s fascination with Tiger Woods. But this exception simply proves the general rule. The editorial also provided the following gem, which has larger implications:

“Our culture moves at warp speed, no question, the weekly or even daily news cycle long since replaced by an up-to-the-second Twitter feed or Facebook update. We said goodbye to thoughtful consideration the day we moved over to microwave popcorn — because who could possibly wait for the stove-top variety. That’s our reality.”

The phrase I want to focus on is “we said goodbye to thoughtful consideration…” That does seem to sum up one of the salient facts about our culture. Not only do we have a short attention span that requires snippets rather than lengthy explanations, we also want our news to be entertaining and we also cannot stay focused on the latest sensation long enough to savor it fully. That is a shame. And it says a lot about us as a people. Teachers are finding it out about their pupils in the classroom and newspaper editors are finding it out about their shrinking readership. We want what we want in small, easily digested thought-bites and we want it now. We don’t relish the uncertainty of anticipation even though it increases delight. We cannot focus on an issue long enough to probe its depths and discover its hidden meanings. In a word, we cannot pause and think about things because our attention is brief and shallow.

It has been known for some time that kids need “down time,” a time when nothing is scheduled and they can simply be by themselves with nothing particular to do. I have always felt that adults need that as well, though I have never seen anyone make this claim. I know I prize my down time — which the Greeks called “leisure” and put a high price upon. It is a time when a person can be most creative, most productive. I find it in abundance as a retired person in the small town I am lucky enough to live in, where I am out of the “loop” and the world seems to go by in slow-motion. But not everyone is as lucky, and things seem to happen to most of us in too much of a hurry for us to assimilate what is going on. Thus frenzy replaces leisure. And this is the problem.

One of the things Victorian writers like George Eliot and Anthony Trollope worried about with the coming of the steam engine in the nineteenth century was precisely this: the pace of life would now becomes so fast that we would no longer have time to digest what is happening to us, to thoroughly enjoy the moment and discover what it really means. These writers never imagined the jet age, of course, and were not around to see the microwave replace the oven. But they knew what they were talking about. We have become a “me-here-now” culture that demands immediate satisfaction and doesn’t have time to stop and think. Furthermore, we don’t seem to be able to imagine the consequences of our actions or plan ahead. Our focus on the immediate present seems to have cost us our imagination, though part of that loss must be attributable to a media industry that is prone to overkill. In any event, we have  indeed “said goodbye to thoughtful consideration.” The payoff is predictable: anxiety blended with mistakes resulting from lack of foresight. These are certainly two of the most obvious symptoms of our age.