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Sunday, June 05, 2005

So mgoblog took a little time this weekend and reread large swaths of David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, which contains a couple fantastic essays on tennis. I have zero interest in tennis outside of a serious affection for little white skirts hovering over toned athletic thighs, but just about anything Wallace writes that isn't literary criticism of books I haven't read I find delightful and fascinating.

As I was doing this I came across a passage that I found interesting and relevant to an occasional topic of conversation here (any errors in the following are due to a faulty transcriber, myself):

Bismarck's epigram about diplomacy and sausage applies also to the way we Americans seem to feel about professional athletes. We revere athletic excellence, competitive success. And it's more than attention we pay; we vote with our wallets. We'll spend large sums to watch a truly great athlete; we'll reward him with celebrity and adulation and will even go so far as to buy products and services he endorses.

But we prefer not to countenance the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so good at one particular thing. Oh, we'll pay lip service to these sacrifices--we'll invoke lush cliches about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practices and restricted diets, the privations, the prefight celibacy, etc. But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews, or to imagine what impoverishments in one's mental life would allow people actually to think in the simplistic way great athletes seem to think. Note the way "up-close and personal" interviews of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life--outside interests and activities, charities, values beyond sport. We ignore what's obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It's farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one pursuit. An almost ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to their one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child's world, is very serious and very small.
While I have some quibbles (postcontest banalities are probably less the result of an impoverished mental life than extensive coaching on exactly what banalities will be least offensive to current and future opponents), it's certainly an interesting topic to consider. The first thing that jumps out at me is that the screwed-up-ness of athletes directly related to this childhood asceticism varies wildly from sport to sport. Essentially every serious (American) endurance athlete seems like a warped personality to me--who would choose such a bizarre set of strictures and clingy high-tech clothes simply to drive his body to the point of insanity over and over again, for little or no money and fleeting, meaningless fame? On the other hand, basketball players--who live pretty much normal lives except with way more sex until they enter the NBA--seem like jumbo-sized versions of real people. You can tell by the sense of humor. Shaq fires off genuinely funny one-liners, 'Sheed goes out and buys WWE-style championship belts, Rip Hamilton has turned "yessir" into a metro Detroit cultural touchstone--there are few NBA players who wouldn't be fascinating and hilarious drinking buddies (most of those who wouldn't: Dukies). I can't even conceive of getting a beer with, say, Lance Armstrong.

Most team-sports guys get off pretty light compared to runners, bikers, swimmers, figure skaters, and tennis players because they live at home with their non-pyscho (<--important) momma until it's time to go to college (or, increasingly, pro). Hockey players are the glaring exception to the rule. The culture of hockey is one of privation, of arising at ascetic hours and mastering the intricacies of a mindbogglingly hard game. That's why hockey players are almost normal-sized, why someone like 5'5" Brian Gionta can actually be a good NHL player: you have to put in an insane amount of time to even be fairly crappy at hockey. It's a lifestyle, not a game. Football and basketball players, on the other hand, are almost universally genetic lottery winners. That alone won't get you millions but it certainly cuts down the field of applicants.

The portion of the country that cares about sports is in the middle of a great debate of its role in the lives of children and even adults. Hockey Canada is revamping its rules. The NBA is looking at increasing the minimum age in its league. The NFL just got done defending its minimum age requirements. The tennis community periodically wails about Capriati-ish kids who show up young, blow up on the court... and then blow up off of it. Recruiting has gone from an obscure list of names in the back of the newspaper February second to a full-fledged industry. And then there's Roidland. Er. Major League Baseball.

I don't think that the psychotic underside of sport is particularly surprising--people have proven over and over again that buckets of money and repugnant or sad behavior go hand in hand. Nor do I think that it's gotten particularly worse over the last few years. But I do think things would be better if a deep breath was taken and kids stopped getting pushed to play now, to win now, to get paid now.

I think this would make an interesting conversation between various people, so I've opened up a thread on the board. Is the way we get our sports heroes disturbing and pathetic? Or is it AOK? I really don't know.

(Random side note: The essay I excerpt is a semi-journalistic foray to the Canadian Open's "Qualies." a sort of pre-tournament tournament that guys just below the top level of the sport must play through to make it into the main draw. While there Wallace, a fairly successful tennis player in his youth, finds that he could not "meaningfully exist" on the same court as anyone here, which he finds extremely sad. I found that rather ironic because that's pretty much how I feel when I read David Foster Wallace. (No, that isn't self-pity. The man has a MacArthur Fellowship, for Christ's sake.))

(Important side note: yes, the link to the book is an Amazon affiliate link. No, this does not presage huge blinking banners exhorting you to gamble at online casinos. mgoblog will inform you of any and all attempts to turn blog into money--and rest assured that anything in the future will be unobtrusive. The site's the thing.)