One of the reasons people watch sports is to feel morally superior to the athletes.
Every one of us sitting at home on the couch knows with absolute certainty that if we were competing in, say, the Winter Olympics that we would be trying harder than contestants themselves. We know we would reach every loose puck first due to the quality of our desire–not like the U. S. Men’s Hockey team that was tied by lowly Lativa, or the women’s team that was denied a place in the finals by upstart Sweden. We know we would never engage in ostentatious celebration after or on the brink of victory–like Lindsey Jacobellis, the snowboarder. And we are certain that were we to lose (unthinkable, of course due to the “quality of desire” clause just mentioned) that we would behave with such absolute and appealing dignity, that our loss would be remembered only as the necessary precedent of a transcendent display of grace. In other words, we would never blame it on, say, a bus driver, as U. S. figure skater Johnny Weir did, or seem not to care–like U. S. skier Bode Miller.
This, at least, is the impression I am drawing from the torrent of moral hand wringing unleashed by the lackluster performance of the U. S. team at the Winter Olympics. And I didn’t even mention the me-first attitude of that selfish Michelle Kwan, who, from what I can ascertain, inconvenienced almost no one by waiting until the Games were near at hand before deciding that her injury hadn’t healed sufficiently to allow her to participate.
Now I must confess that I am a card-carrying member of the “sports build moral character” caucus. Well, actually, I am a t-shirt-wearing member. The Positive Coaching Alliance, of which I am a charter member, doesn’t give out cards. But it does proselytize, and I have done my share of evangelization, trying to persuade organizations and individuals to train “double goal” coaches, people who focus not only on winning games, but on teaching kids to honor the game. So I am as likely, maybe more likely, than the next person to criticize athletes for character flaws which, unfortunately, are broadcast for all the world to see.
That said, as a former sportswriter I also know that sometimes athletes just lose because they couldn’t harness all of the mysterious elements that go into producing a top performance on that particular day, or because their opponents had exploited a previously undetected weakness, or because the opponent the other guys or gals were just plain better than anybody thought they were.
The unpredictable nature of athletic performance plays a larger role in competitions such as the Olympics which, from the public’s point of view, is pretty much a one-shot deal. There is no regular season over which an athlete establishes excellence in the public’s mind. There is just one win-or- lose moment, much as there is during the NCAA’s March Madness, or other single-elimination tournaments. This is part of the charm of these events. You sense that something is at stake, a feeling you don’t get watching a mid-season doubleheader between, say, the Baltimore Orioles and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
And because so much is at stake, we assume that the athletes will therefore be at their best, because surely, the ability to summon a top performance for a momentous event is the mark of a champion.
Or so I read. And so, I assume, we feel justified in drawing large lessons about a person’s character from what they achieve, or fail to achieve, sliding down a mountain or standing at the free throw line on some random afternoon. But this is where we go astray. Events like the Olympics and March Madness don’t teach us lessons about athletic excellence of human character, they obscure them, the way that fundamentalists who focus on a few verses of Scripture obscure—distort might be a better word—the larger meaning of the text. The best team doesn’t win every game. The best horse doesn’t win every race. Individuals, whether they are athletes or not, very rarely reveal themselves in a single moment, except in fiction.
The temptation to which we succumb in watching sports is to read real life as though it were a novel or a film, to assume that the athletes are characters, not people—that they exist only on the screen, on the page, in the moment that we encounter them, and in no other. This isn’t fair to them, but, to be honest, I can’t usually get too worked up about that. They have been extravagantly blessed in their physical gifts. In most instances, they have been extravagantly compensated for what they do. What annoys and troubles me is the torrent of lazy moralizing that flows forth when athletes don’t perform in the ways we expect them to perform. The speed and certainty with which we pass judgment on them, and on other public figures, for that matter, says more about our character than it does about the characters of those we judge. It suggests intolerance of complexity and ambiguity, and a need to be fed fairy tales with easily digestible morals.
Every year, the Most Valuable Player of the Super Bowl is captured on film as he walks off the field shouting, “I’m going to Disney World.” We hate it, though, when athletes remind us through their failures that we aren’t already living in the Magic Kingdom.