Aaron Gordon examines the ethics behind praising athletic virtue.
Tom, you have a problem with the way I worship sports players. You’re right; I laugh about how few white people there are at Fenway Park and other baseball games. I forwarded the clip of Antonio Cromartie unable to recollect the names of his illegitimate children to everyone I know; that one minute entertained me more than all other reality shows combined. So am I a racist? Am I a privileged, white American bordering on the plantation mentality?
I don’t think so. I just like sports.
You accuse me—and yourself, for that matter—of being hypocritical about which athletes we worship and why: “We adore them for one thing and one thing only: what they do with the ball. We refuse to look under the covers at what is really there.”
I’m glad you’re thinking about this. You’re correct that I try to avert my gaze from what athletes are beyond the field, but that’s exactly why you’re missing the point. I can admire what someone does on a field of play. But, for a professional athlete, whom I know from ESPN, I think what they do aside from that is irrelevant. I need not admire everything about an athlete to understand his virtues.
Since we are talking about virtues, let’s consult Aristotle, the most brilliant virtue ethicist of all time. He thought knowing the “right” person to be was different than knowing the right thing to do in any particular situation. To apply this to sports, I know Kobe Bryant works incredibly hard day and night to put a ball in a net. I can glean theories of workmanship and persistence from this observation. But, to follow Aristotle’s reasoning, I ought not to identify Kobe Bryant as an individual to admire in all his forms, since I’m observing particular implementations of his values, not his general virtues.
In fact, Kobe Bryant cheated on his wife. Aristotle was right; the implementation of his virtues in the particular of basketball have no bearing on his virtues (or lack thereof) in general.
I understand you’re concerned about this issue from a racial perspective, which I sympathize with; even without legal mechanisms working against minorities, America has an inherent racial bias. But race is a non-sequitur in this context because of the infamous 10,000-hour rule. The underlying truth is in order to become a professional athlete, you have to play the game a majority of your waking hours. But this is true about anything, not just athletics.
If you want to work for Google and be a top computer programmer, you have to spend an absurd amount of sleepless nights combing through programming language looking for a stray backslash. If you want to be the best dressage rider, you have to spend a majority of your life interacting with and building an unfathomable amount of trust in a horse as opposed to people. If you want to be a world-class writer, you have to spend a lot of time writing. Like, an insane amount of time writing.
If you want to be great at anything, there will be tradeoffs. You will likely end up neglecting family, friends, and your own personal development in order to be superior at a specific task. You’re also taking an insane amount of risk assuming your excellence in this field will have a lucrative payoff. To return to Aristotle, he thought the most virtuous people to be the most diversely virtuous. By definition, that isn’t athletes, but not because they are athletes or because of their race or upbringing, but simply because they’re that good at anything.
I look up to athletes because they are that good at something. I admire them for the dedication they exhibit as among the best in the world at their craft. I also pity them for forgoing other things in life from which they surely would have derived joy in order to play a game they love.
This is the real black-and-white of sports: either you make it or you don’t and you have nothing else to fall back on. Thanks to a handful of athletes and their extreme shortcomings, I realize I don’t want to be that way.
Not like I could, anyway.