Out of Luck: The Corrosive Culture of Sports
In an earlier article in Medium, I wrote about a corrosive sports culture that brings out peoples’ baser instincts- from applauding violence to replacing a plural view of humanity with elemental tribalism. In the piece, I also discussed sports-obsession as an example of the abdication of affirmative citizenship, given the time, money, and mental energy people spend on sports versus civic activity. To be fair, I made sure to distinguish between “sport” and “Sports”- the former being, simply, “innocent play” and the latter being a deleterious obsession and a predatory business.
I sent the link to several people and altogether about 200 people read it. I got a lot of feedback that I can broadly put into 4 buckets:
1. Outright praise- About 20% of the people who wrote to me about the article thanked me profusely and suggested that their opinions and experiences aligned fully with mine.
2. Caviled praise- About 20% of respondents said that they felt the article made some good points but didn’t take into account many of the salutary elements of sports.
3. Self-praise- About 50% of the respondents used the article as a launching pad to tell me about their own “enlightened” views of Sports- about how they emphasized teamwork, camaraderie, and fairness.
4. No praise- About 10% of the people who read it told me that they disagreed and felt I was too breathless and negative.
Fair enough. I’m painfully aware that the approximately forty percent of the group who rendered real praise is hardly representative of the larger population; in reality, I am quite sure that had the article actually made the rounds, I’d have garnered far more hate mail than love notes and even received a death threat or two.
All that said, I absolutely double down on the points I made, especially after seeing both the public and “pundit” reaction to Andrew Luck’s early retirement. To start with, Luck was “boo’ed” when he left the field for his last game- a man who suggested that because he was no longer able or willing to deal with constant physical pain and mental anguish, that he would step down from professional sports, a person who bared his soul in public, was heaped calumny upon by so-called “fans” — in an act of complete and utter disdain for humanity. That a person’s personal decisions about his own body and mind are somehow grounds for a public moral plebiscite is just a joke (could be fair if discussing elected officials or other roles responsible for public safety and justice.) The suggestion that a 29-year old who had earned $100M should have forced himself to endure agony to earn more is a sad commentary on priorities in a money-worshipping society in the throes of terminal decay.
But, there is more. Public conversation continued ad nauseam. People who had achieved far less than Luck (most of us) were openly commenting on his work-ethic, his cowardice, and other imputed aspects of his personality. Some pundits suggested he was yet another example of effete millennialism. Other decried how namby-pamby football had become.
The commentary had a surreal quality. A young man who had earned enough money for several lifetimes (and, apparently, was frugal to boot) decided that his body, mind (and physical brain) were too important for the Colosseum was being subject to countless insults by people who themselves had shown no great courage, generosity, or intellectual gifts; put simply, a bunch of nobody’s were commenting about a great achiever, from the creaky parapet of false moral indignation.
Now, let’s be clear. Andrew Luck is not some elevated human being. We are not talking about MLK or Nelson Mandela. We’re talking about a football player. It is a sign of a culture that has abandoned all sense that a quarterback retiring from football generates more heated opinion and consumes more air-time then the assault on the environment, homelessness, disease, or racial violence.
Sure, by all accounts, Luck is a very nice guy- humble, complementary, and friendly. While that makes it sting more to hear negative commentary on his decision, it is also irrelevant. A person has the right to private decisions about his own health and, further, has a right to avoid being roughed up. Most of us would duck from a punch, but we appear to look-down on a person who suggests that a lifetime of punches is not something he can — or wants- to take.
To be fair, not all the criticism of Luck constitutes a thoroughgoing criticism of the man. Some people put forward more nuanced arguments — about the timing of his announcement. The “scandal,” here, is that he made the sudden announcement only two-weeks before the football season, leaving his teammates and team in the lurch. This criticism would make sense if Luck had a completely frivolous reason for leaving the game abruptly; however, given his reasons for leaving and given, also, the unanimous view that he was a caring teammate, we can only imagine that he felt the decision necessary despite the collateral effects. In that circumstance, any empathetic person should sympathize, even understand that Luck himself must be anguished by his decision; instead, he was tried in the court of public opinion.
He’s a football player, folks, not a Supreme Court justice or the Surgeon General.
But that’s really the issue: For most Americans, a quarterback quitting is a big deal and evokes more emotion than a surgeon, university president, politician, or social leader hanging up her spurs. In a curious transposition, a society steeped in the love of individualism and personal property feels of its sports-heroes that they are the public’s chattel. Such moral Orwellianism is the new normal.
This is a sad commentary on the state of our fragile polity. In reality, all of this suggests one thing only- that it’s our society that is truly out of luck.