Forget About Brendan Haywood
Forgive the long block quotes (and the foray into recent news), but I found this great page from David Foster Wallace’s collection of essays and arguments, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”. This excerpt is from the essay entitled, “tennis player Michael Joyce’s professional artistry as a paradigm of certain stuff about choice, freedom, limitation, joy, grotesquerie, and human completeness”, and applies to post-millennial basketball as much as the 1990’s tennis it originally analyzed. Consider this next time you recoil in horror at the simplistic musings by athletes you are undoubtedly deluged with all day on sites like Twitter and Facebook. It was easier to ignore this when the line between athletes and celebrities was so much clearer, and I’m not sure greater insight into their lives enhances our appreciation of the game any.
It’s not just the athletic artistry that compels interest in tennis at the professional level. It’s also what this level requires — what it’s taken for the 100th-ranked player in the world to get there, what it takes to stay, what it would take to rise even higher against other men who’ve paid the same price he’s paid.
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 pay; we vote with our wallets. We’ll spend large sums to watch a truly great athelete; 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 practice 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 the collapse of 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 profiles” of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life— outside interests and activities, charities, values beyond the 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.