Sunday, July 15, 2012

Being good at slinging a ball around doesn't make you a hero, part 327

As the Penn State report is being reviewed, and people are talking about how a man could rape multiple children over a sustained period with the protection of his colleagues, I see explanations of "hero worship" and comparisons to the Catholic church again and again. I won't say these explanations and comparisons are wrong-- after all, Joe Paterno was a hero to many, and his handling of Jerry Sandusky's behavior did amount to a cover-up and a refusal to allow the law to deal with matters. But I have a simultaneously more specific and more general suggestion for how to avoid such things happening again: stop treating people involved in athletics as role models. Stop treating people who are highly talented athletes or coaches as if they are somewhere therefore morally trustworthy. They are not, and should not be expected to be. They are simply entertainers, akin to singers, actors, or directors. A sporting event is a performance. There is no necessary moral component to performing well.

It is, of course, a form of performance that is incredibly tribal-- and by that I don't mean a fancy dance. I mean that team sports are a kind of entertainment that strongly encourages the formation of alliances on the part of people who have no real direct connection to whatever is happening on the field/pitch/diamond/rink/etc., but who will forge one out of whatever mental materials are available in order to invest themselves in the success of whomever they're rooting for. That makes the performance far more exciting, because it's hard to care about the result of a contest between two parties when you have no reason to favor one or the other. And rather scarily, there really is no limit to how deeply entrenched this feeling of investment can go-- it can become quite literally an investment, as fans (short for "fanatics") sink countless dollars into season tickets, jerseys and other paraphernalia, tuning into games via pay-per-view, playing fantasy versions of their favorite sport using their favored players, and so on. For the dedicated sports fan, there is no end of possibilities to pour oneself into support for the particular sports and particular teams that have been made part of that person's identify. Most people see this as normal. It's also ubiquitous-- sports themselves may vary across the globe, but the value of sports, and the dedication of fans, really doesn't. It's rather like religion in that way.

And like religion, sport too often brings the opportunity to give moral esteem to people who have done nothing to earn it. At least in religion these are generally people who aspire to a moral status, but in sports they are simply those who have proven particularly physically adept and genetically fortunate. There is nothing about winning games and making lots of money that is generally understood to improve moral character-- you'd think that after years of seeing professional athletes take up hobbies such as dog-fighting, domestic abuse, adultery, and casual bigotry, we'd more than aware of that by now.

People certainly idolize actors and singers, pretending that what they have to say about politics is relevant and that their romantic relationships somehow either reflect or determine the kind that the rest of us have. But we don't hold them responsible for being good. We don't assume they are any less likely to be criminals, let alone more likely to be Eagle scouts. Why do we do this to athletes and their trainers?

Here's a suggestion: Let's stop.


  1. I stopped going to arena sports events because the people were freaking me out. Tribal is the word. Plus I can see the action better on TV.

  2. I'll just leave this here.


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