Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Ideas That Have Vanished Entirely Within My Own Lifetime #1: The Amateur Ideal In Sports

I have referred previously to the set of 1966 juvenile encyclopedias I have had since I was young, and which even at that time--1981 or so--seemed to me to represent a world, or a vision of it anyway, that had been lost. Doubtless a great part of this effect was that I had no immediate personal experience of the world of 1966--certainly the world has changed at least as much from 1981 to the present as it did in the 15 years previous to it, yet since I have been alive through the whole period and had some personal connection to anything that was lost during that time, the changes do not seem so significant. Such things as are lost before one had a chance to have any part in them, when they are perceived to have contained anything better than what replaced them, always have a tendency to nag a little.

The other night, having taken Volume 18 (SEV-TAP) with me into the reading room with the idea of indulging in some Tourist Board photographs from Franco's Spain (I fear that one of my reactions to hyperglobalization is a growing fascination with stagnant, insular, deliberately anachronistic societies. However awful it would be to live in one, anything inevitably becomes interesting when it is in such opposition to the dominant and seemingly unstoppable trends of the present), I came across, in flipping through the later pages, a whole half-page devoted to listing all the winners of the Sullivan Trophy, awarded each year to the outstanding amateur athlete in the United States, up to 1965 (the winner that year: Bill Bradley, basketball). I am old enough to remember the newspaper sports pages reporting the winner of the Sullivan Trophy around Christmastime in the years when I was just starting to read them, around 1978-82 or so, and it was still considered important enough at that time that a writer would occasionally devote some space to commend or gripe about the selection. However, as I could not remember reading or hearing anything--anything--about this award since the mid-80s, and especially since there were scarcely any serious athletes left who could plausibly be called amateurs, my immediate reaction was to wonder if the trophy had actually been retired. It has not, and is still awarded every year. While last year's winner was a teenage paralympic swimmer, most recent awardees however would be well known to the average sports fan, mostly college basketball players and Olympians. The amateurism of most of these latter especially is highly suspect. I find it difficult to believe that the great runner and1996 winner Michael Johnson, to pick one example, who was 28 or so at the time and not to my knowledge otherwise employed, did not receive any renumeration as a result of his athletic achievements, nor did not view his track career in professional terms. This is not intended as a knock on Johnson. True amateurs such as the 1920s or 1950s ideal would dictate have, of course, little hope of competing at a world class level in any sport in 2007, and I suspect that if anybody of prominence seriously tried to promote that ideal in the present they would be stared at as if they had commended command economies or psychoanalysis. Still, the question for me is not so much why the ideal collapsed, but why it collapsed so utterly, given that there is a reasonable amount of good sense and merit in it, as well as genteel attractiveness, which is supposed to be irresistible to a sizable and highly gullible segment of the population.

The American notion of athletic amateurism, such as it was, as well as that of much of the sporting world, was a product of British public school culture, which fact in itself is in the current ideological climate probably reason enough to set many people adamantly against it whatever its merits may have been. According to this model, winning and excellence naturally were important, and sometimes demanded, but being a gentleman, or at least honoring its forms, was even more important than winning. Indeed it was a prerequisite for winning, since competitors who shunned to pay homage to its code were considered illegitimate and banned from participating in any games run by the establishments that adhered to it, which were in many sports the most glamorous and prestigious competitions held. This attitude was not democratic, and those who did not wish to conform to it or thought it ridiculous railed against the exclusivity, classism, racism, Euro or Anglocentricism (the Anglo- might even be worse than the Euro-), and exploitation of athletes that they considered to be embedded in it. As with so many traditions, these cruel things were, or at least became embedded in it to a certain extent, which in recent years has tended to overshadow the admirable purposes for which it was originally conceived. This was the idea that competitive athletics ought to be joyful and inspiring occasions, which would occur most properly when the competitors were in the height of their youthful beauty and enthusiasm--25 being about the upper age limit--and were preparing and developing at the same time, optimally through education, the characters and skills to assume serious roles in the adult life of their nations worthy of an athletic champion. Roger Bannister, the Briton who was the first man to officially break the 4-minute mile in 1954, was one of the greatest embodiments of this ideal. A medical student, Bannister rose early the day he set his record in order to do hospital rounds before going to the track. Already 25, and having gone to the Olympics two years earlier (he failed to place), the summer of `54 was going to be his last opportunity to pursue the quest to break four minutes, and even that was bordering on the quixotic given the mores of the society in which he moved. There was no question, at such an advanced age, of hanging around two more years for the next Olympics. It was time for getting on with one's real (adult) life. Indeed, after running in a couple of races that summer against his two top international rivals, Bannister quit competitive running forever. Though he would always be famous as an athlete, no one expected a man to live, in intellect and spirit as much as financially, off of athletic achievements for the remaining fifty years of his life. It is this last attitude, the sense among young athletes that there is a much wider world, or any world at all, outside the game that has become quite disturbingly lost in recent years. Obviously there are exceptions, but athletes--and not merely athletes but I am picking on athletes today--lack personalities, almost lack discernible selves, when their athletic pursuits are all-encompassing, and allowed to become divorced from any semblance of a humanistic education, which young people generally, and young people who are likely to attain prominence especially, ought to have.

In the Olympic sports anyway, the greatest assaults on the amateur ideal did not initially come from the inexorable demands of democracy and the free market, but the ruthless success of the Soviet Union in producing champions. After sitting out the 1948 and 1952 games--probably the 'purest' in Olympic history, the competitors being almost uniformly young (the decathlon winner in both, Bob Mathias, was 17 the first time, to name one example) and, having grown up during World War II, the Europeans especially, having hardly devoted their childhoods exclusively to succeeding in a sport--the USSR was coaxed into participating in Melbourne in '56 as a gesture of goodwill, where their athletes, especially the women, not merely defeated but crushed the flower of the West's offerings across the board. Right from the start critics indignantly suspected that the Reds were not engaging in fair play as defined by the codes of the finest British public schools, and I do not refer to drugs, which were not seen as the major problem until later. In the old days the outrage was that the Russkies were removing young children from ordinary society and even their homes and training them in special sports schools for years and years with the express goal of winning Olympic medals. Indeed, in the USSR and East Germany athletes who were not expected to be competitive for medals were left at home even if they were qualified to participate under I.O.C. rules. This was not in the spirit of the games either, which were supposed to be a kind of jamboree of gilded young people, future leaders of their respective nations by virtue of their superior persons, which transcended mere politics and ideology. By the 70s the U.S. public had largely grown accustomed to watching technically flawless, unflappable and seemingly joyless Communists make mincemeat of its nice young men and women in the Olympics (which the U.S. had dominated in the real glory years of the festival), increasingly consoling itself by the reflection that the borscht-swillers were sending professionals who knew nothing of life but practice for sports and would be tossed to the side of the road at the first sign of weakness, to compete against college kids. I was a kid myself at the time and among the accusations against the Soviet system was that it encouraged children to become consumed with sports (or ballet, or science), which, whatever people in this country want to claim about their own upbringing and secrets of success now, was generally thought to be unhealthy in those days even if one had legitimate talent. Ironically it was not until the Soviet Union collapsed that we really began to adopt their methods and attitudes towards sports and other endeavors with the fervency we see now.

College sports in the U.S., though I have been a fan of them and still follow football scores and who goes to the final four, have nonetheless always been something of a minor national disgrace and a blight on just about every university that has them. At the big-time level the pretension that football and basketball players even ought, in some ideal universe, to be real students seems to have been abandoned now, except at a few places like Notre Dame, where they occasionally make a great show of rejecting a top recruit whose criminal record suggests he might be just too frightening to let loose among their regular students. There was a recent book published by a former football player at the University of Houston, I believe, who had actually been expecting to take real classes, and tried to register for them, only to find that the athletic department arranged all the courses for football players beforehand, reminding the player rather heavyhandedly that he was on scholarship to play football, not be a student. Indeed, the more vehement proponents of the movement to pay athletes on college teams seem to consider the scholarships worthless and exploitative, even insulting; positions which are not rebuffed very convincingly by the actions taken and arguments made by the universities, which seem to have no serious governing principles about the relation of their athletic programs in themselves (apart from the money and notoriety they raise) to the education, the elevation of the life of mind, of young people. Personally I do not believe that it is proper for people whose minds are still in a formative stage, especially in a university environment(!) to devote 30-40 or more hours a week to athletics, especially if one of the consequences is to be a neglect of education. This bothers me more the older I get, and seems a colossally foolish error on the part of the whole society.

Reading over this I see that this was a pointless, failed attempt at exposition by a mind that cannot be simply struck by an obvious thought and leave it as it is but must get itself tangled up in minutiae that are only tangentially related to and give no gloss to its idea. But I will publish it because it this is after all more a diary than anything else, and diaries are the place to rave about ones failures and disappointments.

The latter section of this piece brought to my mind the 1920s Buster Keaton movie College, which among other qualities demonstrates that the mindset I lament above has been perceived as tainting the educational system even in what seem to us now almost idyllic and innocent times. In the film the hero, an earnest student, goes off to college only to find that everyone on campus spends all their time practising sports and that the brainy girl he loves has fallen for the biggest and most obnoxious jock in the whole place. A lot of slapstick routines follow in which Keaton, attempting to join a team in order to win back his girl, makes a mockery of various sports, drawing the ire of the other players upon him (one humorous part of this film is that although the campus otherwise appears to be a small liberal arts type place, they have a 50,000 seat football stadium). In the final scene however we for once see some practical uses for things like pole vaulting and other athletic techniques. It is all rather absurd of course however.

William Ellery Leonard`s 1913 sonnet sequence about his wife`s mental illness and suicide Two Lives (which I am a admirer of by the way) includes a sonnet about a University of Wisconsin football game. Leonard was a professor there, I believe of English. I think it ought to be included here:

Part III Sonnet XV

I sat in sweater with the college boys,

In crisp October on the sun-bright stand,

Around my arm Wissota`s crimson band,--

My arm, with thousands, lifting in the noise

The lettered pennant: down the numbered field,

Down the green field, crossed by the strips of white,

The lines re-formed--Menasha, will she yield?--

Score six to six--two minutes still to play--

Third down--third down--their goal ten yards away!


We`ll win--this--game``;--and round their right

Our left-end dashes, and the thing is done.--

Young victors, I was with you on that day

From whistle unto whistle, every one!

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