13 June 2011

Hail to the victors

"Did you ever read Pliny's letter to Trajan in which he speaks of it being advisable to keep the Greeks absorbed in athletics because it distracted their minds from all serious pursuits?" Theodore Roosevelt asked his son and namesake in October 1903. I hadn't, but the President's reading made me curious. If I've found the right passage, then it's likely that Roosevelt read more into it than was there, at least in the translation I read. In Letter 48 of the Pliny-Trajan correspondence, Pliny the Younger discusses the necessity of rebuilding a gymnasium in the city of Nicea and requests that the Emperor send an architect to study the work already under way. In his reply, Trajan notes contemptuously, "These paltry Greeks, I know, are immoderately fond of gymnastic diversions." He suspects that the Niceans want an oversized facility for the purpose and should be satisfied with something more modest. I see no bread-and-circuses agenda in this, much less Roosevelt's assumption that Pliny and Trajan were conspiring to distract the Greeks through athletics from ever being a threat to Roman rule. But what Roosevelt writes afterward remains relevant.

A man must develop his physical prowess up to a certain point but after he has reached that point there are other things that count more....I am glad you should play football; I am glad that you should box; I am glad that you should ride and shoot and walk and row as well as you do. I should be very sorry if you did not do these things and if you lacked the spirit you show in them. But don't ever get into the frame of mind which regards these things as constituting the end to which all your energies must be devoted, or even the major portion of
your energies.

Roosevelt wrote at a time when the amateur athlete was still the idea and Major League Baseball, despite its surging popularity, was still held widely in disrepute because men who played sports for a living were inherently disreputable. Rather than playing for the love of a game (hence the word "amateur"), the professional played for pay, and might be capable of cheating, even against his own team, for greater pay -- as the 1919 World Series eventually proved. Professional football was practically nonexistent in 1903, while the Ivy League was presumed to have the best players because it was presumed to have the best students, both academically and in terms of social class. Roosevelt enjoyed rough sports because he felt they developed a manliness that would allow athletes to pursue other, higher vocations without enduring mockery or bullying. He also thought that anyone who lived an exclusively intellectual or academic life was as stunted as one who devoted himself solely to sports. The President obviously enjoyed watching football games, but he would not have expected people to be spectators only. He probably didn't anticipate that mass spectatorship would make the professionalization of nearly all sports inevitable. He most likely couldn't imagine the day when an athlete would be famous for refusing to go to college on the assumption that he was ready already for professional play. And while he may not have been correct on the Roman attitude toward sports, he may well have been unconsciously anticipating what would happen in his own country. The only difference is that there was no political conspiracy to get Americans addicted to spectator sports. Americans did that to themselves, and the result is another great parody of democracy as the nation convenes online and over the air to pass judgment on Boner-El Jams and the I-Maim Hate for failing to live up to their expensive promise of a championship. But who dares tell them that they're wasting their time?

A great athlete should be admired like a great work of art and a great artist at the same time, but even our artists today are mostly overpaid. Are we paying for excellence or for vicarious experience? You could answer either way depending on your emphasis. In a way, we always pay for vicarious experience, and not least for vicarious democracy. I don't want to say that only ascetics can actually practice democracy, but too many other Americans are busy doing something else for me not to feel that we all need to moderate our conduct. Teddy Roosevelt didn't say there was anything wrong with someone making millions from sports -- he couldn't even imagine the possibility. He did seem to say that there was something wrong with anyone making any kind of living from sports, and that something was wrong with a country where that was possible. So how wrong was he?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The more you write of Teddy Roosevelt, the more I come to realize how much I have in common with the man.