for Raj Luthra
Over at Deadspin, Timothy Burke did the right thing, letting J.R. Smith tearfully describe the support and love his family has shown him speak for itself. Unfortunately, we live in the day and age where nothing speaks for itself, as you can spout searing racist contempt for a judge and still be held by a vast number of Americans to be eminently qualified for the Presidency. So I think a few remarks giving J.R. Smith his due are in order, especially as all of sports media will (rightfully) gush about LeBron or, um, demonstrate what it means to utterly lack control of one’s bowel movements in adulthood.
For those of you who don’t know, J.R. Smith is probably most famous for trying to untie an opponent’s shoelaces during a game. He’s also known for taking shots that keep both teams in the game, loudly declaiming how difficult it is to pass to his teammates, getting into fights with teens, excessive drinking and partying, idiotic sexual advances and a host of other awkward and terrible buffoonery. Far more serious is the fact that he caused the death of his best friend while driving out of control. That fact nagged at me when I decided to put words to paper, as I don’t want to even remotely glorify such horrible carelessness. I’ve spent a considerable portion of this year taking on more responsibilities, not shying away from having and enforcing higher expectations for myself and those around me. The times I’ve failed I’ve done brutal self-assessments, becoming ever more miserable as I continually recount where I have not measured up and why. Why should I give someone whose behavior has crossed the line from irresponsible to reprehensible any more words than he already has?
I don’t know the answer to that. “Judge not, lest ye be judged” is too trite for such situations. I think, in the end, I have a responsibility to the moment. And J.R. Smith’s break down last night is the only reason to watch sports, to cheer for anything or anyone.
For whatever reason, a number of societies have decided that what makes a man is that he tries to be more of a man. People are supposedly forged in competition; showing heart and continually striving, armed by constantly trying to outfox others, constructing a reputation and gaining allies as well as “losers and haters” are how we think we make ourselves. My work concerns Greek political thought, and I wonder if the competition was actually more intense then. In Athens, it seems like every ambitious youth hired teachers of rhetoric to get elected to high office. It surprised me to learn that Greek athletes were not well-rounded and proportional in the spirit of our amateur athletics nowadays. They shaped their bodies, like today’s offensive linemen, to compete at the highest levels of their respective competitions. Virtue – arete – is “excellence,” and make no mistake that in a society with slavery that “excellence” is a claim to having a permanent right to rule other men. Perhaps the competition can be seen in the famous quarrel between philosophy and poetry, as Plato might have dismissed poetry because of its continual need to reinforce fealty to the regime. Poetry must be the mouthpiece of the best regime, otherwise what good is it? It only speaks vice in any other case. The criticism of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and the poets who try to reimagine the founding of Athenian values is hardly muted upon this realization.
So there are whole worlds where everyone competes over everything. When public radio interviewed mothers who were sacrificing everything to send their kids to youth football leagues, those mothers spoke about the need for their kids to have father figures, to learn character and proper behavior, to learn to work with others, to act disciplined. Those mothers weren’t looking for their kids to compete in the NFL or win a college scholarship. The goals for those of us in a genuinely democratic society can be earthbound, beautifully humble in a way. They can also be decadent and deluded in the worst way. The irony of watching sports on television in one’s house on Father’s Day is not lost on me. In America, you have the right to make your home your castle, building good fences for good neighbors, not letting anything push you into being social, trying to understand the world, admitting you’re wrong, embracing change. Our emphasis on individual liberty and property creates radically private situations. I’ve known plenty of parents who bark at their kids in ways they would be frightened to show in public. The spirit of competition, the lessons of sports, mean something else to parents who assert the right to be always right. They think that if they “win,” “win all the time,” then their private vices are really the truest virtue. They don’t even know what they want to “win” at. They just know a win’s a win, something that feels like it reinforces their belief about themselves and the world.
An Athens obsessed with public glorification collapsed, and I need not comment more on the freedom to withdraw from society while pretending to have the most significant knowledge of it. Sports don’t simply represent something about society. They’re where we watch our so-called common sense notions be tested and found wanting. In that vein, I cannot recommend too highly Joyce Carol Oates’ eulogy for Muhammad Ali. Ali renounced what was quite literally a slave name, stood up for his values at great personal cost, remade himself as a boxer to show he could not be coerced into failure. Ali most clearly saw what sport means: “Boxing was nothing. It wasn’t important at all. Boxing was just meant as a way to introduce me to the world.”
Smith’s remarks are just as raw, just as powerful: “If it wasn’t for the structure and the backbone that I have, I wouldn’t be able to mess up and keep coming back and being able to sit in front of you as the world champion.” These words were eked out as thanks to his father and family while crying in profusion. The goofiness, the awkwardness, the lack of self-control – J.R Smith is far from the most reckless American. Many act like him, despite our spoken emphasis on education and excellence. A family with tough love, a shared sense of value, is a family that wants to see more than “winning.” They want to see accomplishment, or to use an older word with a wondrous secular sense, grace. Grace is not a professional demeanor, necessarily. It can be taking the risk of being emotionally honest, as you will be bashed and ignored just as much as heard. Being the world champion is about how you got there, regrets, vices, failures and all. The relentlessness, the drive, the never-give-up attitude is the beginning of the achievement; being world champion only serves to highlight this beginning. No artifice resides here, in the midst of a corporate-driven media spectacle. Only, I suspect, the realization that our achievements mean nothing to us, everything to those we owe.