Holy men of our time

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 vote with our wallets. We’ll spend large sums to watch a truly great athlete; 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 luck clich├ęs 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 they collapse and 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. 42 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.

42 Sex- and substance-issues notwithstanding, professional athletes are in many ways our culture’s holy men: they give themselves over to a pursuit, endure great privation and pain to actualize themselves at it, and enjoy a relationship to perfection that we admire and reward (the monk’s begging bowl, the RBI-guru’s eight-figure contract) and love to watch even though we have no inclination to walk that road ourselves. In other words they do it “for” us, sacrifice themselves for our (we imagine) redemption.

David Foster Wallace, ‘Tennis player Michael Joyce’s professional artistry as a paradigm of certain stuff about choice, freedom, limitation, joy, grotesquerie, and human completeness’, in A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again, p.237

Holy men of our time