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Phil Hughes and the Modern Athlete

March 14, 2013

So here’s this great quote from this New York Times article about how Yankee pitcher Phil Hughes, who visited hoity-toity Europe this winter:

Having never been anywhere but Canada and Mexico, Hughes said he was enthralled by much that he saw. They toured London and saw Big Ben, Westminster and the changing of the guard. Then it was on to Paris, where Hughes discovered escargot. He visited the Louvre and saw the Mona Lisa, at least for a minute.

“I’m not big into art and stuff like that,” Hughes said. “So we just kind of made a beeline for the Mona Lisa.”

I always wince a little when I read something like that. 

Maybe the Fridge went to the National Gallery of Art?

Or back when I had a subscription to Sports Illustrated (does anybody have an SI subscription anymore?), whenever I read the Pop Culture Grid, and saw that the athletes in question either don’t read or are reading the Bible or a magazine; that made me wince too. But why? Maybe because of an older issue of SI, the cover of which sported Refrigerator Perry and Too Tall Jones flanking a beefeater in London. This article from the 1986 issue sounded so sophisticated and cool to me; the issue was one of the first ones I ever had, but one that I would surmise made an impact on me in my schoolboy notion of pro athletes. Here’s a paragraph:

Other Cowboys were not so single-minded. One night, Cowboy linebackers Jeff Rohrer and Steve DeOssie took in Midsummer-Night’s Dream at the open-air theater in Regent’s Park—no stage gimmicks, no hidden microphones, just good stage actors doing the master’s work. The two Cowboys almost had apoplexy from laughing so hard. “We were howling and stamping our feet,” said Rohrer, a former Yalie, who went back the following night, alone, to see the play again. “The actors project, they enunciate. One character insults another, calls him ‘this spotted and inconstant man.’ What language. I can’t complain about this trip at all.”

Ok. Re-reading the entire article, uh, two and a half decades later, it’s not like the cultural exchange was anymore sophisticated than what it is now, nor what it was when Albert Spalding led his group of ballplayers in 1888-9 in a world tour promoting baseball. (In Egypt, the athletes — seriously — had a contest to see who could hit the face of the Sphinx with a baseball.)

There’s a great essay in David Foster Wallace’s compilation Consider the Lobster about the autobiography of Tracy Austin, his favorite tennis player, and how incredibly disappointing and sad it was. The thrust of the piece, originally a book review in a 1992 Philadelphia Inquirer — beyond its critique of ghost-written athlete “auto”biographies — is more or less about how we oughtn’t expect phenomenal athletes to be able to explain how they do what they do; nor, really, should we expect them to be interesting or, well, human at all. To achieve the level of skill that they have, the vast, vast majority of them have to be of slightly different mental makeup. I cannot, literally cannot imagine what it’s like for Bill Buckner or Scott Norwood or whoever to go to sleep each night, and see those epic failures, played out in front of millions and millions of people, flashing in their minds’ eyes.

By nurture, they have to be able to block out so much extra noise, criticism, distractions.  This is either a learned or inborn trait — like the portrayal of Lenny Dykstra in the beginning of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, whose strength of conviction is somewhere between obstinate and insane, but certainly and most importantly un-self-conscious. Or Alex Rodriguez and Ben Roethlisberger, who, from at latest their pre-teens, but probably at like eight or nine, were bred to be uber-athletes inside impenetrable bubbles, machines that could just perform, perform, perform. So some kind of social misfitness or questionable behavior is to be expected.

And especially now, when the level of play required at the top tiers of sporting is <i>so</i> absolutely high. Training camps used to be quite literally training camps — places where athletes went to get back in shape after an off-season of gorging their faces with food, playing golf, selling insurance, chasing tail, or whatever the hell. It’s pretty rare these days that players don’t show up already jacked and ready to go. Salaries are too high and expectations are too large for the professional athlete to treat respective seasons as just part of a year. So here’s a possibly dubious conclusion, but still: They’re making more money, so the process in becoming an athlete becomes more tunnel-visioned, which is probably an ingredient in making them less likely to engage in outside interests, which makes them less likely to be R.A. Dickey.

Our notions of athletes as role models, hell, anybody as a role model who isn’t your dad, mom, or favorite philanthropist / Albert Schweitzer, is thoroughly ridiculous. Athletes more than other people, probably, considering that the reason they’re famous is because they can hit a ball with a stick very well, or make a ball go into some sort of hole. They’re physical specimens, but with the exception of a very select few, they’re not enlightened thinkers.

But I’m continually depressed and, for some reason, surprised, whenever I read how uninterested professional athletes are in things that don’t involve their very limited lives. And I think it’s because they make so much money and can affect so many charities with their donations, or legions of adoring fans with just some words like, “hey, go see this documentary, or buy this book, or spay/neuter your pet snake.” The main reason I don’t root for Tim Tebow (and honestly, I do find his religious beliefs remarkably honest/steadfast in a muddy sea of Jesus-spouting hypocrisy) is because I know he will give a vast amount of his riches to anti-abortion causes, the way he lent himself to this Focus on the Family ad.

I wish there were a way to separate rooting for the athlete from rooting for the person. Like, separate whatever kind of advertising revenue some companies get whenever I click on a link about Albert Pujols. I’m very interested in his statistics and how they compare and are exceeding all-time greats, but I’m less interested in allowing him to receive more money if he’s going to be involved with Glenn Beck and his causes.

Non-profits recognize this sad paradox. Maybe no better example than The Humane Society’s teaming up with Michael Vick in his full-court-press redemption tour. Vick’s portrayed himself (and has been portrayed by so many of his supporters) as a target and victim in that whole six-year-dogfighting-ring-during-which-he-absolutely-killed-dogs-himself-in-probably-more-disgusting-ways-than-you-want-to-think-about-thing. His “auto”biography’s title, Finally Free, is heavily loaded. Is he 100% contrite? Oh, who the hell knows. I would imagine no.

But he’s restoring his image. And the Humane Society wants to take advantage of that, using him as a spokesman in a way that they never would be able to, with, say, a non-celebrity who’s turned away from a dogfighting past. The HSUS essentially admits as much in their – heh – FAQ page about why they’re working with Vick.

Anyway, Phil Hughes’ proclaimed disinterest in art is not going to ruffle my feathers about him, not in the way that finding out he gives a ton of money to, like, Tea Partiers or anti-gay-marriage causes would. But it’s always a damn shame for the kid in me when I realize that these 25-year-olds aren’t too interested in things that don’t have to do with a ball or Beyonce.

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From → Not a Jock, Politics

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