Derek Jeter: Sportsman of the Year

>> Monday, November 30, 2009

The moment that this blog has been dreading since its creation has come to pass.

In all semi-seriousness, the hero worship athletes elicit is a subject worth studying. As I noted in the Tiger Woods post below, there's a deep and widespread desire to see supremely accomplished athletes as generally admirable human beings, even though if anything there's probably something of a negative correlation between the two things. For one thing, while it's not necessary to be deeply selfish, or egomaniacal, or a narcissistic perfectionist, or a child of parents in the grip of grandiose manias, or some combination thereof, to get to the top of any sport or other competitive enterprise, it often helps quite a bit, as anyone who has had much contact with such people can attest. (In this regard I recommend Gary Smith's portrait of the young Tiger Woods, "The Chosen," from the December 23, 1996 Sports Illustrated issue which named Woods Sportsman of the Year. Another excellent essay on the subject in general is David Foster Wallace's portrait of Michael Joyce, an obscure professional tennis player).

Of course the highest levels of achievement always require those who achieve them to have certain admirable qualities, such as a willingness to work extremely hard in the pursuit of initially distant goals. But it's too easy to extrapolate from that fact all sorts of false conclusions, such as that the people who reach the top of a field have done so primarily because they have worked harder than other people. In a loose sense this is true (for example every major league baseball player or PGA golfer has undoubtedly worked very hard to get where he is), but there is no good reason to believe that Derek Jeter is a superstar while Joe Smith has just been granted his unconditional release from Pittsburgh's AAA affiliate because Jeter works appreciably harder than Smith, or "wants it more," or whatever other cliche sportswriters like to deploy when celebrating Jeter's greatness.

This is a point that has more general ideological significance. It's an article of faith in this country that rich people are rich primarily because they work harder than other people. This is the kind of belief that can and is maintained in the face of all evidence to the contrary, because people want to believe it -- just as they want to believe that being the best golfer or shortstop in the world is primarily a matter of working harder at golf or baseball than everybody else.

Another parallel is that a lot of people believe that a high batting average and a high marginal tax bracket are both good proxies for moral election. This is one of those ideas that is sufficiently idiotic that it usually won't be said in so many words -- hardly anyone, after all, will actually say "I think the fact that Derek Jeter is a great baseball player indicates he's a morally admirable person," but anyone who has ever been stuck in a conversation with an Ayn Rand fan knows this line of thinking can be found well beyond the world of sports.


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