Friday, June 11

Good coaches teach respect for the opposition, love of competition, the value of trying your best, and how to win and lose graciously. Brooks Clark

I read this article on Truthout yesterday about how the nature of sport in the modern world, what we as a culture consider to be the intrinsic value of play and sport activities, has changed so dramatically over the last century. Mr. Lapham makes subtle and beautiful allusions describing how our appreciation of sport has transformed into an allegory of how we see life, war, business as things that require brutal competitiveness and that exist only to provide us a clear answer to the questions “Who is the winner?”, and conversely, “Who is the loser?”

I found the article encouraging because of the way it resonated with many thoughts I've had over the last six weeks as I've watched highlights of (there's no hockey on TV in the UK for less than an arm and a leg) the NHL playoffs (hockey is the last team and professional sport that I have any affinity for) and as I've spent countless hours in deep conversation with my Dad and others in the course of my travels (the subject of another post on another day).

I can't say what Lapham said any better, but it triggered a cascade of thoughts that I was compelled to try to amalgamate here before they slip away. So, as I sit in the Schiphol Airport here in Amsterdam waiting for my connecting flight back to Vancouver, I figured it was as good a time as any to get back on the horse and throw out a lite blog entry ;).

Lapham struck a chord because the way I've been feeling about sport and competition has changed substantially over the last three or four years, moving from rabid nationalistic support and home-team fervor through something like a conflicted continued support to, finally (I think), a general distaste for what our culture considers 'serious' athletic competition and sport-business. Mixed into that general evolution are things like a rapidly changing perspective on nationalism and a growing disgust with our infatuation with the cult of fame and our slavish devotion to living vicariously through our 'most famous' as a way to escape from the drudgery of our rat-race lives. How we worship athletes and our favorite local and national teams, and the way in which we often turn into (drunken) idiots in the process, all the while not only justifying said idiocy but glorifying it, has finally pushed me to the edge (and over it) of supporting professional and international sport altogether. It is, to me, a symptom of our decline rather than something to be lauded. Whatever it once might have been, or could have been, at this point in history it generally shows how little we've aspired and how much we've grown to prize winning at any cost.

And I think that's a sad little comment.

I should say, I still love hockey. I can even respect the other sports as games to be played, although my real love is saved for the game on the ice. As Mr. Lapham so eloquently says in his piece, the real beauty of athletic endeavor is in the dance, the kinetic orchestration of will, body and aptitude that can elevate even us middle-aged guys to a level that, although obviously more rarely and never to a height achieved by professionals, approaches a poetry of motion. What Lapham called “Einstein's equation made flesh.” It can also, in the right environment, also bring out the best in people in terms of 'sportsmanship' and respect, even as it so notably can bring out the worst in us.

As an example, let me offer the following short comparison:

The last time I had the opportunity to play hockey competitively was four years ago. That year I was able to play in two leagues simultaneously; a competitive commercial league and an 'old-timers' over-35 league. Both leagues were well run, well-organized and were more than not populated by people that loved the game and played for the joy of playing.

The commercial league was, naturally the more competitive of the two leagues, full of young hotshots, ex-major junior players and even a couple ex-NHL players. All were past their very best years of playing hockey, but it was a fast game with no official contact allowed, something like watching an all-star game if only in terms of the flow and lack of ability to defend assertively in the absence of body checking.

It was really fun hockey and played at, for me anyway, a very challenging pace. And while the violence was toned down in recognition of the reality that we all had to go to work the next day, the degree of competitive fervor was high and, for some, extreme. There were occasional fights, lots of 'incidental' contact, and no doubt that the point of playing was first and last to win. Sometimes, occasionally, that drive reached 'win at all costs' intensity. When my team won, I'd feel exhalted, especially if I'd played particularly well. If we lost, no amount of mature cajoling in the dressing room could get us out of our funk, and if I played poorly in a losing cause it affected sleep.

The old-timer's league was also pleasantly competitive but in a very different way. While there were still some ridiculously talented players playing O-T, including both of the ex-NHL'ers in commercial league, there was also a majority of players that fell into the mediocre-at-best category, and even a few true ankle-benders that, at the 'ripe old age' of somewhere over thirty-five, had decided to either start playing, or start again after twenty or thirty years sabbaticals.

Subsequently, the spirit on the ice was dramatically different. Everyone still wanted to win, but it was a motivation secondary to the joy of simply playing a game we all loved, of moving smoothly (or not) over the ice, sliding gracefully (or not) to make a save (as a goalie, I have to admit that this was my favorite part), passing crisply (or not) and hitting our target on the fly, making the right play at the right time to either prevent or score a goal. If someone took a potentially nasty spill, tripping backwards over the blue line for example, or maybe losing an edge and going into the boards, the game usually just stopped to make sure that the aging warrior was okay and hadn't done any damage. Incidental contact was rare and was also capable of prompting a stoppage if two players didn't manage to avoid each other while crossing the space of the neutral zone. These stoppages were often, in the absence of injury, accompanied by generous amounts of friendly ribbing and much laughter. And it really was laughter shared with the embarrassed party, not at his expense.

The result of the game wasn't incidental, and there was a pleasant amount of team and personal pride on the line, but when the final buzzer sounded everyone was smiling every time, win or lose. Nobody had so much to prove, to themselves or anyone else, that the outcome of the game mattered enough to provoke questionable play, or a lick once it was time to get off the ice and start cracking the beers. The game wasn't being played at its highest level, by any means, and I freely admit it... unless we're talking about the highest level of sportsmanship, class and jubilation. In that case, I'd argue we were playing at international levels.

I had the most enjoyable season of my adult life playing in both leagues that year, but walked away from it and into a new job that precluded playing consistently for the next two years. Last year was the life-inversion year so again, no play except for a few noon-hour pickup games last winter. And I've missed it horribly. But even if I could play organized hockey again, I'm not sure I'd want to anymore (unless I could find another O-T league like the one I described) because that season also left me with a few bad tastes in my mouth too.

That commercial league, as I said, was punctuated too many times by reminders of what competition can do to us, of what sport has turned into in these times of professional excess into something that disturbingly resembles, to one degree or another depending on the sport, something that is more Romanesque than post-enlightenment in nature. While I loved the level of skillful play, and was fortunate to play on a team full of more mature players with good perspectives, I saw how the need to win can corrupt people, including myself, more than a few too many times.

I see the same, only more so, in the actions of professional athletes. We all do, and we talk about it all the time. The guy who dives too much and makes an idiot out of himself, or the one that seems to hit people from behind far too often, or the one that is too sloppy with his or her stick, or elbow, or kicks. The ones who seem to have personal parameters regarding how far they will go to win that either just slightly, or grossly, seem to transcend the bounds of the rules and even simple common decency and respect.

I remember the first time I struggled through Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Frankly, I found most of it boring to read, but the premise behind it, the foundational philosophy I read about in the introduction constituted, for me, an epiphany of sorts. If you've read it you may know what I'm talking about. I loved Covey's assessment of self-help literature as it evolved through the twentieth century and his analysis that, at some point, the focus of human self-development had changed from something internal designed to create character and integrity, to something external that was designed to make a person more cosmetically appealing while concurrently teaching skills that could be used to manipulate others. That observation was, in its time, a revolution. Sadly, it wasn't one that caught on. Rather, it was subsumed into the ongoing and current shallow concept, and the idea of developing integrity and character just became a catch-phrase that people used to add a veneer of validity to their cosmetic and manipulative skill development.

It stuck for me, perhaps because it was something I was already interested in, a path I was already chasing. I often think about why it is that the concept of character and integrity development hasn't seemed to stick in much of society. I wonder why we still consider winning to be something to god-awfully important that we're wiling to sacrifice our values, corrupt out integrity, and tarnish our reputations. I wonder why bigger, better, faster , more is more appealing than honesty, integrity, loyalty and respect. I wonder why we prefer relativistic ethics over a more solid morality. I wonder why we prefer the easy so damned much. Having lived both lifestyles, I can honestly advocate that the character path is, while perhaps less immediately gratifying at times, dramatically more satisfying in the long run, no matter how brief a distance I can hope I've been able to travel down that path.
Lapham has it right of course, even he he's so subtle at alluding to it. How we treat each other, how we treat sport and play, business and politics, is a symptom of the age, of our de-evolution from the ideological and philosophical aspirations of the enlightenment (and I fully recognize that there's no such thing as a golden age of anything, so bear with me a bit here) into the pragmatic relativism of the industrial age. We exchanged high meta-philosophy for a lower commercial pragmatism, high aspirations for low ambition, and it's filtered into most if not all aspects of modern life.

What we possess these days is often more important now than how we got it or even if we actually own any of it at all. The title and wage we earn is the higher priority over integrity and honesty in getting there. The famous people we base our media cults on are worshiped for their wealth and excess rather than their character and actions. When we find someone to adore, whether in sport or entertainment or politics, our love for them as they ascend is only eclipsed by our vilification of them when they inevitably fall. Our glee to see that toppling is viscous. We live for it the same way we live for the expulsion of our most hated Survivor player, or the cat fights on America's Next Top Model, or Simon's insensitive vitriol during the auditions of whatever talent competition he happens to be judging. And we haven't even talked about delighting in the violence of sport, perhaps best exemplified by the gratuity of MMA at the moment (and I love martial arts too, but pro MMA has as much to do with true martial arts as the NHL has to do with pure hockey).

Can we really try to deny that we're near the bottom of a pretty slippery slope? Do we need the emperor to toss bread into the crowd for the spectacle to finally be complete? Or are air-catapulted T-shirts enough and raffles for free pizza enough?

A talk I watched and posted this week was made by Sir Ken Robinson who talked about the need for a revolution in the way we do education from our manufacturing-based, assembly line, mechanistic approach to something that was more organic, something that would strive to create the right environment for learning and let the students then grow more as they would, according to their strengths and desires and at their own appropriate pace, whether faster or slower (or more likely both depending on which area of study they were engaged in at a given moment). I couldn't help wishing that we, as a culture, a species, would perhaps learn to apply that concept more to the way we do just about everything. I found myself daydreaming of a world in which not everything was driven by money and profit, where people could pursue the best version of themselves just because, without having to ignore or suppress the pursuit of aspirations, goals and dreams so that they could compete with the guy next door's house or car, or the watch that the guy in the next cubicle had, or the dresses that our friends were wearing to church in the Sunday morning fashion show, or the percentage our company's stocks had risen in the last year compared to our nearest competitor, or the size of our ridiculous bonus was while we presided over the collapse f our industry or the largest spill of crude oil into the ocean that has ever occurred.

So now, seeing things from the perspective I see them from no, I'm able less and less to derive enjoyment from the seemingly more benign aspects of this culture in decay. Hockey isn't ruined for me, but I think that professional hockey is. Same with IIHF stuff – nationalism, even in the form of supporting the home team, is just ugly. I was already over every other pro sport, so I think I'm done. I'll still play if I can find the right group of guys with the right attitude about the game, in fact I look forward to it because I know that they're out there.

Yes, I'm being kind of judgmental. More so, I feel pretty morally safe in doing so. If you step back long enough and, just for a second or two, take the red pill and see things the way they really are, I think it's actually pretty fucking hard not to agree. If you can, congratulations. I'm not sure what for, but congratulations.

As for me, I'll play the way I'm trying to live – focused on the game and the joy of it rather than the drive to dominate and conquer. I'll try to play with as much grace as I can coax out of these aging bones and reach for those moments of transcending grace no matter how ephemeral and fleeting they might get. I'll play with respect and a commitment to experiencing the joy of sharing that respect. I'll enjoy the journey, strive to be the best version of me that I can be and let the destination take care of itself. And I'll hope that those of us who feel the same way, about sport and life, continue to grow in number until we can gently topple the old statue of greed and avarice, and leave the pedestal empty for a change.