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Home/Articles/Culture/America and the Collapse of Athletic Heroism

America and the Collapse of Athletic Heroism

Sports have transformed from an arena for the near-superhuman to one more venue for political performance.

Naomi Osaka of Team Japan prepares to serve during her Women's Singles Third Round match. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

As the 19th century Scottish writer and polymath Thomas Carlyle wrote in his On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1840), societies are only as good as the individuals they hold out as models of heroism. “Society is founded on Hero-worship,” Carlyle wrote. Our notions of what a hero is all about have changed dramatically in recent years.

In his own day, Carlyle had observed a progressive retrenchment from a once-lofty standard: “The Hero taken as Divinity; the Hero taken as Prophet; then next the Hero taken only as Poet: does it not look as if our estimate of the Great Man, epoch after epoch, were continually diminishing?” Even the comparatively lower standard of the hero as poet could yield worthy victories, as Walt Whitman, our own greatest poet and Carlyle’s contemporary across the Atlantic, could testify in his Democratic Vistas:

[T]here could hardly happen anything that would more serve the States, with all their variety of origins, their diverse climes, cities, standards, &c., than possessing an aggregate of heroes, characters, exploits, sufferings, prosperity or misfortune, glory or disgrace, common to all, typical of all — no less, but even greater would it be to possess the aggregation of a cluster of mighty poets, artists, teachers, fit for us, national expressers, comprehending and effusing for the men and women of the States, what is universal, native, common to all, inland and seaboard, northern and southern.

Today, we sneer at all that aspires to be “universal” and “common to all.” The hero as poet, too, has gone out of fashion. Our energy is expended in running down most of the heroes of the past, old poets included. Carlyle already saw this disturbing pathology taking hold in his own time:

I am well aware that in these days Hero-worship, the thing I call Hero-worship, professes to have gone out, and finally ceased. This … is an age that … denies the existence of great men; denies the desirableness of great men. Show our critics a great man, a Luther for example, they begin to what they call “account” for him; not to worship him, but take the dimensions of him, — and bring him out to be a little kind of man!

We used to revere those who were larger than life, those who exhibited qualities such as perseverance, fortitude, bravery, goodness, ingenuity, skill, and talent. Not so long ago we held up as heroic paragons those members of the “Greatest Generation” who had given their lives or shown especial valor during the civilizational cataclysm of World War II. But the far more morally questionable war in Vietnam some 20 years later brought with it a more ambivalent welcome-home for those who returned from the jungles of Southeast Asia. None of the wars and military engagements since then—the assassination of Osama bin Laden excepted—have represented the kind of unifying all-in mission that could rouse up our civilizational spirits to their highest caliber, and several of those wars, such as the second Iraq War, were calamitous blunders built on deception. The compromised character of these conflicts led many Americans to regard the deployment of our military might with justified circumspection or unequivocal condemnation and has undercut the status of the American warrior as heroic archetype.

Athletes are proxy-warriors, conferring upon us that same adrenaline-boosting instant gratification of admiring liminal physical feats, grit, and guile deployed in an all-out battle not to the end but at least to the finish, in which a victor will be crowned, in which bodies are put on the line, all our 21st century measures to cushion the fall with rules, pads, helmets, and bumpers never fully obviating the risk of the worst possible outcomes. Indeed, I would hazard a guess that if the risk of such outcomes were ever to be obviated completely, the audiences for athletic spectacles would crater. A death-defying balancing act loses much of its allure very quickly once the failsafe net is hoisted up. That ever-present threat of calamity is a large part of why we admire still more those athletes, such as Kurt Angle, Kerri Strug, McKayla Maroney and many others, who perform their magic acts despite injuries that would easily hobble us lesser mortals.

Precisely because the case of athletic heroism is such a primal and simple one—uncompromised as it is by the learned capacities that are needed to appreciate heroic artists and the bitter political divides that are entangled with the admiration of heroic leaders—it says a lot about who we are as a people today when we consider how our conception of such heroism has changed. Although fans of particular teams have always had their passionate allegiances that put them at odds with one another, athletics in the broader picture used to be a unifying spectacle. They are skewed male, to be sure, but never excluding women and girls from the legions of spectators and bridging racial and class divides, representing a wholesome family outing or the occasion for barbecues and watch parties centered on big games and grand finales.

The only subgroup truly excluded—or, rather, ceremoniously excusing itself from the festivities—was the stuffed-shirt elites, those who never got it and didn’t want to. These, I would offer, were the same people who likewise never got military heroism, the ones for whom “patriotism” was a dirty word, confounded with “jingoism” by these “citizens of the world” who typically had more in common with fellow elites across oceans and continents than with their own countrymen. To speak of patriotism in the context of athletics is also to think of events, such as the World Cup or the Olympics, that would cut across local allegiances and bring whole nations—save for that same elite contingent—to rally around their flags.

As we have seen with the recent Tokyo Olympics, however, the games have become just another front in the endless culture war. There have always been outspoken athletes who took stands that were controversial, whether Muhammad Ali evading the draft to protest the Vietnam War, Tommie Smith and John Carlos doing a “black power” salute during the 1968 Olympics, Billie Jean King demanding equal prize money for women’s tennis and standing up to the male chauvinist Bobby Riggs in the famed “Battle of the Sexes,” or the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics by the entire American team in protest over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But these incidents remained isolated, never tarnishing the reputation of athletics as a whole.

The current wave of disruption and resulting de-pedestaling of athletes began, of course, in 2016. It was then when the kneeling Colin Kaepernick, a borderline-starting NFL quarterback who, in contrast to the cocky charm and wit of a Muhammad Ali, oozed sententious humorlessness as he conveyed, in every word and gesture, the clear conviction that he and his cause were more important than his job and his team. But what was truly different about 2016 and the ensuing wave of protesting and posturing athletes that has overtaken all major sports, including their biggest stars, is that those effete elites—the ones who never had much of an appetite for sports in the first place—were now steering the ship, setting the agenda and dominating the conversation like never before.

In earlier epochs, the elites whose voices were heard most often were the traditional ones, those in government, along with their supporters and moderate dissenters in the then-centralized mainstream press. If we were uninterested in what they had to say, it was easy to tune out and pursue our own path. Today, however, defying any early hope that it would unleash a democratic revolution, social media has massively amplified the voices of opinionated loudmouths, the “chattering classes,” as they are sometimes called, even while increasingly silencing the rest of us.

A great number of such people, issue of what the U. Conn. anthropologist Peter Turchin has named “elite overproduction”—whether unemployed or underemployed Ph.D.s from lesser universities or products of elite universities occupying positions they believe are unbefitting their credentials—have found themselves comfy perches in the social web and used these to channel their rage at the world. Their stridently anti-nationalist, anti-traditional, antinomian views, of course, were and remain unrepresentative of the general population, and yet they have rapidly succeeded in making inroads sufficient to take over a substantial portion of the establishment on the political left. The outsized voices and influence of this segment have managed to turn individuals like Colin Kaepernick into folk heroes on social media and to turn what would have been a one or two-off into a burgeoning trend. They gave athletes the impression that kneeling, speaking out, making a fuss, bowing one’s head in shame when the National Anthem sounds, and generally putting oneself and one’s own needs and beliefs above one’s team and nation was the way to score points and win plaudits among those whose opinions mattered.

Skip forward—past the madness of 2020 that put the whole protest movement into overdrive—to 2021 and the brooding, self-involved tennis pro, Naomi Osaka. In rising through the tennis ranks to become, as of this writing, the second ranked player in the world, Osaka, herself of mixed Haitian-Japanese ancestry, checked all the boxes in being outspoken in support of #BlackLivesMatter, parading through the 2020 U.S. Open in #BLM masks, each bearing one among the usual list of names—George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, etc.—that have at this point become hollow fashion statements, the way wealthy young people began to wear ripped jeans to signal their working-class bona fides some time ago. Such gestures got her recognition on magazine covers and notable influencer lists. But in June 2021, she decided to up the ante, partaking in a well-publicized flameout from the French Open in which she claimed, despite her history of limelight-grabbing activism, that social anxiety prevented her from fulfilling the obligation to attend post-match press conferences. In response, the French Open organizers refused to give her the permission slip she was looking for to excuse her from the same duty the less high-profile players all had to fulfill.

Professional athletes, of course, are public figures who make a living off of public attention to and press coverage of their athletic contests, so the obligation to answer reporters’ questions is as much a part of their job as it is for movie stars, who are routinely obligated to help promote the films in which they appear. And yet, our media elites, already firmly on Osaka’s side because of her activist history, leapt to her defense, branding her a heroine for the attention she had drawn to the mental health dimension of sports. In a glaring display of shameless hypocrisy, the ostensibly publicity-shy Osaka then proceeded to land herself on the cover of Time magazine with a self-serving article penned to convey her thoughts on the matter.

A certain do-or-die psychological makeup is a core component of what a top athlete normally brings to the table. It is the difference between those who rise to the highest levels and those who repeatedly choke and wilt under pressure. The mental skills that comprise a winning mindset are as much a part of an athlete’s ensemble of abilities as any of the physical components of their sport. It came as no surprise to many, therefore, that after Osaka’s French Open debacle, she again broke under pressure and flamed out of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (held in 2021 due to the Covid pandemic), admitting after an early-round drubbing at the hands of a much lower-ranked opponent that the pressure of having been made the face of the Tokyo Olympics may have been too much for her.

In the meantime, we got the now-notorious case of Simone Biles, one of the greatest gymnasts of past Olympic contests, who, in this year’s Games, abruptly quit on her team because, in her words, it was “really stressful” and she just wasn’t “out here having fun.” She admitted, likewise, that Osaka’s French Open “mental health” antics had inspired her. As Matt Walsh pointed out, this would be like Michael Jordan deciding to sit for Game 7 of the NBA Finals and let his teammates carry the load because it was “really stressful” and he just wasn’t “out here having fun” anymore. Naturally, we could never imagine a player in that era, especially one with Jordan’s winning mentality and killer instinct, ever doing anything of the sort. Now, however, we will surely see more and more copycat athletes opting out, dropping out and quitting on their teams, a future that we can be assured of because much of the media, instead of at least not celebrating Biles’s decision not to rise to the challenge and persevere through obstacles, sprang into action to give her a free pass and brand her another mental health trailblazer for her actions.

It should not be lost on anyone that in this age of rampant political activism by athletes, and what will now be an epidemic of athletes who quit in mid-stride, the viewership for major sports such as the NBA, the NFL and these Olympics has collapsed. Such athletes may cater to the tastes of media and political elites, the ones who never cared much about sports in the first place, but regular fans have taken and will keep on taking a pass.

Those same elites, to be sure, have exalted rioters, looters, and criminals over cops (who, like athletes, are warrior-proxies), have championed the causes of losers, idlers, and failures by adorning them with the virtue-conferring mantle of “oppression” while branding as “privileged” those who worked hard for what they have, and have valorized victims and whiners over those who face down challenges with dignity and resolve, all while traducing the reputations of our Founding Fathers and other political, military, historical, and aesthetic heroes of our past. That they have now added quitters to the list of winners in their inverted hierarchy of values is par for the course.

“No sadder proof can be given a man of his own littleness than disbelief in great men,” Carlyle wrote. And he wrote something else as well, an observation that should wound us to our core: “only in reverently bowing down before the Higher does [a man] feel himself exalted.” Our growing inability to believe in greatness, in gods, in heroes, in anything that transcends our ever-changing present day sensibilities, signals the total debasement and de-sacralization of our own civilization, an ultimate disbelief in ourselves. Whether or not such a society can survive is the wrong question. It should not survive. It does not deserve to survive.

Alexander Zubatov is a practicing attorney specializing in general commercial litigation. He is also a practicing writer specializing in general non-commercial poetry, fiction, essays and polemics that have been featured in a wide variety of publications. He lives in the belly of the beast in New York, New York. He can be found on Twitter @Zoobahtov.

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