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Our modern professional athletics culture has confusing having more in common with the gladiators of Rome than with the Spartans-- is this passion or is it abstracted alienation?
The Spartan king Alcamenes said of what would become one major hallmark of the Spartan legacy: “Yes, because it is noble for a man who possesses much to live according to reason rather than according to his desires.” It’s compelling to think of this statement in the context of Sparta’s other main cultural iconographical contribution, that of a warrior ethos, and it’s interesting that we see the balance of these ideals almost inverted in our modern athletics culture against the gradient of enormous salaries to take on enormous risks for almost infinitesimally inadequate gains. Consider the example of CTE amongst football players, the damage to Major League pitchers’ bodies, knees and backs of NBA players, and if we’re going to extend this comparison to the absolute extreme, the most “Spartan” are actually those of professional wrestlers— rarely well-paid, extreme bodily risk, and has proven fatal to, both, its performers and those around them, as fallout for what, in our cultural awareness appears to be, mere entertainment.
This (short) piece isn’t about what is well-understood by medical professionals, but our relationship as a thinking public to athletics, commercialism, and the humanity of what has effectively become the postmodern gladiator sport of our 24 hour news cycle of sporting awareness and cultural obligation. The benefit of the Spartan culture to the city-state in history was apparent—a culture of self-discipline could, self-servingly for the king, build a devoted army of zealots ready to die for the cause of perpetuating the city-state. This, also, is true of modern athletics; except one must be prepared to die for the riches of the franchisee. Athletes are paid well, but absent profit-sharing, it is still an exchange of bodily wear and harm for alienation from the profit of the act itself; they must be prepared to die for the economic well-being of the owners.
A perhaps overly-romantic, but fundamentally “Spartan” story, and one that embodies the Alcamenesian rhetoric is 2008’s The Wrestler. Randy, “The Ram”, is an aging wrestler, well past his prime; he’s broke, in failing health, and lost everything to the sport which made him an icon in the 1980’s, but in the new millennium, is forced to remain broke and in imminent danger to continue the fulfilling aspect of his life; performing for his fans in an simulacrum of an exemplar warrior. This is a fundamentally socialist film for this reason— he doesn’t want to be enriched unjustly, he wants his passions to have meaning; there is an audience for this, but he is forced to choose between stability in a society that has decided it has progressed beyond the need for his particular brand of bread-and-circus and discards him, this is the only craft he knows, and debateably, this is an art. Ultimately, the decision to compete, to forgo the support of those he has become estranged, the stability of an unfullfilling and inadequare, but ultimately somewhat consistent, job, speaks to this desire from those who our economic model was unprepared to treat compassionately beyond perception as a cultural commodity and not a human.
In fiction, this is a larger emotional and culturally critical truth than a literal one; there have been many like Randy in real-world professional wrestling, and even those who arguably went out on top, very few remained prosperous economically, in good health, or were allowed to retire at all, and ultimately perished performing their craft, for which there were (and remain) almost no worker protections, despite someone, somewhere, in these organizations profiting tremendously.
The reason I believe this ethos to be an important one to understand athleticism is two-fold; first, this requires maintenance to continue to stratify the workers from the managerial class, and second, because even within the craft, for the work to have meaning amongst these conditions, the struggle must mean something, and while it often does, the implications are manifold. An example of this first point, consider the story of Moneyball— the popular application of a statistics-based approach to building a cash-strapped, but high performing team, by reframing the understanding of how runs are manufactured in baseball. Any number of meaningless and inefficient heuristics are used to filter out players that might otherwise be high performers, but liabilities in ways that do not manifest on the field. One popular criticism is that by adding this approach into baseball, teams like the Oakland A’s were undermining the culture of baseball, sapping it of romance, but arguably, capitalism did that first: The New York Yankees, for example, had a payroll many orders of magnitude larger than Oakland, and many other teams, so only other Death Star sized franchises could afford the on-field talent that could effectivelly just brute-force their way to victories, while teams with less money couldn’t replicate it because it was less about sourcing talent using good data and rational methodology, as much as it was simply monopolizing the talent pool, sapping the remaining pool of enthusiasm in the draft and trading flows. This, effectively, levelled the playing field, simply a reaction to the prevailing, ultimately meaningless, conventional wisdom of building a team—this is the Spartan ethos at play, and depending on how you see it, it was either a joykill or necessary cunning, but either way, effectively hijacked the nature of the battle being waged. The division here is that between the interests of the players, the general manager, and the interests of the owners who were largely responsible for perpetuating this culture along with a history of scouts applying these metrics with a commercialized, purely aesthetic lens.
An example of the latter case is a little more abstract. American professional basketball, perhaps, had no more iconic a rivalry, despite only having faced each other in the Finals a handful of times, than the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtrics. Lakers coach, Pat Riley, once told journalist Chuck Klosterman that the key to his strategy, following the Lakers loss to the Celtics one year, was that they had to understand where his warriors had lost their way. Riley told Klosterman that he had to teach the Lakers who their opponents had been historically; who were the Celts? The Roman Empire, itself proficient in empire-building and the practice of ritual combat for entertainment ironically, would consider them barbarians— even after conquering much of is now England and Scotland, the Romans built Hadrian’s Wall along the border to protect themselves from the Celts they could not defeat on the European mainland. This was the level of savagery Riley had wanted to convey to the Lakers—they had to be smarter, faster, and more rigorous than sheer barbarism could provide in combat, which is how he would refer to this sport. If it sounds a little unhinged, it’s because it is, and for all of the reasons I’ve cited—what was gained? for whom? Did the work have meaning, was the cost worth it? Probably, but how much alienation had to occur for this to play out in the modern era to, ultimately, keep a professional sports franchise profitible.
A relevant, and particularly telling irony, to cite another Klosterman piece, was that the Lakers’ Magic Johnson and the Celtics’ Larry Bird were merely nemeses, at least nominally on the court, if not genuinely friends in other capacities; if Johnson/Riley/the Lakers had an arch enemy, it was the Detroit Pistons and Isaiah Thomas, so a lot of this always read like a lot of projection on Riley’s part given the loss to Detroit in 1989. This projection from Riley, dubbed “Coach Hitler” at one point, sort of embodies the entire dynamic I’m describing in this piece. Riley, however, defends his legacy on this point:
“We did the same thing…And beat Boston 126-113 and 141-122 in the first two games.”—he created a framework, and applied it, if nothing else, consistently, and it was on this ideological point of purity that he split from his players and critics of the methodology. Is this a failure of the nature of how he chose to view the sport (as combat) and his players (as warriors), or that of the system that demands its principal laborers to attach a heightened meaning to something that comes at tremendous personal cost, in exchange for that which said system, and those who live at the top while producing nothing at many multiples the profit, says that labor is worth? Is this truly an analogous ethos, or one that has been successfully coopted by those with the most to gain from exploitation? Is it passion or desperation or merely Stockholming? The only clear thing here is that the answers cannot come from the top to answer for those at the bottom.
There’s this idea that “big government” refers to the physical size, or the scope of distribution of powers, of said government, rather than the scope and influence of however the sovereign manifests— we see this often in defense of monarchists, and in the modern era, more often amongst capitalisms philospher kings (someone like Jeff Bezos— maximal exploitation, minimal social responsibility, almost no accountability, unaccountable amounts of profit inexplicably split up, and never down). I find it interesting that, amongst Klosterman’s other observations, he would characterize the Lakers as a liberal democracy, and and the Celtics as “totally GOP”— the former see themselves as a unit, train as a unit, while the later operate an highly motivated individuals, practice as they deem appropriate, etc. The Riley mythology Klosterman describes in his interview with him speaks to that former point—can such a distribution of power exist in a capitalist system? Maybe not, ultimately, it was, both, a failure of his to remain of his people in his leadership, as well as the culture prevailing in modern professional sports to be an individual brand.
There’s a possibly apochryphal story, from When the Game Was Ours by Johnson and Larry Bird, about a newly-retired Kareem Abdul-Jabber coming to Magic Johnson, by this point a successul entrepreneur, for advice about how to branch out as a commercial entity— Magic’s advice was to have networked like he did while he was still maximally culturally relevant as a player, and Kareem had never been charismatic enough, in his estimation. I can hardly blame Magic, or Kareem for that matter, for playing the game and becoming individual commercial entities in the process; I can, however, blame Riley for perpetuating the myth of a warrior nation-state of shared interests, even if this did persist to great effect over the arc of his coaching career. The point here is that there are prevailing systems of philosophy, and externalities that dictate how faithfully those systems can be executed; in this case, the competing motivations of the economic model of profesional sports, the philosophical-political model of athletics as combat, and the neglect of self-actualizing passion for one’s craft amidst these seemingly hostile, but ultimately indifferent, environments for the expansion of human quality of life at work.
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