Saturday, March 26, 2005

How Do I Love Thee, You Bitch Goddess Basketball? The Better Question is Always Why.

I wonder if Sophocles cared who brought home Olympic laurel?

That's really not the right question. If your city-state is menaced, currently or potentially, by other city states, it would have to be comforting to think your lithe young men are lither, faster, more powerful, more belligerent, craftier than the young men of your rivals, the idea being let's hope those war-like characteristics are present in the general population. If your guys got game, then maybe those darn Spartans will back off. I see why athletic contests between states might carry weight with even the most disinterested intellectual since that disinterest -- by which I mean a spirit of objectivity -- naturally means you acknowledge the undeniable fact physical prowess really does matter. That is, it mattered in a day when victory in combat down in the mud and the blood depended on stamina of the warrior and strength of the sword arm, contests of physical skill really would cast a shadow.

Last century America wanted its athletes to best the Soviet athletes in Olympic and other international competition, though the connection between Olympic gold and the ability to kill your opponent on the modern battlefield has all but disappeared. The anxiety that there is a decisive connection is an anachronism, but one you can understand.

Still, my evocation of Sophocles did not advance my point. Better to jump to my real question. Yesterday Duke University lost in the NCAA basketball tournament, and I was momentarily but genuinely distressed. This reaction was not irrational. I got my graduate degrees from Duke and if a university is academically distinguished, athletic success arguably enhances the university's general reputation. If you can promote physical excellence without diluting your academic excellence, each facet highlights the other. I'm not saying Duke is some paragon of multiple excellence. Keep in mind its football team is terrible. Also, the Ivy League schools flaunt their lack of commitment to success in athletics. Their fumbling and stumbling on the playing field highlights their high academic standards -- or so they argue. All I'm saying is it's understandable that I find pleasure when Duke wins and wince a little when Duke loses. It makes a kind of sense. May we imagine Hamlet wanting Heidelberg to do well in the Pan-Hun fencing competitions?

So far, so good. But why did I also feel a spasm of discomfort when North Carolina State University lost yesterday. Yes, I taught there while I was finishing my degree at Duke and for three years after. But it's the school at which to my great surprise I was told one bleak November afternoon more than 30 years ago that my three-year term position was "terminal"; that is, I was not going to be given an additional teaching contract and be considered for a tenured faculty position. This decision -- which I did not see coming, so secure was I in my own sense of personal excellence -- changed my life. I left academia. I became a journalist. Things have worked out well enough and maybe more than well enough. But I have never given up being vaguely pissed off.

Yet the power of athletic affiliation! You might think I would delight in Wolfpack defeat. But, no. I remember -- my blood seems to remember -- when I was a member of the tribe, how it was to sit by the fire and tear the meat from the bones as it was passed around. Or something. How mysterious is partisan feeling.

Perhaps it's an evolutionary mechanism. Those with a predisposition toward finding community and uncritically supporting that community are perhaps more likely to find a community that will tolerate them in return, and thus they survive and pass on their genes. Mad Max aka The Road Warrior dies in the wilderness alone. This tendency seems capable of almost exponential growth. My god the number of competitions we invest our interest in without quite knowing why. If you stop and think about it, such uncritical support for so many miscellaneous affinity groups is close to ugly and not a little frightening.

At this time of year it's also basketball.

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