My father was a sports promoter, and I got to see a lot of professional athletes up close and personal. Many of them were, in Daddy's Damon Runyon vernacular, "bums." The sports pages often resemble a police blotter, but there are many exceptions, of course. Nevertheless, athletic prowess doesn't necessarily translate to character. Ty Cobb, perhaps the greatest baseball player ever, stole bases like nobody else, and occasionally sat outside the dugout to file his cleats razor-sharp. The message to the opposing infielders was clear; Ty would be sliding into base with his blades at knee high.
Most of us prefer to think of Lou Gehrig, who dwells not only in the Baseball Hall of Fame but in the Nice Guy Hall as well, but not everybody is a gentleman in the mold of Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Bobby Feller or Brooks Robinson. Think Pete Rose or any of the Chicago Black Sox. And it's not just baseball (which actually has more gents than most other sports). Grantland Rice famously wrote that "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game," but a lot of athletes as well as politicians, businessmen and newspapermen will be happy to tell you that Granny was full of moonshine. They're more likely to agree with Richard Nixon, who said, "I have never had much sympathy for that point of view."
George Allen, who first took the Washington Redskins to the Super Bowl a generation ago, famously said, "Losing is like death." Vincent Lombardi, the legend who preceded him as coach, said, "Winning isn't the only thing; it's everything."
Such insights were vividly reflected in the World Cup games, just ended. Most of the players played honorably, but there were frequent dirty insults and shirt pulls when the referees weren't looking (and sometimes when they were). Zinedine "Zizou" Zidane, the star of Algerian descent on the French team, is dumped on now by nearly everybody for head-butting an opposing Italian player for exposing the ugly underbelly of the game so beloved by moms everywhere. Marco Materazzi, the Italian player, no doubt worked hard to turn up the heat to make Zizou's blood boil, and he succeeded beyond his wildest insults.I make no defense of what Zizou did. Anyone who watched the game -- and saw the head-butting endlessly repeated in the replays -- knows he did a bad thing. But condemning Zizou outside the rough context of the game is a little like blaming a boy for pinching his older brother after older brother has been hitting him behind his parents' back. Zizou rightly observed that playing-field justice punishes the one who reacts, not the one who provokes.
One of the coaches observed that "soccer imitates life" and then corrected himself. No, that's wrong, he said: "Life imitates soccer." Even if the Italian player insulted both his mother and his sister, as Zizou claims, it shouldn't have provoked violence. Gertrude Stein might have observed that "a rule is a rule is a rule." That's elemental. But it's also simplistic. In making icons of star athletes we gloss over the human vulnerabilities -- there are plenty of them -- that opposing players know how to take advantage of, and often.
"The truth is that it is perhaps not so easy to stay in the skin of an icon, demigod, hero, legend," writes Bernard-Henri Levy in the Wall Street Journal. He describes Zizou's violence as "the man's insurrection against the saint." When the player apologized for setting a bad example, he correctly noted that "I'm a man before anything else."
Psychologists describe Zizou's head-butt as the equivalent of road rage. Others see it rooted in the hard knocks he took on the streets of Marseilles where his Algerian origins provoked bigotry and prejudice. But he overcame great obstacles to get where he was, probably because of those great obstacles. Hence that's no excuse. Like a recovering alcoholic or drug addict who talks to kids about the ravages of self-destruction, Zizou can now talk about self-control as the most important element of character. That's the way anyone can keep from becoming a bum.