Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Matter of Character

Buried among the basketball jargon at every NCAA tournament is a word that, while it may apply to an individual player, is rarely displayed how the announcers describe it: character.

Making free throws late in a close game is not a sign of character. Grabbing a key rebound is not an indicator of character, nor is making the game winning jumper as time runs out. Any of the above may be indicative of exceptional eye-hand coordination, physical strength, vertical leap, timing, concentration, or just wanting to win more than the next guy. None of these skills relates to character.

I don’t watch sports as much as I used to, but I’m still a fan. I follow several sports closely, and consider myself a knowledgeable layman. My abortive career as a musician taught me to respect talent and accomplishment, so I admire the skills and physical gifts of many athletes. Still, one of my pet peeves is the frequency with which Americans confuse physical talents with inner character.

Roger Clemens won a lot of critical games and struck out a lot of men with the bases loaded. Roger Clemens is an asshole. Barry Bonds won a lot of games with home runs, and almost single-handedly carried the Giants to the seventh game of the World Series in 2002. There is no bigger asshole in the world than Barry Bonds. Manny Ramirez has been among the best clutch hitters in baseball for much of his career. Man-Ram quits on his teams about once a season. For years, the only thing that kept Gary Sheffield from being the biggest asshole in baseball was Barry Bonds.

Character can be revealed on the playing field, but not in the ways most announcers describe. Making the last shot isn’t a sign of character; a willingness to take the last shot, and to accept the consequences if it doesn’t go in, is. Getting the last three outs in the ninth inning isn’t a sign of character; wanting the ball, knowing the goat’s horns are one bad pitch away, is. Anyone can handle the interview where you’re asked to describe your game-winning act over the replay. It takes character to stand up and describe how you missed that shot, threw a wild pitch, or committed a crucial error.

A lot of athletes have, and show, great character. I would be pleased to shake the hands of Cal Ripken, Greg Maddux, Hines Ward, Martin Brodeur, and others. True, they are in my field of vision because of their athletic accomplishments, but it’s the little morsels of what I know about their characters that would make them worth meeting as people to talk to, instead of just autographs to possess or sell.

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