Ta-Nehisi, I agree with everything you wrote about winning and morality, except for the part about how Michael Jordan was “a bit” of an asshole. That’s like saying MJ was pretty good at tossing a ball in a hoop.
We’re all familiar with guys, like Jordan, who aren’t criticized for their off-court assholery because they’re above reproach on the court. I’m more interested in winners whom nobody can get behind. Consider Bill Belichick: He’s one of the best football coaches who ever lived, and yet few people would argue that his NFL success illustrates his moral virtue. He took a hit on account of the Spygate stuff, but Belichick isn’t unloved because he’s a cheater. No, it’s because he conducts press conferences as if he were being held at gunpoint by the beat guy from the Eagle-Tribune. *
The difference between Jordan and Belichick, aside from wardrobe and vertical leap, is that the former displayed an occasional teaspoonful of humanity. Yes, those winks and smiles came out during shoe and sports-drink commercials, but Jordan’s manufactured, cathode-ray-tube image was a fine substitute for whatever his real personality happened to be. Belichick, like Jordan and Peyton Manning, just needs to host Saturday Night Live or sell us hooded sweatshirts in droll commercials. Only then will I believe that he’s a good person.
Let us now compare the dour Belichick to the jolly, guileless LSU coach, Les Miles, who uttered the following koan last week: “I don’t know that anybody has any more than a very generalistic view of any coach that coaches out there.” While you guys take the rest of the day off to diagram that sentence, I’m going to forge ahead to this passage from Wright Thompson’s ESPN.com story on Miles:
How does a coach make time for a life? How does he make time for a family? Many don’t. Vince Lombardi knew he was a terrible father; a friend said he “never should have had children.” Bill Walsh saw maybe five of his son’s football games, from junior high all the way through college. “I could count on one hand the number of times I played catch with my dad,” Craig Walsh said in a book about his father.
Thompson goes on to praise Miles’ commitment to his wife and children, concluding the piece by noting that the coach spent a recent Friday night watching his son play high-school ball rather than hit the road recruiting. What’s fascinating about this story is that is reads like its subject is a hard-charging female executive struggling to balance a demanding work life with her duties as a parent. If this essay gets turned into a major motion picture, the part of Les Miles will be played by Sarah Jessica Parker.
And yet, despite the modern I Don’t Know How He Does It-ish tone of the story, this Miles piece is also the oldest kind of sports feature, one that some ancient Greek hack surely bashed into a stone tablet. Though the surface message of so many sports-world profiles is that winning doesn’t make you a good person, show me a blowout magazine profile from 2009 on how the moron who lost the game against Ole Miss really loved his kids. That’s the underlying message of stories like Thompson’s: Being a good parent only matters to sportswriters if you’re winning. And the reverse is true, too. Thompson notes that Lombardi was a bad dad, but contemporaneous Sports Illustrated profiles certainly never mentioned his domestic shortcomings. (One story did note that the legendary Packers coach was “more parent than employer” to his beloved players.)
Since you are a good writer, Tom, I will infer that you are a good parent who is teaching his children about the joys of college football. Though you said in your last entry that “the AP preseason top five have a collective record of 41-3,” you neglected to mention that the preseason No. 6 team, Florida State, already has three losses, as does preseason No. 16 Notre Dame. We often mistakenly believe that last year’s NFL playoff teams will return to the postseason. In college football, we overrate former powerhouses that haven’t been consistent winners for more than a decade. Nobody thought the 49ers would win this year’s Super Bowl, because Joe Montana has been gone for a really long time. The fact that Montana played for the Fighting Irish, though, is part of a tradition and lore that ensures Notre Dame will be on TV each Saturday. And because they are on TV, that must mean they’ve got a great shot at competing for the national title this year. They’re Notre Dame, after all.
Correction, Nov. 13, 2011: This piece originally and incorrectly referred to the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune. The newspaper is known as the Eagle-Tribune. (Return to the corrected sentence.)