One of the most important aspects of professional sport, aside from its entertainment and distraction value, is its symbolic relevance to the affairs of everyday life on both the social and political planes. The lessons of sport, were they only attended to, would illuminate much about the obscurities, contradictions, clichés, and unreflectiveness of our staple practices and convictions.
Take, for example, the political bromide of affirmative action. The argument that presumably validates this egalitarian and expiatory project is that members of groups that have suffered from past exclusionary policies must be recompensed, regardless of individual merit. They are thus promoted to positions for which they might not be most competent or are accorded favorable treatment at the expense of those who may be more qualified in the field in question. We have remarked how hiring quotas in the business world or university scholarship programs and tenure-track posts are skewed in such a way that the more proficient are often displaced by the less capable. Academia has a nice way of legitimizing culpable appointments: it’s called an “equity policy,” though a better term might be a “lobotomy ticket.” The Humanities and Social Sciences in particular have reinterpreted their mandate. Their mission is no longer pedagogical but salvific. They are no longer charged to teach the time-honored curriculum, the great books, or the elements of their subjects but to redeem society from itself, in so doing turning a cadre of scholars into a staff of politically motivated social workers.
But the malaise is ubiquitous. The theory is that correcting a past injustice, even when it no longer exists, trumps impartial judgment, and that making amends or “changing the social landscape” is more urgent than ensuring talent, skill, and personal endowment. Objective factors no longer count when racial diversity, proportional representation, and remedial compensations take precedence over personal responsibility and individual worth. The result, of course, is varying levels of social dysfunction as the therapeutic mindset that pervades contemporary society engineers the gradual and inexorable erosion of cultural integrity, professional ability, and intellectual distinction. Greater promise and stellar achievement are inadmissible criteria.
Except in sport. After all, affirmative action applied to a competitive NBA team would see seven-foot African-Americans deprivileged in favor of short white men who couldn’t swish the basket if their lives depended on it. Football clubs would draft ninety-nine pound weaklings to play on the offensive line since the sallow and scrawny are entitled to preferential treatment in areas where they have been cruelly prevented from exercising their lack of suitability. Baseball would feature limp-armed pitchers, riddled fielders, and whiffable batters who would otherwise have experienced the indignity of prejudicial exclusion and the inequitable rigors of excellentism. Hockey would open its bench to wretched skaters with no stickhandling expertise and to goaltenders terrified of flying pucks through no fault of their own. Sport remains the one sphere in which “elitism” is not a dirty word. (However, the anti-elitism movement may be coming to a stadium near you soon; we have begun to see the advent of children’s matches where the better team is chastised for running up the score when playing against an obviously inferior opponent, or where the score is not kept at all so that no one is humiliated.)