31 May 2020

Three Views on Competition


Mid-quarantine sports media has gone nostagic out of necessity, with the recent Michael Jordan documentary leading the charge, and thereby it has been pointed out that MJ's pathological competitiveness would today run afoul of numerous sensitivities. Leaving aside for now the litigation of those sensitivities and the triteness of the observation, I think it is nonetheless an observation worth dwelling upon and extending: the games are mere escapist entertainment and the Darwinistic element is, unlike the analogous Roman spectacles, more symbolic than real; yet the people are real, and if they are not usually worth truly feeling sorry for, that is not to say that their outrageous salaries somehow void their basic human entitlement to dignity and health. MJ in his more infamous moments undoubtedly created a Hostile Work Environment. Since his playing career ended, American pro sports have seen a handful of high-profile breakdowns, AWOLs, and early retirements which are either partly or wholly attributable to similar behavior by less-revered teammates. The social ground has indeed shifted beneath the feet of bigtime sports, making this human toll seem less collateral and more integral. It is doubly inconvenient, then, to be told that MJ's now-questionable motivational tactics were integral rather than peripheral to his success. I love sports and I also think it is okay to be uneasy with this, i.e. to impose today's standards on yesterday's events. Nothing would ever get better if that type of hindsight was not allowed. The anti-civs can howl all they want about PCness and Revisionist History, but even they know that there is a right and a wrong way to treat people. Some of them may even have had an experience that (gasp!) changed their mind! I certainly have...and somehow I still love watching sports. Love of sports is, paraphrasing a girlfriend-of-a-friend, my only "normal" trait. I take no offense to the comment; rather, taking it at face value, I choose to strategically deploy this aspect of my public-facing self in those tough social situations where it is crucial to seem normal. But of course in my remaining abnormal moments, it has only gotten more difficult with time to ignore everything about sports that is unseemly.

For the most part, even pro sports lockerrooms have at least met the new sensitivities halfway. The greatest countervailing force to this belated enlightenment is not the odd Old School jock, but rather the amount of money at stake. Rule-bending/breaking is itself something of an art form, and exceedingly thin competitive margins in high-stakes endeavors tend to encourage its consolidation and refinement. MJ of course authored the definitive work of contextual rule-bending when he...created separation from Utah's Bryon Russell in the closing seconds of the 1998 NBA Finals (his only signature moment that I vividly remember watching on live TV). It is a "work" without parallel even in MJ's oeuvre, by, of and for that moment and that moment only. Among the commentators I listen to, the ones who not only were there but also have dug deepest into all of this after the fact tend to emphasize a similarly contextual, circumstantial, incentive-driven understanding of MJ's most infamous interpersonal conflicts. Context and circumstance are crucial to the sensitivity question, no matter where you fall on it. It is of course possible for high-stakes athletic competition to unfold with minimal "personal" friction, but it is not possible 100 percent of the time. Similarly, high-level competition might emerge without correspondingly high stakes, but it probably won't. A long-winded way of saying: sports cannot be sanitized much further than they already have without harming their intrinsic appeal to "normal" people (or, as the case may be, to the little tiny "normal" person that lives inside even of weirdos like me).

For now, a basketball game still has a winner and a loser, and the team sports franchise remains nothing less than the contemporary archetype of patriarchal, non-particularistic organization. The Chicago Bulls can turnover personnel a dozen times and still be the Chicago Bulls. If the rarefied air of hyper-thin competitive margins is then thought to be first and foremost hazardous to one's health, and thus unseemly on specifically that basis, this represents a particularistic turn which is anathema to what bigtime sports are. If the human toll is no longer acceptable then I will fall in line with that new reality, but I don't have to enjoy the new sports-like product. I'm not very normal, but I am too normal to enjoy games where no one wins or loses. If we now "root for players, not for teams," as even some of the above-mentioned sports commentators claim to, then it does seem that winning and losing no longer matters. I can't relate to this, but I think I at least understand it. Why we would continue to channel competition-averse desires through sport is, conversely, something I can't even understand.


The current slogan of the North American Scrabble Players Association is, "Making Words, Building Friendships." What exactly does this imply? (Or not?) Perhaps most basically, a matter-of-fact concurrence with reality: even I have made at least two unusually good/close friends on the Scrabble scene, and the proportion of people I find tolerable is non-negligibly greater than the baseline expectation. This being as it may, if an equivalence is what is implied in the slogan, I think this is wholly illogical and dishonest. Certainly it is not in concurrence with the reality I've observed. There is at least as much animosity as friendship in Scrabble; this much was palpable in the room from my very first expedition to a NASPA-sanctioned club. What has only become clear with experience is that this animosity exceeds the mere social background radiation one expects to find everywhere; it is, rather, intrinsic to the game itself. The disproportionately extreme consequences of seemingly marginal strategic decisions make Scrabble as much about mastering one's own emotions as about cognitive ability or competitive spirit, and no one in this pressure-cooker is a perfect master of their emotions, no matter how friendly they are the rest of the time. If you want to engender friendship, you definitely do not place people into this sort of dynamic interaction with chance; and if you have a friend-target in mind, it's best that this friend-target not embody the opposition in a zero-sum test of the two acquaintances' comparative abilities to manage said dynamic interaction with chance. Given some of the dust-ups I've witnessed, I give myself relatively high marks for civility; but mere civility is not friendship. I confess that I find friendship (d)elusive here, not only in the heat of competition, where it is colored by visceral emotion, but also upon distanced reflection, where it is colored by a wider interest in sport as expounded upon above. I grant that the drawing of any analogies between the NBA and the NASPA strains credulity. Nonetheless, both a game of basketball and a game of Scrabble have a winner and a loser; if the analogy can be extended only that far, this is nonetheless quite a significant fact with many significant implications. As such we might add that both are ritualized, sanitized reenactments of base instincts, or some flavor of that old trope. What does this phylogenetically distant basis in primal violence mean? Is it the distance or the violence which is more meaningful? Sensitivity is the obsession of the moment for hard-liners on both sides that question, but I think the answer really depends more on our intelligence than on our sensitivities. (I also believe the covariability of intelligence and sensitivity to be generally overstated1, though I do need to learn more about this and could be swayed.) For the most part, sentient adults are capable of compartmentalizing ritualized reenactments from so-called real life. As a species we are, I think, quite capable of civility per se in this scenario, if not always of friendship; and as the eminently social species, there is much to be gained if we can achieve this, and certainly also lost if we cannot: the ventilating function of such ritualized, non-destructive competitive outlets, the lexico-cognitive dimension of Scrabble as healthy mental exercise, the greater acuity of such exercise-benefits when they are channeled by competition rather than pursued casually, and so on. Call these the Extrinsic Benefits if you insist, though really they are intrinsic to this uniquely human institution. Of course the institution of friendship matters too. But if friendship is your end, tournament Scrabble is a strange choice of means. If friendship were the ultimate aim, what wouldn't we change about Scrabble? And if winning and losing isn't what really matters, what are we doing playing a game that has a winner and a loser?


My 2002 summer expedition to the Aebersold workshop in Louisville was rather fruitless from a playing perspective, but the lengthy evening concerts were, as many others have remarked, themselves worth the trip. By now most of the finer details have blurred, but I specifically recall a Don Braden-Eric Alexander tenor battle not for the music (which I'm sure was fine nonetheless) but for Braden's mid-set remark to the assembled newbs. Paraphrasing: it can't help but be a competition when the two of us are up here together, and this is fine as long as it serves the music. I can't help but agree, which leads us seamlessly back into navel-gazing: is competition thought able to serve a constructive purpose here because there is, metaphors and figures of speech aside, no winner or loser in music? Certainly there is an aesthetic dimension to sport: John Stockton is said to have described the Dream Team scrimmages as "poetry;" and Scrabble played at the highest level certainly has struck many an informed observer as "beautiful." But only in the case of exhibition games can I imagine a convincing argument that aesthetics are essential to sport, even as they are quite essential to my own interest in it. Conversely, as Debussy would have it, "Pleasure is the law" in music. That assertion can be problematized from any number of abstract ethical perspectives, same as can ritualized competition; but the overwhelming thrust of real social practice, rational or not, is on the side of pleasure here. Hence I think the burden is on the ethicizer/moralizer to demonstrate that pleasure and competition alike are entirely about wants and not at all about needs. I do not believe this to be true in either case.

1. Anecdotally, the phenomenon of the pathologically cutthroat pickup basketball player always seemed to me a product of vulnerable class position, not of individual psychology, and certainly not of intelligence. Where individual psychology comes in, I suppose, is in the case of players whose competitive drive stems from perceived vulnerability that is not necessarily real. MJ and Tom Brady are often mentioned in this connection, as is the significance of what I am calling "perceived vulnerability" (as opposed to the real kind) in the realm of politics and demagoguery.

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