“Demigods” (Reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty, Post 5)

Having defined the key terms of his investigation, “praise,” “beauty,” and “athletics,” Hans Gumbrecht proceeds, in the “Discontinuities” section of his In Praise of Athletic Beauty, to provide an outline history of sports in the West.  But he wishes, he states from the outset, to disrupt what he calls the “romantic view” of this history which sees it as a continuous line from the ancient Olympics to the mega-events of today’s sports world (p. 85).

Instead, he argues, if you look at the history of sport from the vantage point of the variables he has already defined, “present-day sports are no longer the endpoint of one of htose long sagas of progress or decay that we have all read so many times” and this, he claims, is important because it “allows us to ask how it was possible—historically possible, I mean—that sports became so expansive and so important in our own time” (p. 88).

To that end, he will provide “brief sketches” of seven moments, each summed up with a one-word title.  Thus, “Demigods” refers to Ancient Greece, “Gladiators” to Ancient Rome, “Knights” to the middle ages, “Ruffians” to the Renaissance, “Sportsmen” to the 19th century, “Olympians” to the 20th century, and “Customers” to our own era. I’ll be covering all of these, but for today’s post, I’m gonna stick to just the first of these: “Demigods.”


Olympia around 325 BCE

Gumbrecht begins by evoking an image of the arduous journey of days and even weeks undertaken by hundreds of athletes and tens of thousands of spectators to the village of Olympia every four years between 776 BCE and 394 BCE in order to ask the question that’s been driving most of his reflections thus far: ‘what the specific attraction of those five days spent at Zeus’ most famous sanctuary could have been? (p. 91). After briefly describing the lush, remote valley setting of Olympia, and the religious rituals and athletic contests unfolding over the five days of the games, Gumbrecht turns to the Odes of Pindar to get some answers to his question.

[For those whose knowledge of classical literature is sketchy, a little background information might be helpful here. Pindar of Thebes was a poet who lived from 518 BCE to probably 443 BCE. In the words of my colleague David Potter, in his work The Victor’s Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium, “Pindar was a poet who became famous because he wrote poems about the famous. His subjects were people who won at one or another of the four great athletic festivals of his time” (The Victor’s Crown, p. 37). And, according to Donald Kyle in Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, Pindar was “the greatest writer of victory (epinikian) odes,” having “composed 45 poems for victors from 16 states” in which he articulated “an aristorcratic ideology of athletic preparation, competition, and victory.” (Sport and Spectacle, p. 203) Pindar’s Odes, then, are widely used by scholars trying to convey a sense of athletics in Greece during this period.]

Gumbrecht sees in Pindar an “obsessive focus on the joy and pride that came with athletic triumphs” (p. 96) and so draws from this the conclusion that for spectators must have been drawn to the experience of “being in the presence—in the physical presence—of the athletes’ shining bodies at the moment of their highest performance” (p. 96).  And he goes on to emphasize that this pleasure would be heightened by the “winner-take-all” emphasis at the games and, according to Gumbrecht, “in many nonathletic institutions in ancient Greece” (p. 96).


It’s all about the W.

I understand that Gumbrecht’s emphasis on the appeal of physical presence echoes the importance he has already sought to bodies and presence in his more theoretical, definitional meditations. And, though I am no expert in classical literature and culture, what little I have read of Pindar’s Odes seem to support his conjecture.  I was, however, surprised to find Gumbrecht emphasize the central importance of winning (and so of competition) to the fascination of the games for spectators given that in his definition of athletics he argued that competition (agon) is secondary to excellence (arete) in athletics.  But perhaps for Gumbrecht this exemplifies the sort of “discontinuity” that he wants to highlight.  However, since I don’t really accept, theoretically or practically, his hierarchization (and occasional separation) of “excellence” and “competition”, his description here strikes me as quite familiar: “Winning and being remembered at Olympia gave athletes, their families, and their towns bragging rights that they used with a shamelessness” (p. 97). GoBlue.

The continuity between the ancient and the contemporary is even more evident when Gumbrecht turns to what was it in for the athletes: a springboard to success in other careers, fame, and fortune.  As he rightly concludes, in the ancient Olympic games “a particular version of professionalism had emerged long before the ideal of the ‘amateur’ in the modern Olympic tradition” (p. 98).  There’s an irony there involving, to put it bluntly, the hypocritical and ahistorical nonsense involved in deploying the category of the “amateur” as a moralizing bludgeon in the contemporary sporting universe, especially in the United States.

“But above all,” Gumbrecht comes to his conclusion, the games were appealing because “being in the presence of athletic greatness at Olympia meant being close to the gods.”  He reminds us that unlike in the monotheistic traditions, the line dividing the divide from the mundane was porous.  Rather than a transcendent deity perched on an immaterial throne, Greek gods roamed the earth and messed with human beings.

This, Gumbrecht argues, would dispose the Greek imagination to experience the athletic contests and achievements they witnessed as on a continuum with the divine attributes and battles with which they were familiar.

Because the boundaries that separated Greek gods from humans were so permeable, to aim for the highest level of physical perfection and to win an Olympic competition indeed elevated the victor to the status of a demigod (the ancient meaning of ‘hero’ is ‘demigod’). (p. 99)

To be in the immediate presence of such figures would understandably become an ecstatic experience, one that would make them feel “not just well but boundlessly well—about themselves, about the athletes, and about the divinely-infused world of which they were so intimately a part” (p. 99).  Again, I’m not expert enough to gainsay this explanation.  It seems plausible to me, if perhaps overly general and somewhat simplified.

But here again, I’m struck that Gumbrecht doesn’t seem, given his avowed dedication to establishing discontinuity, to recognize the continuity here between the classical and the contemporary.  Pretty much every experience and value he attributes to the ancient Greek spectator (or athlete, for that matter), I think we could find in contemporary athletics. This doesn’t of course mean that there is an unbroken line connecting them, some transhistorical essential experience of athletics that simply incarnates itself continuously in every society at every moment in time over 2,500 years.  But it does suggest that seeing some continuities might be more than just a romantic tic.  What’s more, it suggests that seeing continuities might as important to understanding the scope and nature of modern sport in the West as recognizing discontinuities.

I’ll leave you with this astonishing and hilarious exhibition of how, for us as well, at least for some—for many—of us, “religious ecstasy and athletic ecstasy became one.”

Dominator Jesus, a Reflection on the Religion of Basketball


A friend put this image on my Facebook wall the other day.  I’m pretty sure she was being ironic.  Maybe she remembered that I’d written before what I imagined would one day be the opening salvo in my basketball autobiography “My Life as a Point Guard” — an introductory rumination called “Between Jesus and Wilt Chamberlain.”  This image comes from what seems to be a Catholic church affiliated website  selling “inspirational gifts, books, and church supplies.”  This particular item, called “Jesus Sports Statue Basketball,” is recommended as “a wonderful way to encourage your young athlete on the court and in their faith as well.”   It “serves as a contemporary reminder that Jesus is with your child in basketball and in all that they do.” Read more

Day 2: We Are All Witnesses

This may not be so funny or dramatic. My fiancée, Claire, who’s also a university teacher, once observed with a perfect mixture of relief and wry disappointment how that hideous flower of anxiety seems to wilt and wither into something like dry routine, or even boredom, after the first day. Day 2 certainly wasn’t boring, but it didn’t pack quite the terrifying emotional punch of Opening Day.

That’s no doubt because of the change of clothes I carefully planned:  no hat, sweats, and a Nike track jacket. Or maybe because I spent much of Tuesday afternoon and evening blubbering in Claire’s arms and giving vent to the massive gold mine of insecurities that teaching this course tapped. Or maybe because in class we were actually going to be reading a text and that gave me a kind of home court advantage. Probably all of the above. But whatever the reason, Day 2 turned out to be less dramatic and more unambiguously positive and exciting than Day 1. And we actually got some interesting intellectual work done, even if it did entail partially misreading the main reading assignment.

Students were to have read the first section of “Chapter Zero” of our course textbook, FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, in which Bethlehem Shoals tells the story of James Naismith’s invention of the game in 1891. It’s a fluid six page read.  I certainly like it a lot, but in putting it on the syllabus, I had no clear idea in mind of what I wanted the class to get other than the fact that a man named James Naismith invented the game of basketball in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1891.

Now, I sometimes I unpleasantly fantasize that students project onto their college classes and professors the K-12 educational model of the lesson plan,

where every date and assignment on the syllabus and every minute within every day of every class is minutely orchestrated for minimum rowdiness and maximum pedagogical efficiency. But that’s not how I roll. The reading assignments that appear on my syllabuses are more like the food I bring to a potluck, or an item at the buffet. Hopefully they’ll try it. I have some ideas of what I think is worthwhile about it, and I certainly want to share these ideas, but at least as much I want them to learn to develop and to articulate their own ideas.  Or better yet, I’d rather them spontaneously voice my ideas. 

So the beginning of a typical meeting of one of my classes goes like this:  “So for today I asked you to read ‘x’. I have some ideas about what I find interesting and important about ‘x.’ But I’m going to keep those on the back burner and first hear your own impressions. Then, I’ll work my own ideas in when they seem relevant. So, what were your impressions?” Then, as they begin to say things, I take notes on the board, furiously scrawling everything that is said, trying to organize it spatially on the board into categories that make sense to me and mightily trying to make it seem that there’s no such thing as a stupid or irrelevant comment, which in a way turns out to be the case in the end, but it doesn’t always feel that way at first.

This works pretty well, except when some uptight, overachieving, structure-loving punk torpedoes the whole operation by asking where this is all going or what’s the point. But paradoxically it puts a lot more pressure on me than preparing a highly structured plan of what needs to be said about a given reading assignment. I have to think rapidly on my feet, do a lot of “translating” and at the same time weave together the disparate textures and weights of numerous threads into something coherent enough that the students can walk away feeling like they have either a) learned some “thing” or b) have some “thing” to think about.

So, already terrified of this hoops class and of my own feelings about it, there was no way in hell I was going to start off Day 2 – especially after Day 1 – by just asking these students to tell me what they thought of Shoals’ essay “Down By Law: James Naismith, the Peach-Basket Patriarch.” No way.

Instead, I did the pedagogical and intellectual equivalent of firmly belting my pants well up and above my waist to be absolutely certain they wouldn’t come down on me. (Interestingly, in terms of my actual clothes, as I said, I went in the other direction – feeling much more confident and comfortable in sweats than in jeans and a sweater that seemed, on Tuesday anyway, to just grow tighter and smaller with every passing moment.)

I carefully read and reread the assignment from FD’s history. As I read and thought I let myself just jot down what was striking me as important about it, which is how I realized that what was most interesting to me was the way that Shoals tells the story, by self-consciously drawing it into a narrative web with other stories, create a network (Moses – Martin Luther – James Naismith) that is at once ridiculous and sublime. But I didn’t want to say that to the students because then, well, that would take about 45 seconds and then there’d still be 1 hour, 19 minutes, and 15 seconds left of class. Also I didn’t think they’d have any idea what I was talking about, not on Day 2.

So I backed up. I don’t just mean I got simpler or more basic in my thoughts. I mean I backed up to how I felt. I realized that I really only cared about the invention of basketball as a story. I mean to say that as a fact, as something that happened, I didn’t really care much about the invention of basketball. Obviously I feel it’s a good thing since without it there’d be no basketball. But as mere fact, it’s not very interesting.

In a way, as mere fact it doesn’t really exist for any practical purpose. From a certain point of view, it doesn’t exist at all (since it is in the past and so is no longer) outside of the stories that are told about it. To my academic colleagues, this might seem like an obvious acknowledgment of the mediated nature of the past, but it’s still exciting to me when I rediscover it (in a “Whoa! Look! I invented a wheel!” kind of way).  Besides, in my experience, it is by no means obvious to undergraduates, especially Freshmen, which is mostly what I have in the class. Also, it seemed nicely connected to what I’d already promised the students I wanted the course to be about: not just the game on the floor but the power of the stories we tell about it.

Shoals’ comparison got me thinking about the story of the invention of basketball as a story of origins, a story about where something came from.

I realized the way I wanted to start was by asking my students to think about the stories they consume and create about where they came from.  How have those stories changed over time?  How do they vary in the present depending on who they are talking to:  an academic advisor, a childhood friend, a stranger at a frat party? How are those changes driven at least partly by the conscious and unconscious purposes they – the students, I mean – bring and have brought to each of these different situations. Maybe getting them to think about the practical variability of their own origin stories would make it easier to think more generally about origin stories as pragmatic instruments (rather than as objective or value-neutral, transparent descriptions of fact, or as shackling structures with the authority to determine what we do in the future).

But I still felt like something was missing. The two things I am afraid of as a teacher – hold up, the two things I most afraid of as a teacher are: 1) talking too much and boring the students and 2) running out of things to say — it’s a vexing combination, I know, which I suppose is why it works so well as a fear.  Probably my worst teaching-nightmare has me speaking animatedly on a topic, offering illumination after blinding illumination in a kind of improvised escalating spiral of profundity and originality and then I look up ready to say “see you next time” only to find that only five minutes have passed and half the class is jerking itself back onto the road like sleepy motorists.  The only thing that makes it worse is when my pants fall down.  I felt I needed more belting, figuratively speaking.

Luckily, and by luckily I mean through an unconscious survival instinct, I had tossed Naismith’s book into my satchel on Monday just before leaving St. Louis to catch my flight up to Michigan. I hadn’t read it yet (embarrassing admission for the professor of “Cultures of Basketball”; like a religious studies prof not having read Genesis or something).   On the plane up on Monday I started reading it and found that it was actually really fascinating reading. I mean, some of it was boring and I skipped pages here and there, but the story of the actual invention of the game as Naismith tells it I found pretty gripping.  Now that I think of it, it was like listening to my father recount his invention of the game of basketball, except that I could control it better.

Naismith came to mind as I prepared for Day 2 thinking about origin stories and how we shape them.   I figured that if Shoals was self-consciously shaping the story, it would be interesting for students to compare his story to another version of the same event.  What could be better, more authentic, and more apparently unshaped than Naismith’s own first-hand account? Here I imagined deliberately leading my students down the alley of comparing FD’s “disorted” version to the “true” version of Naismith and then, suddenly, flinging open a secret, hidden door in which, with great rhetorical flourish, I asked them: “but is Naismith’s account really ‘true’? Is it not distorted as well, only differently? What do we mean by true?” Ha-ha!  So all I needed to do was to photocopy the relevant pages from Naismith and bring them into class. This I did on Thursday morning before class. For good measure, I made 24 copies of the entire 17 page syllabus to distribute in class so that anytime I referred to it they’d have it in front of them and then I would avoid the dizzying experience I’d had the first day.

I had my plan: 1) find out whether and why they care about the invention of basketball, just as an icebreaker; 2) use the more “useful” responses as a way to turn the discussion to our fascination with stories of origin in general; 3) “thoughtfully” raise the question of how we know whether stories of origin are really true or not; 4) gracefully pivot from their earnest responses to this rhetorical question into making the point about the textually and narratively mediated nature of our access to the past; 5) reassure them that this need not be a bad thing, but can actually be an empowering thing; do a comparative reading of Naismith and Shoals in which the students talked about the shape of the respective stories and the purposes to which those stories might be put; 6) be prepared to talk about last night’s game — including Michigan’s closely fought loss to second-ranked Ohio State — in case numbers 1-5 above only take up  5 minutes of class.

Decked out in my sweats and Nike Chevron track jacket, I strode purposefully into class on Thursday. Just about everyone was already seated by the time I got there, but curiously, that felt better to me than having arrived so pathetically early on Day 1. I felt more confident: they were the pathetic ones! They couldn’t even start class without me! They needed me more than I needed them! “King Kong ain’t got nothin’ on me!” I roared in my head.

One of the players made, I think, a comment about my track jacket. It might have been derisive or ridiculing, but it might just have been surprise: professors don’t say “shit” and they don’t wear sweats and track jackets to class (a corollary of the solipsistic student axiom about their teachers: the teacher does not exist outside of class).   It might also not have been about me at all.  I wobbled but was undeterred. I tossed my bag on the teacher’s desk and began to take out the materials. I felt a little warm and toyed with the possibility of burning up as I had on Tuesday, but somehow came back from that abyss.

As I faced the class, taking roll and deliberately but subtly showing that I knew who the players were, I noticed that all the UM players (but one) were on one side of the room and all the non-UM players were on the other side. That was a little too close for comfort to a perfect physical manifestation of my own juvenile thoughts about the class. So, as I had the students distribute the various photocopies, I just pulled the curtain back. I remarked on the seating. And I said, “it seems like we’ve got players on the one side and fans on the other, or players on the one side and students on the other.  “But everyone” I said (I meant to “thunder” it, but I don’t think it came out that way), “everyone,” I said again for emphasis imagining John Houseman in the Paper Chase, “in this room is a student at this university, everyone is a fan, and everyone – whatever the level – is a player.” Good, everyone’s nodding.

Qui gon Jinn and Jar Jar Binks zooming around in the little underwater pod popped into my head and I found myself saying “Like me, you might not have ever played at the level these guys are playing, but don’t forget there is always a bigger fish.” I continued, “Oh, you don’t think so? Nobody’s a bigger fish than Lebron James? What about Kobe Bryant? [Kid I know to be from LA and a huge Laker fan nods vigorously]  Nobody’s a bigger fish than Kobe Bryant? What about Lebron James? [Kid looks confused and crestfallen]”

Then a student asked: “Who’s a bigger fish than Jordan?” (I’ve got a number of Chicagoland Jordan babies in my class).   Everyone laughed, it was a good question and it’s fun for everyone when the professor is stumped. Good question I said and laughed, maybe nervously, I’m not sure.  I wanted to be showing that I didn’t mind being stumped, even though I felt frustrated.  Images of Oscar Robertson kept pushing themselves into my mind.  I don’t want to have this argument.  I’ll lose it for sure, because I think probably nobody’s a bigger fish than Jordan but I can’t stand watered down absolutes.  It just doesn’t have the same effect to say “There’s almost always a bigger fish, unless you are the biggest fish, then there’s no bigger fish than you.”

So I replied, “Phil Jackson?” The student – also a player – smiled but shook his head. Perhaps I stirred a streak of rebellion against over-emphasizing the importance of coaching in the game, which is a streak I wholeheartedly sympathize with.  Plus in this setting, student = player and teacher = coach.  So  I felt a little stupid and abashed, as though I’d selfishly sided with Louis XVI during the French revolution.  I thought to myself, but didn’t say, how many titles did Jordan win without Jackson? (Answer = 0) how many titles has Jackson won without Jordan (Answer = 6 and counting). Not that I think that settles the question, but it would have been a good thing to say.

Anyway, the ice was unintentionally broken, and from there we got things underway and had what for me was a fun and interesting discussion that went more or less as planned up to a certain point. A variety of students responded to the questions I put to them about their interest (or lack thereof) in the invention of basketball and about their own stories of origins and how they work in their lives today. And they seemed to be taking it in when I made the point about how context and purpose influence the way we shape stories, even stories that purport to be objectively true (here a student who is also a writer for the school newspaper helped out by corroborating this).

Then we looked at Naismith together, me reading aloud the key passages in which Naismith, mostly flatly, like a human flowchart, reasons his way to the game of basketball. The narrative is mostly a thought experiment, in which he dryly imagines various scenarios sprouting forth from certain premises, rewinds the mental tape, changes the premise and then moves forward again.  The only instant when any trace of emotion appears — or indeed when Naismith himself emerges as a feeling human being (instead of a reasoning machine) — comes, tellingly, when he recalls coming up with the prohibition on traveling: “I can still recall how I snapped my fingers and shouted, ‘I’ve got it!’” “This time,” he continues, “I felt that I really had a new principle for a game.”

I say tellingly because Naismith’s story – apart from this little oasis or plateau – is like a desert of affect, dry and flat. But that is often the way with invention stories – the desert-like, rational surroundings help both to emphasize the calm intelligence of the inventor (thus de-emphasizing the role of chance and circumstance in the invention) and, of course, shed a spotlight on the actual moment of the invention.
I’m not sure I got this across so clearly in class, but we certainly did pause to observe and enjoy how much of what we take as divinely-ordained necessity in the basics of basketball is really due to chance and contingency in the circumstances of its invention. And how that chaotic element of chance seems to be corralled within the implacable rationality of Naismith’s storytelling style.

Then we turned to Shoals and the students slowly began to construct the “compare-and-contrast” paradigm.  I wasn’t thrilled with the points, but I was happy that I was getting a fairly well distributed level of participation.  Clearly, the students had read the assignment.   Finally, someone voiced what to me was the whole point of Shoals’ story: he compares Naismith to Moses and Martin Luther and so basketball to a religion (nevermind, for the moment, that this is not really the whole point of Shoals’ story).  At this point, I somehow forgot all about Naismith and the point of this whole comparative exercise, and, caught up in the testimony, just blurted out: “in what ways is basketball like or unlike a religion for you?”  Here’s where I should acknowledge that Shoals’ argument really goes from the mythico-religious (Moses) to the historico-religious (Martin Luther) to the secular (the Founding Fathers) and concludes that Naismith bears more of a resemblance to a founding father.  So really the question should have been: “in what ways is basketball like a country to you?”  But maybe that doesn’t matter and maybe, after all,  they’re not such different questions: religion and nation? Anyway, they responded so enthusiastically to the question about religion that I forgot the rest of the lesson plan and I forgot to point out this elementary fact about our primary text.

They came out with all kinds of great stuff: basketball involves ritual, basketball is a haven from earthly troubles, basketball involves superstition and the appeasing of higher powers, basketball awakens passions of love and hatred, basketball inspires devotion. Basketball, a couple of people collectively figured out, could even be seen as just one of the great religions alongside other sports like baseball, football or soccer as others. Ultimately, they decided, just as with “real” religions one can get caught up on the differences and become antagonistic and hostile or one can focus on the basic underlying commonalities. They talked about how you create value-systems through basketball. They talked about their own experiences as players and fans. We made fun of Lakers’ fans.  (Even the Lakers’ Kid admitted Lakers’ fans were insane, explaining that in a recent fan forum thread Lakers’ fans said that if they had one player with which to start a franchise they’d choose Andrew Bynum over Blake Griffin.)   We felt bad for Cleveland fans: how would you feel if the Messiah abandoned you cause you were cold and a loser? We enjoyed making the obvious observation, with verbal winks at each other, about the Nike “Witness” campaign and about Lebron’s “Chosen One” SI cover.

We also talked about whether there was any drawback to seeing basketball as a religion or, more precisely, to experiencing it as a religion. This led to a discussion of perspective, with some students feeling that it was important not to lose sight of the fact that basketball is, after all, a game and not as encompassing or important as religion.  While in some ways this is obviously so (and I said so), I also wanted to resist the point. I think partly I felt a peevish resentment at being brought back down to earth, as though I was being told that it was time to get serious. But I also felt that there was an intellectual point — at least a matter of rigor – at stake.

In virtue of what unstated assumptions and prejudices does religion feel more encompassing and important than basketball? How do we use the word “game” to dismiss basketball as diversion and so limit our potential to live the “game” creatively with all our human potential? Don’t at least some people divorce their zealous profession of religious belief from their  behavior in daily life and in that sense lose perspective as well? Is that any better or more desirable than living in the world of basketball as though it had no connection to daily life?

The point I meant to stress (and which I am almost 100 % sure that I did not get across) is that the more significant danger might not be taking basketball too seriously, but rather not taking basketball seriously enough.

Go back to read my spine-tingling account of the nearly catastrophic first day of Cultures of Basketball

Go on to read Day 3’s recollection of the leagues and teams now all but lost to memory