“A culture can admire both the physical and intellectual.”
That’s a word that often conjures up an adjective – effete, thanks to Nixon’s former vice president.
Intellectual is a word that, perhaps, prompts images of buffoonish, arrogant dilettantes housed in the ivory towers of academia.
Intellectual certainly does not bring to mind a seven-foot, two-inch tall African American once thought prickly of personality but now wise beyond measure. That man, an extraordinarily gifted man, argues that athletes now now hold the high ground in hero worship – not intellectuals.
“Can most of us even name a single contemporary American philosopher or influential literary author with the ease we can a Kardashian? If the answer is no, our initial reaction should be a slight sense of shame (and maybe a quick Google search), but more likely it would be to scoff and dismiss the question with a smug ‘Who cares?’ But this instant dismissal really reflects a troubling trend of lazy and arrogant anti-intellectualism that has very re al and dangerous consequences to American society.”
Those words were penned recently by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, perhaps one of the greatest basketball players ever born. His accomplishments are legendary – a six-time NBA most valuable player, six NBA rings as a player, a 19-time NBA All-Star, and the greatest scorer in NBA history.
Think Kareem, you’d likely think skyhook, his go-to shot, not intellectual. That bothers him. Athletic achievement is, he argues, the result of hard work, effort that people can envision. But intellectual achievement requires equal dedication, but it’s dedication that many people cannot fathom or understand. Thus its easier to label Michael Jordan a hero rather than the late Jean-Paul Sartre.
“At the same time we’re increasingly embracing sports, the last few years have produced a rising anti-intellectualism, starting with facts, science and logic. Anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, even flat-earthers are on the rise. Part of the reason for this is the promotion of fuzzy thinking as a positive political statement. …
“A culture can admire both the physical and intellectual. The achievements of athletes inspire us to push the boundaries of what our bodies are capable of. We can run faster, jump higher, endure more punishment than we thought. That makes us all realize we have untapped potential. Equally, we can be inspired by the insights of our poets, the vision of our philosophers, the medical breakthroughs of our scientists. Both should make us strive to be greater: stronger and smarter. The problem is that when the average person sees an athlete perform an amazing feat, there’s the lurking belief that, if they really wanted to train and practice, they could do it, too. It is within their grasp. But with intellectual feats, some people see that as beyond their understanding and therefore beyond their reach. Rather than strive, they resent.”
Kareem argues that the mind and body should be integral to admiration, not separated into categories:
“A culture can admire both the physical and intellectual. The achievements of athletes inspire us to push the boundaries of what our bodies are capable of. We can run faster, jump higher, endure more punishment than we thought. That makes us all realize we have untapped potential. Equally, we can be inspired by the insights of our poets, the vision of our philosophers, the medical breakthroughs of our scientists. Both should make us strive to be greater: stronger and smarter.”
Athletes have capable brains, Kareem argues. Too many, I’d say, don’t use them as profitably as they could.
Consider what many athletes have accomplished after their professional careers ended. Earvin Johnson, better known as Magic, became an astute and wealthy businessman. Alan Page, a defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings and the first defensive player to win the NFL’s MVP honor, became an associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers has parlayed his fame (and fortune) as an athlete into successful forays in entertainment and apparel enterprises. Bill Bradley of the New York Knicks was elected to the United States Senate and ran, albeit unsuccessfully, for the presidency.
Readers can certainly find their own examples of athletics with intelligence.
“Intellectuals don’t help their cause when they are dismissive of pop culture and sports, by demeaning their great achievements. Neither high culture nor pop culture are a measure of intelligence, just of past exposure. Any attempt to use either as a means to imply superiority demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of what art strives to do: bring us closer together by showing that we are all equal in our needs to love, be loved, and strive to be better tomorrow than we are today. We accomplish this by understanding that the elegant idea is as uplifting as the slam dunk. And that a triple play is as graceful as a balletic arabesque. To disparage either the athlete or the intellect indicates someone not worthy of either.”
Keep in mind, next time an athletic contest happens your way, athletes need intelligence as well as skills to compete effectively.