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Thursday, September 20th, 2012 at 11:58 am  |  5 responses

Idle Worship

As semi-recent events in college sports have reminded us, it’s not smart to build statues devoted to athletic grandeur on campus.

by Dave Zirin / @edgeofsports

The horror show scandal that swallowed the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno’s legacy should have taught us, if nothing else, a very simple lesson: Universities really shouldn’t be in the business of building statues to athletic icons. This is especially true when it comes to honoring someone in the morally conflicted, deeply corrupt and highly combustible multi-billion dollar world of college athletics.

I write this because the new college basketball season is opening with news of two new statues, just several hundred miles apart, that will commemorate two living basketball legends. In East Lansing, MI, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Michigan State’s most famous alumnus and the Most Outstanding Player of the 1979 Final Four, will be set in stone with a 12-foot monument to his undeniable greatness. In Terre Haute, IN, on the campus of the Indiana State Sycamores, Larry Joe Bird will be immortalized in a statue set to be 15 feet tall. Why 15? Because the sculptor believes that Bird is “better than Magic.” This is all very cute, and Magic and Bird have certainly made a nice little cottage industry out of their rivalry—even co-signing a Broadway play that, like a Magic no-look pass, went unseen.

But honoring these all-time athletes on a college campus is, as it was with Paterno, an absolutely awful idea. I am not for a moment suggesting that any Sandusky-sized scandals are lingering in Magic’s and Larry’s closets. Magic seems content as a figurehead owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and buying up the rest of Harlem. Larry just retired from running the Indiana Pacers and seems ready to kick back into retirement. This isn’t about them but about the message it sends to the regular students as well as the student athletes at each school.

This should be the takeaway lesson from what happened at Penn State: Sports cannot be the financial, social or even emotional center of a university. Similarly, a Division I college basketball program cannot be a minor league for the NBA where students are scenery to the action on the court and just happen to go to class in between games.

Idolizing Magic and Bird at an institution of higher learning sends exactly the opposite message. Magic was at East Lansing for two years. Bird by all accounts went to class only if he took a wrong turn on the way to the gym. No one should begrudge them their lack of academic rigor. Both were obvious galactic talents who did exactly what they should have done: use their school as a stepping-stone to the pros. But they are also once-in-a-generation talents. One of the main problems with our jock culture is that we sell the idea that anyone can be Magic or Larry if they just have the will, desire or as Bird called his memoir, Drive to do it. But hoop is cruel, perhaps the cruelest of all major sports. A person might be able to will himself to hit a curve ball or memorize every blitz package on earth. But no one can will himself or herself to being 6-9 with a court vision that would humble Bob Cousy. Asking students to aspire to be Magic and Bird is almost like asking them to aspire to be Superman, when no one but Clark Kent was born on Krypton. Students deserve better. The players deserve better. The warped moral center of the NCAA, in such desperate need of reformation, deserves better.

If people really think there should be statues of Magic and Bird, put Magic right next to his old running buddy Kareem right in front of the Staples Center. Place Bird alongside the only Celtic with a loftier legacy, the great Bill Russell. But please get them off their campuses. There’s a good record in recent—as well as ancient—history that false idols never end well.

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  • Ugh

    Hi Dave,
    Just a comment on how I disagree with your article.
    Nobody “wills” their way to hitting a curveball or memorizing pi to several hundred places. They work their way to it. Saying they ‘will’ it denies them pride in the work they put in and romanticises what is actually a very arduous and difficult experience of repetition, practice and recurring failure. To say you can “will” that kind of success implies you can squeeze your eyes tight and hope really hard for success and it happens. It doesn’t – it leads to failure and disappointment.
    Likewise the idea that someone is simply born with the court vision of Bob Cousy or because they’re 6’9″ they’ll succeed in hoops is similarly a form of disempowering romanticisation that discredits the hard work players put in to their games and sets them up, ultimately, as some kind of exotic freak. When you play at a high level of ball for a decade and you’re on the court with players of Larry and Magic’s height every day and you see someone vastly improve their court vision after years in the game, you realise that height and a thing as nebulous as ‘talent’ has nothing whatsoever to do with success. Only hard work does.
    And that *is* a lesson universities should be promoting, even if I agree with you that athletes probably shouldn’t be valourised on campuses with fifteen foot high statues.

  • Alex_Dewey

    “But hoop is cruel, perhaps the cruelest of all major sports. A person might be able to will himself to hit a curve ball or memorize every blitz package on earth. But no one can will himself or herself to being 6-9 with a court vision that would humble Bob Cousy. Asking students to aspire to be Magic and Bird is almost like asking them to aspire to be Superman, when no one but Clark Kent was born on Krypton. Students deserve better. The players deserve better.”

    What kind of reasoning is that? I suppose, using only the “realistic goal” as the aspiration, we should also tear down all statues at universities of Einstein, of Galileo, of Newton, of Abraham Lincoln, of every great leader and thinker and otherwise well-accomplished person in history or distinguished alum, because the vast majority of students have no prospect of attaining – and, by statistical reality – are (like the baller aspiring to Bird or Magic) predetermined to have no prospect of attaining – even a fraction of the glory of these people.

    Yes, let’s instead build statues to the middling accomplishments, build Gods out of the slightly-above-average, because that is a more realistic hope for most people, and treat greats like inscrutable “Supermen” that we can never aspire to. Let’s undermine the entire concept of idolization rather than acknowledge that someone succeeded in college athletics, just because college sports as a whole is a little bit corrupt and wasteful and fundamentally unfair, as if all the people we want to idolize from academia and politics were toiling away on idyllic farms without corruption the nearer. Yes, let’s do that.

    Also, to get back on track: Tim Duncan=GOAT, Kobe gets a pass for his league-average defense, and Manu’s record the last 10 years is just a shade below Kobe’s and competitive with Wade. There, I said it.

  • http://twitter.com/sooperfadeaway nbk

    ^ this.

  • Willie Green

    The first thing that Mr. Zirin needs to understand is that Joe Paterno was not merely an “athletic icon” but honored for his commitment for his contribution to academics.
    Mr. Zirin would also be well advised to read the Freeh Report. There, he can read for himself how the salacious allegations made against Penn State and Joe Paterno are unjustified by the actual evidence contained in the report.

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