Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Sports is not a guide to life, and this is why Tiger Woods ain't a role model

By Janan Ganesh

New York Times

The author says that sport is a meritocracy, but in real life, it is entirely possible for a person to possess talent, work hard and get nowhere.
Tiger Woods shakes hands with Patrick Reed, last year's winner, in a ceremony
after winning the Masters on April 14. 
22 April, 2019

In happy news, a world that used to regard Tiger Woods as a tragicomic case of fallen celebrity, citing his broken marriage and major-less decade, now regards him as an inspirational tale of endurance, citing his broken marriage and major-less decade.

The narrative change occurred on April 14 between 2.28pm and 2.29pm local time in Augusta, Georgia, when the golfer sank a decisive puttat the second attempt. A centimetre wide and he would have had to do without our upward revision of his moral worth.

Woods reclaimed two titles that day. One comes with a green jacket; the other promises the highest decorations of state. One comes with a cheque; the other will earn him millions of dollars in a more roundabout way.

As well as Masters Champion 2019, then, he is, once again, a Role Model. When parents want to teach their children about the importance of resolve, of never giving up, they will now cite Woods as surely as they cite Churchill’s wilderness years.

Even sports writers of the highest class have over the past week succumbed to purple slush about “redemption” and the “incalculable power of self-belief”.

If my scepticism is showing here, it is not about Woods — a great athlete who overcame dire injuries, not just personal flaws— but about sport as a parable or allegory.

Sport is captivating on its own terms. It is, as Pope John Paul II said of football, the most important unimportant thing in the world. Long-suffering readers will know of my taste for the stuff.

But because I follow it so closely, I also know what sport is not. Sport is not a guide to life. It is too different in too many ways.

If we understand a role model to be someone whose methods are applicable to our own lives, with a reasonable expectation of similar results, there are no role models in sport.

Sport has knowable, written-down rules. Life does not. Sport is mono-generational: the participants range from their late teens to (and here golf is exceptional) their mid-30s.

Life tests you across an average of 80-ish years. Then there are the discrepant stakes.

An error in sport can result in defeat. An error in life can result in death or jail time. The blandest advice in one field (“Be brave”) is often folly in the other.

It is possible to enumerate all these little differences and still miss the important one. Sport is a meritocracy. A person of enough talent and application will — body permitting — achieve success.

As sporting performance is measurable, there is little room for interpretation, much less fashion, nepotism, whim, bigotry, personal dislike and other human vagaries to get in the way. There are no klutzes charming their way through a basketball career and no undiscovered geniuses in football.

If an uncontacted tribe in Borneo has a promising nine-year-old midfielder, an Ajax scout will know about it.

In real life, it is entirely possible for a person to possess talent, work hard and get nowhere. This might be due to lack of opportunity. Looking back, I grew up with several cases in point.

Or it might be an accident of timing. The Van Gogh exhibitions that are decorating the world this spring honour a man whose own era failed to honour. Art, with its element of randomness as to who prospers, is a truer parable for real life than sport ever will be.

None of which is to suggest that life should emulate sport. Only a sadist would want to live in a pure meritocracy.

But as long as we don’t, we have to entertain the possibility that a great winner in sport has absolutely nothing to teach the rest of us.

Even as sponsors disowned him and fans maligned him and policemen arrested him, the terms of Woods’ chosen profession never changed: complete a major course in fewer strokes than anyone else, and he would be a champion again.

That he kept at it was impressive. But it holds few lessons for a world where the relationship between merit and reward is so much messier.

In that world, ours, there are times when giving up, or not even trying in the first place, might be more sensible.

To pretend that determination pays off, always and everywhere, is a good way to inspire the young. And to con them. 



Janan Ganesh is a biweekly columnist and associate editor for the Financial Times. He was previously political correspondent for The Economist for five years.

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