I must admit. It hit me at an early age. I was about 19, and a student at UCLA, during the never-to-be-repeated glory years of Bruin basketball, when Lew Alcindor (now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) was the star attraction. A group of us were eating lunch, and were recovering from a particularly gruesome organic chemistry midterm exam, on an especially dreary day. Suddenly, John, an obnoxiously jolly fellow, sat down at our table.
“Do you realize how lucky we are? Do you know that every college student in the US would trade places with us in a heartbeat?”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Mike,” he said, “we have the top team in the country, and this is THE cool place to be!”
Not in the mood for such merriment on such a day, I shot back,”John, tell me something. What good does it do ME that we have the top team? Am I going to get a pro offer? Am I going to score with a cheerleader? Are my grades or prospects after college going to improve because of this?”
Literally silenced by my unexpected reply, he left the table shaking his head.
Maybe you can see where this is headed…
A few years later, I was at an “Oscar Party.” You know, one of those silly events where food and drink are served, while everyone watches the Academy Awards on TV. Many of the guests were quite emotionally involved, fervent in their hopes that this or that movie would win Best Picture, and that Mr. X would win best actor—and this was going on nonstop for the entire duration of the telecast. Finally, just before the Best Picture award was to be announced, I lost it.
“Tell me,” I said, “why do you care which movie wins? If your favorite wins, does that validate your personal taste? Do you have a financial interest in this movie? Is the star your close friend? I’m 100 percent confident that the producers of this film don’t give a rip about your life or your accomplishments. Is this whole thing a way for you to vicariously live through these movie types, because you think your own life is so empty?”
Needless to say, there was no answer, and I didn’t hear much from these people again. But let’s fast forward to the present day…
The recent firing of Nebraska football coach Frank Solich, supposedly to avoid a trend toward mediocrity, despite his overall winning record, brought out the usual chorus decrying the “winning is everything” mentality, along with cracks suggesting that if a dominant football team is the only claim to fame a state has, it may be time to move out of that state. Too bad the critics are shooting at the wrong target.
The people running the University of Nebraska know full well that they can count the number of alumni who care about the school’s academics on the fingers of one hand, but a winning team will keep those donations flowing in. And then there’s all that TV revenue. Don’t blame the school, they have to go with what works. Ask yourself instead how empty someone’s life must be, to get so worked up about the fortunes of a football team in which they have no personal stake.
Which brings me to my final anecdote. Some years ago, during a Parent Weekend at the University of Arizona, I met an elderly couple, down from the Seattle area. Decked out in purple, these ardent alums of the University of Washington traveled around the Pac 10 cities to watch their beloved Huskies play, and they were in Tucson to see that evening’s game against Arizona. Understand that these folks graduated in the 1940’s, and the team and the school are, uh, somewhat different nowadays.
After exchanging pleasantries, I asked them why they followed the team with such devotion. What, for goodness sake, do they have in common with the players, the students, the faculty, or any present day aspect of U of W? Beyond the logo, what, exactly, were they identifying with? Their answer was that no one had ever asked them that before, and they were not really sure.
My take on it (never voiced to them, of course) was that to those septuagenarians, the highlight of their life was those four brief years in undergrad, and they needed to extend it for as long as they could. Worse, they had to be in major denial about the political and moral culture at Washington, or just about any university these days, since it was quite evident that this couple was far from liberal. So, at the end of the day, what is their support of the “W” logo all about other than a relatively benign case of mindless tribalism?
Lord knows, this gift of life is far too precious to fritter away by living in the past, or through celebrities, pie-in-the sky political causes, or sports teams. Believe me, you were put on this earth for way more than that.
Some points to ponder during this glorious season of Advent.