Though not blessed with any children of my own, I am the proud aunt of 5 red headed little boys and the reluctant one of a blond pre-teen. Don’t get me wrong, I love all of my nephews but my oldest nephew, Nathan and I have not seeing eye to eye for the last year.
My two oldest nephews, Nathan, 12 and Zack, 10 are the sports fans of the group of 6. When I married into the family four years ago, I was given instant Aunt-cred because unlike the other women in the family, I loved sports as deeply and rabidly as they did. Zack and I bonded instantly in our love for the Alabama Crimson Tide, while Nathan, more of a generalist, was just happy with the aesthetics of a good game. Over the last four years, while Zack and I have become incredibly close, Nathan and I have become, somewhat distant.
It all came to a head Christmas Day, when Nathan declared upon seeing my Bama polo, “I hate Alabama and want them to lose against Ohio State!” The dinner table was silent. The entire family braced for what they knew was going to be an epic showdown. Now I must admit, that normally such a declaration would have prompted an explosion, but because the offender was a 12 year old boy, I thought better of unleashing a torrent of figures, stats, and singing ‘Yea Alabama’ in his face. The second reason, I thought better of ‘schooling’ my nephew was the fact that I thought his outburst might have been generated by the fact that he was not happy with the action figure I had bought him for Christmas. Yet, I soon found out his dislike of my alma mater was more philosophical: “You see Aunt Maria,” he explained, “I hate Alabama because they win all the time.”
Vowing to stay calm and see where this was going, I prodded more: “So Nathan, pray tell what is wrong with winning?” He quickly responded, ” Oh nothing is wrong with winning–it just isn’t cool to win all the time.” Spoken like a child of whose father went to Texas A&M, I reasoned. I continued prodding. “So if you won every one of your baseball games, would that be wrong?” He looked for a second and said, “No.” But just then his father chimed in and said, “Yeah but they would be so arrogant about it.”
12 year old boys are off limits, but grown men who went to Texas A&M are fair game. So the gloves came off–“What do you mean arrogant? When has our coach or any of our young men carried themselves as anything less than grateful for every win?” I pressed him. “The whole school is arrogant,” he replied. When I put down my fork, and started with , “Let me make something perfectly clear…” my husband knew this was not going to go well at all. After explaining how Alabama had as many national debate championships as it did Football championships; the largest number of National Merit scholars of any public school; or our top ranked programs—I pointed out that for a state that is the butt of so many jokes, we are defensive and proud of our program but we are not arrogant. With his eyebrows singed from the fire I had just unleashed dinner continued in an uneasy quiet. Nathan, pierced the silence with a final blow: “I still hate Alabama.”
Though I tried to let it roll of my back, my conversation with Nathan and my brother in law really got under my skin. Just what the heck was wrong with winning all the time? This, continued my internal rant, was what was wrong with today’s children– a distaste for winning. Yet, as it happens in the middle of all my internal rants, an inconvenient fact began to emerge into focus–like Nathan, I, too really hate perpetual winners. The evidence to support this claim was no further than my front porch.
Since marrying my Duke Alum husband, I had refused to give his flags, banners, and even his NCAA championship equal billing with Alabama’s. As a matter of fact, when he bought us tickets to see Duke play in the ACC tourney, I was so incensed, I almost refused to go–“I am not paying that much to see a BASKETBALL game!” I exclaimed. But undermining my hypocritical outrage was the fact that we had just spent over $800 dollars–justifiably of course, to see Alabama play Auburn in the annual Iron Bowl. The real reason I didn’t want to go? I hated Duke. Why? Because, of course, they won all the time, which was soooo boring. And as I drove home from our Christmas vacation in San Antonio, thinking about Nathan’s indictment, I hated to admit that I hated almost all perpetual winners that were not Alabama: the Lakers, The Patriots, the Yankees, Oprah Winfrey, and Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski.
Reading the Wall Street Journal’s “Open Letter to Auburn” last year, I was reminded how much people really do hate those who win too much. Though I found it ironic that it would be written to the people of Auburn (after all, they don’t read the WSJ), writer Rachel Bachman points out something that a number of sports fans throughout college football have thought for the last 4 years:
“This issue is even bigger than the conference, if it’s possible for anything to be bigger than the SEC. It’s about college football. Florida State is back. Stanford and Baylor, of all programs, are pushing toward the top. Ohio State is clawing for a chance to get back to the title game—the last great hope of a flagging Big Ten Conference. Alabama is the only team that brings no mystery to the table. The Tide are simply so good, so methodical, that they seem to remove the element of chance. Without it, what’s the fun of watching? But you, and Auburn, can change all that with one big game.”
Sportscasters like Alabama nemesis, Gary Danielson of CBS and Kirk Herbstreit are down right resentful when the Tide rolls to another victory. Troll any ESPN page about CFB and you will see the outright hate for Alabama. Even this week, while traveling to New Orleans for the game, several Ohio State fans defamed our statues of Bear Bryant and Nick Saban. They passed through Nashville, home of Vanderbilt; Louisville, the home of the Cardinals, and Starkeville, the home of the Miss. State Bulldogs-but they felt compelled to vandalize the Bama statues.
In his “Definition of Man”, Kenneth Burke, noted that as humans “we are goaded by a sense of hierarchy and rotten with perfection”. Inherent in our make up as human beings, Burke argues, is that unlike other organisms in nature that are content to simply ‘be’, human beings are cursed with the desire to be more than we are, to achieve more, to have more—all in the belief that we can reach a state of human perfection.Burke points out, that on one hand while such an internal goading might allow us to achieve wonderful feats of glory and spur us toward the highest heights of our potential; this goading toward perfection also has a darker side that is unleashed When we realize that within ourselves, no matter of effort will produce perfection. When we recognize that WE can’t be perfect, we begin to hate those individuals and organizations that seem to reflect a perfection that we believe is beyond our reach.
Part of the reason we are so tortured is because we confuse excellence with perfection. When we encounter sustained excellence, as is the case with Duke, Alabama, The Red Sox, Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey, Lance Armstrong, Kobe Bryant, Serena Williams or Bill Cosby, we immediately seek to destroy and debunk it. Our ire is raised and our sympathy is diminished while we actively cheer for the destruction of the image of a level of achievement that seems so far beyond anything we can imagine and the war chant of “They ain’t so perfect!” begins.
Bonds is a cheater. Stewart is an ex con. Armstrong is an unrepentant cheater. Bill Cosby is a rapist. I know, I know– you are screaming by now, THESE ARE NOT EXAMPLES OF PERFECTION! I agree they are not. But they are examples of excellence. Each of them, in their respective fields had reached such a level of excellence and success, that our collective need for moral superiority led to obsessive and excessive efforts to prove to them and to us, they were not perfect.
I am not condoning PEDs, insider trading, or sexual violence but what I am decrying is our uneven persecution of individuals based on the fact that we simply can’t stand to have someone win too ‘much’. Henry Aaron, when asked about Bonds and PED’s, pointed out that no drug could give Bond’s an advantage in seeing the ball, tracking the ball or hitting the ball–it was talent, hard work, and practice. PED’s, he reasoned, might have given Bonds an edge in holding off old age but it did not give him an advantage in timing, which is a hitter’s best friend. The $63K that Martha supposedly saved by trading her stock early, did not diminish a level of excellence that crosses into marketing, publishing, decorating, and media as evidenced in the fact that she even found a way to turn jailhouse ponchos into must have items. Yet, our thirst for their blood was only abated when we had destroyed their illusion of perfection.
I believe that our distaste of perfection also extends to our relationship with God. As much as we hate the idea of human perfection (though we secretly long for it) we simply loathe the idea of a God who demands perfection even when that same God knows we can’t achieve it on our own. Yet more than we hate a God that demands perfection, we detest a God who provides us the means of grace when we fall short of it. We would rather sit in the mediocrity of sin rather than admit that the excellence and peace that we seek is unobtainable on our own and only empowered through God’s grace. We would rather tear down others that remind us that it is possible to do and be better than we are but that it will require work, dedication, AND grace.
Each morning, I faithfully watch MSNBC’s Morning Joe. As much as I watch for fellow Bama Alum, Joe Scarborough, I also watch his talented co-host Mika Brzezinski. Brzezinkski, a fine journalist and tough as nails analyst, mother of two is also an avid runner and healthy living advocate. It is rare that a day goes by when in the twittersphere that someone doesn’t proclaim Mika a ‘B’ or is indicted for thinking she is so perfect. Yet, in any objective analysis of Brzenski’s writing or work, one finds a woman who is dedicated to a graceful excellence of mind, spirit, and yes, her body. Having given up the myth of perfection after an early morning accident with her daughter, Mika seems to understand that “All at Once” doesn’t mean perfection but a grace-filled pursuit of excellence. Does it gall me that as I am sliding out of bed with aching knees and 60 extra pounds on my short frame, that Mika is there looking great and extolling the virtues of putting down the cheeseburgers I love so dearly? Yes. But what galls me more is that I do not have the same dedication to a wholistic excellence that would motivate me to get by butt out of the bed and get to the gym. I’d rather whine about how life in the academy demands butt in chair time; how being married as sucked away me time; how my middle class pursuit of more as left me unable to afford the personal trainer that I NEED to achieve my perfect body. All the while, secretly I know that God’s grace+my willing spirit could make a world of difference.
No doubt, an Alabama victory tomorrow night would cause my little Nathan quite a bit of angst. Rather that focusing on the relentless practice, hours of sacrifice that it has taken Nick Saban to get our team to this point, I am sure my nephew is much more focused on the outcome rather than the process of Saban’s dedication to excellence. I am sure as he goes to bed tonite, he will sigh and say, ” I sure hope somebody beats those guys.” Someday (though hopefully not for a while), Nathan that loss will come. But even if it does, Alabama and Nick Saban won’t be perfect but they will still be excellent–even if my grammar and spelling are not (remember this blog is a grammar free zone ;))