Tuesday, December 19, 2006

When millionaires attack - In the aftermath of last week's on-court brawl between the NBA's New York Knicks and the Denver Nuggets, we must not get so focused on the specifics of the situation (i.e.: whether, as LA Times sports writer Mark Heisler suggests, NBA players are held to a higher standard because of the visibility - and race - of the players) that we miss the bigger point. As we make note that last week's fight was of a piece with the events of 2004 at the Palace in Auburn Hills and Latrell Sprewell's choking of P.J. Carlisimo in 1997, we do ourselves a disservice if we fail to point out real causes of these types of events, as opposed to the apparent similarities between them.

Mr. Heisler's opinion notwithstanding, these circumstances are driven neither by the race of the participants nor the racial perceptions of the observers. Indeed, the proximal cause of these outbursts of violence has nothing to do with race and everything to do with culture, or more accurately, cultural socialization. To a great extent, the NBA and the NFL in particular are populated by young men who have developed great skill in their respective sport, and no prowess whatever in the game of life. They have learned nothing of delaying gratification, conflict resolution or plain common courtesy.

This is entirely because they never had to. Throughout their lives, no one has held them accountable to ordinary standards of behavior, either academically or in terms of their sport. These young men have learned to value themselves quite highly, but only for their idiosyncratic athletic gifts. In turn, they place no value on others, except as others are able to help these men meet their own needs. Sadly, this attitude is hardly confined to the world of sports; today's young men and women are more and more convinced of their own intrinsic value, irrespective of their works on behalf of the larger society.

Over the past few decades, we - by which I mean post-60s America - have gained civil rights based on race, gender and sexual orientation, and have lost civility. We feel entitled to decent jobs with decent pay and decent health care. We want decent schools where our children can get a decent education. All the while, we neglect decency and the pursuit thereof. The troubled young millionaires who involve themselves in physical altercations are a symptom of a failure of socialization, but they are hardly alone.

They, along with the team owners who pay their salaries and the fans who watch, and the larger society that expresses no meaningful condemnation are all party to (and victim of) this same failure to socialize. This too is a lingering symptom of the efforts of the anti-civilization counterculturalists of the 1960s. By negating the importance of any sort of externally derived values, the counterculture left us with nothing to transmit to our progeny.

Nothing except a nagging doubt of self.

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