Monday, April 28, 2014

Monday's Musings on Sports - Pineda is not Sterling, but Neither Seem to Care

Over the course of the last week, there have been two sports news stories which have dominated the news. The first story involved Yankee pitcher Michael Pineda and the second involved LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling. While I am not equating the two stories or actions, they are equally symptomatic of the phenomenon known as "Sports Chutzpah".

What is Sports Chutzpah? It is the epidemic which infects rational people, often from humble backgrounds, and turns them into self absorbed, arrogant people who believe they are above the law and society.

I was not alive during the times that people attended sporting events in jacket and ties. But I can recall how when I was growing up in the 1970s and early 80's the athlete was looked at as a role model. More importantly, the athletes themselves recognized that they were role models as well. But at some point in the 1990s, the disconnect between sports figure and role model was broken. I cannot pin down when this became the norm, but I can recall hearing Charles Barkley declare in 1993 that "I am not a role model" and thinking at the time that this was not all that outlandish. 

Although I cannot pin down when it became socially acceptable that the sports personality did not have to view himself as a role model, the theme has become so pervasive that it is rare to find a sports person who does feel some sense of social responsibility. 

Take for example the Michael Pineda story. Pineda was obtained by the NY Yankees via trade in 2012, but due to injury and poor performance, he did not pitch for the team until this season. Two weeks ago, there was some grumbling around baseball that Pineda was using a foreign substance to improve his pitching. The allegation first came up in a game against the Boston Red Sox when a dark patch was seen on his hand, but it was dismissed as "dirt." Pineda was clearly emboldened by the ease in which he was able to get away with using the illegal foreign substance. As such, two weeks later he took the mound against the same Boston Red Sox team, although this time with the substance on his neck. This time, the mark was too obvious to ignore and two innings into the game, the umpires ejected Pineda for having pine tar on his neck.

However, the story does not end with the ejection of Pineda from the game. Following the game, major league baseball suspended Pineda for ten games. But more importantly, the Yankees were not allowed to fill Pineda's spot on the 25 man roster and they will be forced to play the next ten games with only 24 players.

A much more damaging, but no less arrogant example of Sports Chutpzah took place in California. A tape has circled of a person who purportedly is Donald Sterling (owner of the LA Clippers) reportedly telling his girlfriend that she should not bring African-American friends to the team's games. I cannot fathom how a person who owns a team which is dominated by African-American athletes, which is coached by an African-American and which plays a sport which is likely the most popular sport among young African-Americans, could have articulated such a thought. But for the athletes on his team, the coach and the tens of thousands of African-Americans who attend each of the Clippers' home games, Mr. Sterling would not have a team. Instead, he would have a bankrupt franchise and an empty barn of a building which would be hemorrhaging money. Yet, because of the popularity of this African-American dominated sport which has boosted the value of a franchise that he bought for $12 million in the 1980's to an estimated $575 million, Sterling feels that he is above the need to respect the very people who made him his millions.

The lack of respect for others and the feeling that one can do what they want when they want with no fear of repercussion is not unique to sports. But it just seems like the rational, normal sports persona becomes irrational and corrupted based on a feeling of entitlement. A parallel to this can be seen in the story of Korach. The gemara teaches that Korach was very bright and also very wealthy. Chazal teach that there were two incredibly wealthy people, Korach and Haman. There is even a yiddish expression "Rich as Korach." Rashi states that Korach even had prestige as he was one of the carriers of the aron kodesh.

But Korach's wealth and power led to his downfall as he challenged Moshe with silly questions because he felt a sense of entitlement to more. As a result of his arrogance and over inflated sense of self worth, Korach harangued Moshe to the point that Hashem caused the Earth to open and swallow him alive.

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