“My hope is that the reflections I’ve gathered here in The Games Do Count remind us all that the time we spent playing sports in childhood could not have been better spent. For me and many others I’ve spoken with through the years, sports have been nothing less than life’s boot camp. We have won and lost, struck out at the worst possible times; dropped fly balls; been knocked on our butts, benched, and cut from the team. At the time, it probably seemed as though your life was over, that you could never hold your head high again. Little did you know how important those failures could be in preparing you for the game of life. Nor did you know how much the early experience in sports would prepare you to survive the tribulations and challenges in life.”
Brian Kilmeade – The Games Do Count
While digesting (digest is a poor word choice….what we saw last Sunday at the end of the 4×7.5km relay literally made me nauseous) the abhorrent finish line behavior of Russian skier Alexander Bulshonov last weekend, a couple of personal athletic memories keep flowing into the prominent spheres of my consciousness. Brief disclaimer – these epiphanies are typically prophesied to me from the “blogging thought angels” during workouts, and it is during those moments they are most clear. When I sit down to attempt to write them out, everything always seems to fade. If that is the case here, I do sincerely apologize.
The first happened when I was probably five years old. It was a backyard football game pitting my dad and twin brother, Dan, against myself and my older brother, Tom. At the end of what surely was, or at least seemed to be at the time, the equivalent of “The greatest game ever played” circa the 1958 NFL championship, I recall running towards the end zone for the clinching score when Dan pulled the ol’ “I touched you with both hands” trick (the equivalent of a tackle in two hand touch football). In my reality (how wonderfully objective), I knew he had maybe graced me with one finger. Didn’t matter – Dad was the ref, and, despite an obvious potential bias, made the call that I in fact was down, preventing me from becoming the backyard version of Alan Ameche. The decision had cost us the play, a score, and eventually, the outcome of the game.
Afterwards, I was furious. I had no control over my temper – if I had had a 600$ Swix Triac 4.0 pole on me at the time, I’m sure I would have at least attempted to impale my partner in the womb for 9-months without even thinking twice. While my whining and fist shaking was not quite on the level of “Bulshonoving,” they were both childish. The difference was that my tirade stopped before it really started, thanks to the actions of my father – stepping in as dad.
He basically said this: my reaction was unacceptable.
But didn’t he realize how unfair this had been? Couldn’t he see I was robbed?!
As I pleaded my case, he explained to me (in five-year old speak, not Skieologian speak) that there was a higher order of justice that transcended my little game, my little thoughts, and my perception of how ‘things went down.’ Even if I was ‘right,’ this reaction was not justified. It wasn’t right.
Reflecting on that moment this morning at 6:00 am as I whisked through the woods on some seriously serene, fast skate decks in Leadville, Colorado, rushing in a workout before work, I realized that at no other point in my life had I been as convinced that “this is all that matters” as when I was that five-year old storming off the SederDome backyard football field. I was never closer to cementing my identity fully in sport. In other words, yes, I’m admitting, the SederSkier, 1,100 annual hours last year and all, was never more irrationally wrapped up in a sport, than when I was five. I know, skate skiing at 10,000 feet might deplete the oxygen supply to the brain, but I think my recollections and synthesizing of these thoughts, memories, and principles to the most recent week of FIS racing was, in this case, at least somewhat aptly applied.
Those who know me well might find my claim of being a five-year old Kobe who has “Benjamin Buttoned” when it comes to tenacity, a bit hard to believe. Afterall, they have seen a progression of unceasing and ever increasing intensity in my prioritization of sport, haven’t they? Isn’t this the same guy who, between junior high and high school, shot 300 free throws every day, every summer, all in the name of ‘making the team?’ Then, in college, became the Division III incarnate of Owen Cassidy (Once a Runner) in the flesh, living out 100 mile weeks and monastic training camps as a distance runner? Hmmm …. And today, at 29, even I would consider my passion for cross country skiing and the perhaps irrational dream I hold of competing one day on the Visma Classics circuit my most bold and serious ambition yet. So, how can I say that it was at five that I was the closest I’ll ever be to embodying Kobe or MJ, or yes, even Bulshonov, in being absorbed and controlled by sport and success and believing that the essence of existence itself was determined by my achievements and legacy in a game? And what does this have to do with Lahti?
Through the years, I have increased my dedication to sporting pursuits, all while simultaneously decreasing the extent to which my identity is derived from them. This is the key. Today’s athletes are walking in the other direction, to their own peril (unless you think outbreaks, temper tantrums, and swinging fists are what sports are all about. I think Brian Kilmeade might disagree, as would the handful of eventual POTUS’s, actors, doctors, teachers, etc., included in his text I quoted at the beginning of this article. The essence of his book is that sports was the vehicle which prepared these people to do great things….in something other than sports!). The amount of fame and attention we give them through social media channels especially, has only hampered their discernment. In addition, the overwhelming pressure placed on young athletes to achieve success, instead of simply learning how to use sports as the ultimate training ground for life, has led to a rotting – er, ripping – of our sporting fabric in terms of sportsmanship, character, and the emergence of true champions.
Because, using the words of my favorite sports radio show host, who sarcastically but constantly utilizes the phrase, “I like bringing everything back to myself,” I’ll keep juxtaposing my experience in sports with those on the biggest stage. I know – I’m NOT a pro athlete, but when I compare myself to some of these guys who act like babies when things don’t go their way, I start to wonder if we actually should trade places. Well, here we go – more about myself. If you want to talk about you, get your own blog. (Common Man Fans, you got the reference ….)
The older I’ve grown, the more I’ve increased my zeal and commitment to my athletic pursuits. But alongside that has been an increase in balance and perspective. When frustration hurdled itself at me in the form of an 0-12 night from the field as a high school shooting guard, I never once forgot to shake hands after the game, knowing my ability to influence teammates and more importantly, the 2nd grader – the next “Ryan Sederquist” – sitting in the stands, as a role model who prioritized character, was more important than making an ego-laced statement of my frustration. When referees missed a reach in foul, I knew it was better to turn the other way and get ready for the next play rather than stomp around and let everyone know it was the wrong call, and “obviously a dude as amazing as myself couldn’t just lose control of the ball….it has to be someone else’s fault, you know.” When it snows five inches an hour after the Mineral Belt trail has been groomed, I do look to the heavens and shake my fists, but for some things, crying out for justice is warranted.
Here is the epiphany: I realize now, I never would have hopped on this ‘perspective train’ if my dad wouldn’t have pulled me aside ….in our backyard…..when I was still a kindergartner.
What’s my point?
Well, in today’s age of sport, I’ve noticed far fewer athletes – no matter the status – able to hold their emotions in check, and I think I am starting to realize why. A couple of years ago, the video surfaced of Myles Garratt, defensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns, whacking Mason Rudolph, quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, using his helmet in the same way Gimli forges his battle axe in Lord of the Rings. He could have killed the guy. Over what? A “missed” holding call? A ‘mean thing said out loud.’ It was a next level temper tantrum. The “Malice in the Palace” at Arden Hills came at a time when society still knew, universally, how ridiculous such atrocious behavior was. Now, however, we don’t really think twice about a sprinter chucking his spikes into the stands after false starting, an NBA player putting a dirty screen on an innocent guy as ‘payback,’ or any other manifestation of the refusal of the theistic athlete to remember their actual place in the grand scheme of things. See, when I was a little kid (not that long ago….I didn’t actually play in the 1958 Johnny Unitas game after all), I was told that one reason you are supposed to display humble character in all circumstances is because “little eyes” are watching, and if they see you let your guard down on your temper, they will think it’s ok to act out of control. Well, people, apparently large swaths of “little eyes” saw hordes of unsportsmanlike conduct, and now, they are all grown up and we are facing the consequences. Expect to see a lot more “Bulshonoving.”
So, why do I think this is a trend and not a singular incident? We could all probably produce several reasons, but if you haven’t already deduced my main synthesis, let me entertain the reiteration of just a couple.
First of all, and it probably isn’t coincidence that the absence of this quality neatly (or, inconveniently, perhaps) coincides with the ever decreasing presence of fathers in our country and world, young people are not being taught how to handle emotional swings when they are treated unfairly partially because they have no grounds and/or foundation to behave in a way that runs contrary to their own human nature. In other words – they are living out the necessary conclusions of their worldview, obeying the ultimate authority which holds together the web of interconnected beliefs. Bulshonov was ripped off in that relay, no doubt. Had the, as Devon Kershaw described it in the Fasterskier.com podcast, ‘dirty move’ NOT happened, Bulshonov probably has the silver medal draped around his neck. He had every right to be upset. I sympathize with him, because, in fact, he probably had more on the line in his race than I did in that backyard football game ….although, who knows, maybe if I had won that game, I would be #12 for Tampa Bay right now. (Whispering Jim Gaffigan voice: “Does this guy ever stop bringing everything back to himself?”) Therefore, in a sense, Bulshonov was justified in acting like he did – for being upset. The natural man is going to let loose in those types of situations, and unless he has sufficient grounds to act otherwise and to turn the other cheek, do we really expect him to?
However, in another sense, because Alexander Bulshonov is not the final arbitrator for cosmic justice, he really isn’t justified. And this is where we get to the meat of the matter. Some people may reword the meaning behind my last sentence this way:
“You don’t do that because it just isn’t right.”
Presuppositional Apologist: “Why? Says who?”
Normal, secular response (well….quickly becoming NOT normal): “It just isn’t.”
For now, I’m ok with that answer. However, if you skipped over the sentence with the words, “living out the necessary conclusions of their worldview,” this is where it is related. You really can’t just say, “just because,” and the reason we’ve seen this deterioration of behavior is ultimately …ultimately…because as a society, we’ve been running on borrowed capital when it comes to morals for far too long, and now, the foundation – or rather, lack thereof, – is being exposed. If you are a Skieologian follower, you know what is really true, but let’s just be satisfied, for this article’s sake, to accept “it just isn’t right,” as satisfactory reasons for condemning the actions we saw post-finish line.
Instead of realizing that injustices are a part of sport, and that human emotions and frustrations are a part of sport, but that ultimately, our identity can never find secure footing in who we are as an athlete, Bulshonov acted in accordance with what he knows and really believes in his heart:
This is everything.
Now, I’ll bet if I pressed him with this accusation, he would firmly deny it and say he has many things outside of skiing that give him happiness. That is all fine and well, but the reality is, if he truly had his identity, deep in his heart, placed on a firm foundation, this wouldn’t happen. (Or, if it did, it would immediately be condemned by himself. Afterall, everyone makes mistakes every now and then). The scary part is the fact that Bulshonov, like Myles Garratt, like Ron Artest, like x,y,z athlete who has acted dispecibly in the public eye, seemed to convey the idea of, “I was treated unfairly….what do you expect me to do?….I’m Alexander Bulshonov, World Cup Champion.”
Here is the second reason, and it is connected to the first: Bulshonov, and many others more so than him, have been idolized and pedastalized by media and fans, through social media especially, beyond what their human capacities are even able to handle. It’s as if we tried to place the Empire State Building on top of the foundation for a two-story house. No human was made for the kind of idolization today’s athletes (and any other public figure) face, and we are starting to experience the reverberations.
You know, back when MJ and Larry Bird and Charles Barkley were kings of the NBA, they still went home and made a sandwich (or maybe 5 pizzas if you were Barkely), and guess what? No one knew about it! Not so today. I can know what Johannes Klaebo’s kitchen looks like, where he keeps his knives, and how he makes his spaghetti sauce. Heck, he’ll livestream it being made so I can see him in real time! I can touch the hem of the garment of all of these Norse gods! We all have access to everyone, 24/7, and every time we like a post, show our interest in general, and talk about these guys (crap….guilty right now!), we affirm their belief (which they may be oblivious to holding) that they transcend all of us ‘normal’ folk. I know, Barkley got into fights, too … let’s not go down the rabbit trail.
Remember the last paragraph about ‘cosmic justice?’ If you don’t, now might be a good time to go back, because I’m about to tie these two points together.
If, on the one hand, behaving like a champion – a true champion – you know, the kind who display honorable sportsmanship in all circumstances – is justified because “it just is,” or because of some higher, transcendent justice, then, when we push our hero athletes into a position of believing they are in fact a ‘god,’ do you really expect them to bow the knee to those thetical standards? The answer is a loud no. And I’ll be honest, when I post something on Instagram or Facebook, I’m popping champagne if it hits double digit likes. For Lebron, he doesn’t even check back until it hits 100,000. I feel a boost when someone comments. I can’t imagine what would happen – how I would deteriorate – if I had a constant flock of worshippers stroking my social media ego. Do you really think our human psyche was meant to handle that kind of adoration? I don’t.
“Act like a champion,” we plead of Bulshonov. Let’s be real: he is acting exactly how we should expect him to act, given the foundational principles we have built, endorse, and affirm as a society built on shifting secular sands. If you are starting to read into my text on a deeper level, you are close to the kingdom — maybe it IS time to sign up for the SederSkier Apologetics class after all!
Here is the silver lining in all of this. If you are frustrated so far by the tone of this article, hopefully you are about to be filled with some joy. Matt Whitcomb, the head coach for the US Ski team, posted a very telling response to all of this on Twitter, and I freaking love it:
To be clear to any kids and coaches watching: This tackle by Bolshunov is not okay. If a U.S. athlete did this, they’d be sent home and removed from the team. A disqualification would just be the beginning of their problems.
We could debate whether or not Whitcomb, if he was dealing with a horse like AB in his stable, would actually do this, which is fair. It’s one thing to bench the World Cup rookie and quite another to silence the best skier in the world. I for one, however, would not for a second put it past him. Whitcomb is world class in character. Like Kershaw said on his podcast, the US team and US fans should be thankful we have him. He is absolutely right. For all of the crap they get for not putting together consistently relevant World Cup results and finally getting the squad ‘over the hump,’ Whitcomb and company should be praised relentlessly for doing one thing absolutely right: they are using sport in its ultimate, highest purpose: as the training ground for life.
In the meantime, here is a call for all coaches …no….for all the moms and dads out there:
Train your kid up in the way he should go, please. Teach them what really matters. Teach them how to be gracious in defeat, humble in victory, and a champion who knows what true success is – the satisfaction of knowing you gave 100% effort to be all that you can be. And if you really know what you are doing, teach them why.
You didn’t like what you saw in Lahti. Get ready to see a lot more of it.
Or, put your phone down, go outside….and play some touch football with your kid.