Having a decided preference for sports which recognize that God gave us opposable thumbs for a reason, I tried to ignore the first phase of this past summer’s World Cup. As luck would have it, though, I spent most of the elimination round in Europe, where absorption into the quadrennial madness that besets most of the globe is unavoidable, unless you lock yourself up in the deepest cell of the strictest Carthusian monastery you can find — and then outfit yourself with Bose noise-reduction earphones. So I watched the World Cup final in Cracow with my students in the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society (who hailed from nine different European countries and, with virtual uniformity, cheered for Italy over France — which might tell President Chirac…something). And I witnessed, live and in color, The Head-Butt Shown ‘Round the World, when Zinedine Zidane, the French captain, took offense at comments by Italy’s Marco Materazzi and got ejected from overtime by sending Materazzi to the ground with a sharp application of French cranium to Italian sternum.
A few days later, Bernard-Henri Levy, the French philosopher and political provocateur, took to the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal with a faux-Homeric encomium to Zidane as “a man more admired than the Pope, the Dalai Lama, and Nelson Mandela put together,” a “man of providence, a savior who was sought out, like Achilles in his tent of grudge and rage, because he was believed to be the only one who could avert his countrymen’s fated decline.”
Why, then, did the brilliant Zidane, the finest soccer player of his generation, melt down at the crucial moment? “The only explanation,” according to M. Levy, “is that there was in this man a kind of recoil, an ultimate inner revolt, against the living parabola, the stupid statue, the beatified monument” into which he had been transformed by his brilliant performance in the 2006 World Cup. This was, Homer-Levy continued, “the man’s insurrection against the saint. A refusal of the halo that had been put on his head and that he then, quite logically, pulverized with a head-butt, as though saying, ‘I am a living being not a fetish; a man of flesh and blood and passion, not this idiotic hologram, this guru…which soccer-mania was turning me into.'”
To which the only sensible reply is a French noun that begins with “m” and ends with “e” and rhymes with “scared.”
Sport grips us precisely because of its Homeric qualities: sport tests character as well as skill. Sport loses its profound human meaning, however, when its moral texture gets warped. Ted Williams, the Red Sox Hall of Famer, was the American Achilles precisely because he was flawed and ill-tempered and vulgar and great, and no one made excuses for his vulgarities and crankiness: they were recognized, and criticized, for what they were, even as we applauded the man who was quite possibly the greatest hitter ever, the patriot who sacrificed five years of his career to the service of his country. Pity Zidane, then, for being put onto M. Levy’s psychiatric-existentialist couch, where bad sportsmanship is analyzed into an exercise in noble self-assertion, and a great but flawed athlete is rescued from disgrace in order to become…what? A paladin of “authenticity”?
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know with certainty what Marco Materazzi said to Zinedine Zidane — but it doesn’t matter, finally. Fifty-nine years ago, in the course of breaking baseball’s color line, Jackie Robinson heard racial slurs and death threats throughout a 154-game season — and kept his mouth shut and his fists to himself. The man who arguably did more for civil rights in America than any other African-American, with the sole exception of Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t take a Louisville Slugger to the heads of Ben Chapman, Alvin Dark, or other racist taunters. He played the game fiercely and proudly, and conquered by winning, not by whining.
Bad sportsmanship is bad sportsmanship, period. If we try to explain it away, the nobility of sport is lost and we’re left with psychobabble tarted up as the mock-heroics of the “self.”
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.