Most critics and defenders of sports share the assumption that the worth of sports should be measured by the extent to which it has a civilizing effect on the performers and spectators. George Orwell, to cite just one example, excoriates what he terms “serious sports” because it “has nothing to do with fair play,” while Kenny Moore, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, maintains that sports uplifts us gently and “nudges a great part of our society from the savage to the humane.” Even though they disagree about whether athletic competition fosters goodwill and sportsmanship, they do agree that it should not be bound up with such qualities as “hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules, and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence.”

In an important sense, this view is completely mistaken. If the players and fans lived up to these ideals, sports would not only be much more boring, it would be far less educational.

Imagine if we judged movies by the extent to which they promote fairness and other commendable kinds of behavior. None of the characters would be allowed to exhibit the kinds of qualities that Orwell criticizes: no hatred, no jealousy, no disregard of all rules, no sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. No behavior that doesn’t rise to the level of fair play. I can’t think of a single movie that has ever lived up to these lofty standards, and it would be a sad day if one did. Since a film like The Godfather would never pass muster, we would all be deprived of a moving portrait of immigration, family, and the American Dream. And not only would films be less engrossing, they would have little or no educational value. Without problematic behavior, they couldn’t express anything very meaningful about the human condition. The same goes for sports. I am not suggesting that athletes and fans should be encouraged to behave badly — quite the opposite — but the fact that they inevitably do so has taught me an awful lot.

On April 8th, 1974, Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record by hitting his 715th home run. This event meant a great deal to me. Aaron was my favorite player. I didn’t care much for his team, the Atlanta Braves, but I listened to a lot of their games solely because of him. I coveted his baseball cards and would have gladly traded all of my other Baseball Trading Cups, which came with the purchase of a Slurpee at a 7/11, for his. My sister and I celebrated his record-breaking homer with balloons and other party favors. Although she didn’t care about sports, his achievement captured her attention because it was of transcendent importance. All of America was rooting for Hammerin’ Hank, or at least that’s what I naively believed.

It turned out that his life during the chase was a living hell. He received bundles of racist letters, had his life threatened on numerous occasions, and the FBI uncovered an attempt to kidnap his daughter. He was forced into seclusion and still lives a very guarded, many would say paranoid, life. As he put it, “It should have been the happiest time of my life, . . . but it was the worst year. . . So many bad things happened. . . Things I’m still trying to get over, and maybe never will.” He still worries that people will drug his drinks, never sits with his back to the door at a restaurant, watches approaching drivers suspiciously, never lets down his guard with strangers, and, above all, avoids ballparks.

As a child, his achievement taught me about racism. The lesson then was relatively simple: blacks were more than capable of competing with whites. All that stuff about blacks being inferior, which I had heard over and over growing up in the South (well, Miami), was nonsense. I don’t want to make too much of this, but Mr. Aaron helped teach me that everyone should be judged by what they do and not by their skin color or any other irrelevant factors. As an adult, what he has gone through has helped me understand racism on a more subtle level. As he admits, a lot of the public treated him very positively. Nonetheless, he still feels bitter. He rarely discusses the record-breaking homer, because “It brings back too many unpleasant memories.” The racism he was subjected to eventually reached a critical mass, to the point where he could no longer enjoy what might very well be the most important record in American sports, and to the point where it’s understandable that he distrusts even the most innocent, well-meaning people.

The lesson he taught me as a child had to do with the best ideals associated with sports. He changed my attitudes towards race and really did help civilize me. The lessons he taught me as an adult, through his bitter account of the events that unfolded during his chase of Ruth’s record, are based on the sad fact that sports often has little to do with fair play. Like films, sports often expresses the most about the human condition precisely because people sometimes manifestly fail to live up to our society’s ideals.

~ Ken Pendleton