The Truth, Mainly - 05/24/1993

Jock rhetoric upsets moral equilibrium
by Leon Satterfield

Listen to what Alonzo Mourning (hometown, Chesapeake, Va., pop. 132,100) said earlier this month after he hit a jump shot to beat the Boston Celtics in the NBA playoffs:

"The only thing that compares to this is me getting the chance just to play the game of basketball. Me being blessed with this body, this mind and these talents."

I don't know how fans who grew up in big towns (pop. anything over 5,000) reacted, but I'll bet the sharp intake of breath by us rural types caused a momentary low pressure system throughout America's hinterlands.

We don't mind our sports heroes groveling in gratitude for having "the chance just to play the game," but we get awfully nervous when they call attention to "me being blessed with this body, this mind and these talents."

I still remember how my little town (1950 pop. 693) lost its moral equilibrium when Billy Bob Busbee read in the Southwest Daily Times that he'd made honorable mention on the Hi-Plains League all-star team.

"I knew I was good," Billy Bob told the rest of us in the locker room, "but I didn't know I was that good."

Sure, he hung his head modestly when he said it. But that didn't absolve him of guilt. None of us could have given it a name then, but we knew deep down in our jockstraps that he'd done wrong, and we all backed off so we wouldn't get hit by the shrapnel from the thunderbolt that was surely already on its way.

By the end of the day, everyone in the barber shop was talking about what Billy Bob had said, and by the end of the week, all our preachers were digging out old sermons on Pride, the deadliest of the Seven Deadly Sins. Billy Bob stayed out of school for a week with what the note from his mother said was a bad cold, and after he came back we all had the decency not to ask about the plague of boils we were pretty sure had smitten his body.

We knew that when you started talking about how good you were, it was a sure sign that the elastic holding up your pants was about to break.

Urban sports fans will note that big-town jocks have always charmed us with their self-congratulation. They'll remember that Babe Ruth (Baltimore, Md., pop. 760,600) said he deserved a higher salary than Herbert Hoover (West Branch, Iowa, pop. 1,867) because he'd had a better year than the President. Or they'll remind us that after he won an Olympic gold medal at 18, Mohammed Ali (Louisville, Ky., pop. 287,100) introduced himself to New York City as "Cassius Marcellus Clay, the great fighter," and that he liked to talk about how pretty he was.

But out in the boondocks, our running backs are supposed to say that shoot, your grandma can run through those big ol' holes the offensive linemen make. And when you make a jump shot at the buzzer, shucks, it's either dumb luck or Divine Guidance.

I'd never do it myself, but some people have argued that our humility is just more evidence that country boys are morally superior to city boys. Thomas Jefferson (Monticello, Va., pop. 0 outside the Jefferson homestead) believed that "those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue."

He was right, of course, but no real boondocker would make that claim openly. If Jefferson had ever plowed the back forty, he might have had a sharper sense of just how iffy divine favor to the farmer is. He'd have known what we all knew in southwest Kansas: that a 50-bushel-per-acre wheat crop can be wiped out by a five-minute hailstorm, that the weather god has a finely tuned sense of cosmic irony, that the hail is most likely to come just after you announce to the boys at the barber shop that you finally have this farming business figured out. The safest way to a bumper crop is to say it might make 12 bushels if the army worms don't get it.

Here's how you know when a coach comes from the sticks: He'll say things like "Dadgummit, we don't belong on the same field with these guys. We'll be lucky to come in second in this game."

Urban jocks on the other hand have developed more assertive strategies. I understand you survive in the subway by looking, acting, talking crazier than the guy hanging onto the next strap. That means you say things like "Don't mess with me. I'm blessed with this body, with this mind and these talents."

It probably works in Madison Square Garden. But in the rinky-dink gyms of rural America—the ones with the stage under one basket and the padded concrete-block wall under the other—that kind of talk would cause the cow to go dry, the John Deere to blow a gasket, and, just as you go up for the winning jump shot at the buzzer, your pants to fall down around your ankles.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

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