Retroactive Virtue: "At Least We’re Better Than THEY Were"

I wrote a micro-review of a late-90s book and a 2001 movie the other day, and in the spirit of stale-dated opinion, I remember a conversation I had not long ago. It started off with impressions of a 2006 film called Glory Road, and you can be assured, gentle reader, that my not having seen it did nothing to stop the sociohistorical rant that followed.

Glory Road recounts sporting history that made a societal impact. In 1965, what was then called Texas Western College fielded a basketball team coached by Don Haskins, a young coach who would go on to a Hall of Fame career. (Fear not, sports-loather. This post is not really about basketball.) The remarkable thing about that small-conference team was that it had had black players for several years, in a time when many of the major athletic conferences were still completely segregated. Unranked at the beginning of the year, Texas Western had a wonderful season, and American sport reached a great “tipping point” in the 1966 NCAA final: their all-black starting lineup faced the all-white members of traditional powerhouse Kentucky, and defeated them.

My high school coach and longtime fellow whistle-blower and friend, The Don, saw Glory Road when it came out on video. “Not the greatest movie of all time, but watchable,” he reported. I had avoided it to that point mainly because it was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer for Disney and the trailer showed a mid-60s basketball team throwing alley-oop passes off the backboard for splashy, 21st-century reverse slam dunks. Never happened, kids. (Sorry. Nobody was doing that stuff in 1965, least of all when playing for Don Haskins. Sports films so often drive me nuts because they so seldom understand and show the athletes realistically. Argh. But Field of Dreams and Bull Durham were pretty good, so maybe I should actually see the thing. And now back to our regularly scheduled discussion.)

And enough about the jockstraps. What was really interesting to me was The Don’s second comment: “Parts of the story make it hard for me to believe and accept that people were treated like this.” On this score, I could only say that I didn’t doubt the racism at all. Remember Birmingham, George Wallace, Dr. King, the freedom riders for integration, the police dogs, the fire hoses, those enraged white faces? Many of us have seen those grainy news images even if we were too young to directly recall the bitterly fought racial crusades of the 1960s, especially. And pockets of that white resistance/”supremacy” still exist, 40 years later. In ways less blatant and extreme than they once were, we are still deeply racist as a society; North America still behaves as if it is natural for Blacks to live in poverty (or in prison) at tremendously higher rates than those of European extraction do. (It may be that, in Canada, we don’t see quite the graphic evidence of this that Americans can, though our own house is far from tidy; check the stats on our First Nations peoples and the conditions in which many of them live.)

In the public domain in North America, the economic and social disparity is sometimes masked by the high number of African-Americans we can see among the millionaire musicians and especially athletes. However, all we have to do is glance at the crowds to see that those with the money to watch pro sports are almost exclusively white. My observation, far from scientific, is that most of them (like most white home owners) still live in nearly lily-white neighbourhoods. (So do the millionaire black athletes, for that matter.) My buddy noted that the Kentucky coach, while not characterized as a slobbering bigot, was “not painted as a saint”. Adolph Rupp (an unfortunate name, in this context) is a legend in the sport, but should we be surprised if his attitudes reflected what many, perhaps most southerners believed and did in those days?

One of the wisest things I’ve ever heard is apparently the opening line from a novel by L. P. Hartley: “The past is another country; they do things differently there.” I think one of our biggest and most complacent errors is to judge historical figures negatively because they believed and/or acted like ‘most everybody else did at the time. Southerners who could rise above the racist structure of their society weren’t average – they may have been quiet ones, but they were rebels, contrarians, even heroes. People today who look back on a time like that and think, I wouldn’t have been like that in those circumstances are kidding themselves. I hope I wouldn’t have been a bigot in 1960s Kentucky, but I don’t assume it. That would have required remarkable luck and unusual parents. Some of our retroactive virtue comes from ignorance, but it also stems from arrogance. Many of us imagine that we are “self-made men” and women, and implicitly take credit for material and psychological advantages and perspectives that others have made possible for us: attitude pioneers and educational agents on whose metaphorical shoulders we stand, which includes our own ancestors, of course.

In the same way, I’m sure many of our children and grandchildren will judge us harshly and perhaps unfairly. I never, they will probably say, would have gotten stupid on drugs and alcohol for entertainment. Addicted to television? What was that about?! How could they have been so short-sighted and materialistic? Can you imagine people being obsessed with portable telephones and the ringtones that went with them? Or with, oh, what was her name, she was famous, Britney Spears? And tongue-piercing? And smoking tobacco in order to belong? And shopping like it was an Olympic sport? And three-car garages? Listen to me, I never would have driven everywhere in petroleum-burning vehicles that led to catastrophic climate change. And I never would have put my country’s luxuries ahead of the welfare of the whole world…

Oh Zizou, Zizou, wherefore art thou so SELFISH?

(A slightly revised version of this piece, printed after Zidane’s first public statement hinted not at racism but to insults to his mother and sister, appeared in The Ottawa Citzen on Friday, July 14, 2006.) 

The comparisons will be flying. Can you imagine Gretzky clobbering an opponent over the head in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals? Derek Jeter charging the mound to spike the pitcher in the deciding game of the World Series? Michael Jordan decking the guy guarding him with the championship about to be decided? No valid parallels exist in professional sport, to my knowledge, for the moment Zinedine Zidane chose to settle a personal score when there was so much at stake for the team he captained. It was a shocking thing, more for its incredibly bad timing than for the violence of the act itself (which was considerable).

It was clear that the Italians were harassing Zidane physically; but when in his starry career has this not been the case? It was obvious that Materazzi said something vile, something that froze the French captain in mid-stride and brought down the blinding beams of rage; but what taunts hadn’t this child of a poor Algerian immigrant family already heard? And yes, there had been a remarkable Buffon save on what looked like France’s Cup-winner from that same powerful forehead. The rock-hard Cannavaro’s elbow smash, possibly inadvertent, to Zidane’s shoulder? Sure, that happened. Frustrating and brutal things often occur in the context of championship sport, and the mark of the champion is fortitude under the most severe of trials. There is nothing to conclude except that Zinedine Zidane, in the greatest pressure situation of his athletic life, abandoned teammates and national honour in a fit of anger. It was a bizarre act by a sporting idol, one of the most selfish acts we have ever seen from a great and graceful athlete.

Unless it wasn’t. Unless our tendency to attribute heroic character to a man with athletic gifts hasn’t tripped us up again. And maybe, just maybe, unless we have once again assumed that what happens in a World Cup final match is more important than life itself (or racism, or other forms of inhumanity). French athletic supporter that I am (at least during World Cup), I know what my first outraged question was after the head-butt: What could possibly be more important right then than winning the Cup? I was furious with this man I don’t know, whose career I’ve followed about every fourth year. And I guess, too, I wanted to believe in that persistent myth, reincarnated again with Zidane: the superb sportsman as ambassador of good, as role model to the world, as spokesman and exemplar for the most humane of causes.

But I remember the words of a prominent American basketball coach, who told me, “I’ve never known a great player who wasn’t a bit of a jerk.” Good genetics aside, how does someone like Zidane graduate from the ferocious street football games of his impoverished youth to become a star? By never backing away from insults and challenges. By inspiring fear in opponents. By being a hard, hard man. By sporting an ego bigger than all the barriers he faced.

Countering my shocked disbelief was my soccer-savvy friend, who nodded quietly and said, “Do you remember him stomping on the Saudi in ’98? (I didn’t.) Do you remember his head-butt with Juventus? (Um, no.) He’s been red-carded many times.” Zinedine Zidane has to win, and he has to win right now. Amateur psychologists like me might mutter sagely about self-absorption, about “the inability to delay gratification” that is the hallmark of all sorts of immaturity. And this would be true.

But there is more to be heard of this. There are some who would seek to excuse Zidane, or at least to diminish our self-righteous horror (“I would never do such a thing!”). One of the most extreme apologist voices is the American Dave Zirin (“Why Today I Wear My Zidane Jersey”) (, who frames the incident as Zidane’s way of standing against racism and Islamophobia, as an assertion that some things are just BIGGER than sport. And I agree that many things are more important than winning the big game. Included in that list, though, are dignity and self-control, the needs of your companions and the art of the long view. Zinedine Zidane’s scorecard is not yet complete. I still want to believe that nice guys can finish first in all the most important contests, but it would appear that neither the French star nor his Italian antagonist would qualify.