I Still Miss David Foster Wallace
Even more after reading this post on True Hoop which my friend Eno directed me towards. A former amateur athlete himself, Wallace wrote several great pieces that involved sport - including, of course, his epic Infinite Jest which had a tennis academy as one of the main locales.
What he's writing about here - and it's worth noting that this is a mere excerpt from a longer Esquire article called "The String Theory" located here - is about our expectations of athletes. We expect not only for them to be perfect on the field, but also off of it. We want them to be the everyman in day-to-day life and then the polar opposite while doing their job. But what we don't realize is that in order to achieve that athletic excellence, they've sacrificed so much that this is often virtually impossible:
But it's better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. Oh, we'll invoke lush clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera. But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one's mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think. Note the way "up close and personal" profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life -- outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what's obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It's farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one area of excellence. An ascetic focus37. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child's world, is very small.
The TrueHoop writer (Mark? I honestly can't tell from the site) adds that as athletes, they DO have free time - between practices and games, there is often lots of free time away from family obligations, etc. But as is pointed out, anyone who has traveled knows that that open time just falls away from you, that it's much easier to see what is on the TV (which also aids the loneliness of being in a hotel in a strange city) than to pick up a book, visit a museum or do something else to catch up on those experiences one may have lost as a youth.
The life of a professional athlete is one most can and should envy, and I do not think that Wallace was offering this piece up as an excuse for their lack of knowledge, grace or culture, but as more of an explanation for why athletes can lack some of the basic fundamentals we expect from people without such a singular focus, one they've had since grade school.
Like most things Wallace wrote about, it's a complex issue made just slightly clearer by his fantastic writing.