You’ve only had to run so far, so good
But you will come to a place
Where the only thing you feel
Are loaded guns in your face
And you’ll have to deal with
…and you cannot handle PRESSURE.
— Billy Joel
AT THE RISK OF SOUNDING like Jimmy Carter in a cardigan talking about sports instead of about a national energy crisis it must be said: By almost all available evidence, a vast malaise is infecting this nation’s sports scene. What’s worse is that it seems to mirror our inability to win what should be winnable wars — or, rather, winnable peaces, if peace can be pluralized — in the Middle East.
Never in modern history has the American sports scene looked so bleak. Not just bleak, but weak. As in weak-willed and weak-nerved.
That’s a strong statement, of course. To back it up, it is necessary to set aside the obvious example of Tiger Woods. Woods is, of course, quintessentially American. But he is sui generis. He is no more representative of the general trend of things than is a giant in a land of Lilliputians. Indeed, it is his fellow competitors’ response to him that is representative — and it is not a pretty sight. Aside from weird-swinging Jim Furyk and bizarre-putting-gripped Chris DiMarco, both of whom at least have the grit not to wilt against Woods even if they can’t overcome him, no other American golfer seems be able to avoid being utterly intimidated by him. Or, for that matter, by the weight of their own, lesser, aspirations.
Starting with golf, then, let’s look at the evidence. Fewer and fewer Americans win tournaments on the PGA Tour. Fewer (only 16!) are ranked in the top 50 of the official world rankings. And outrageously few can even stand the pressure of trying to make the Ryder Cup team to represent our country against Europe.
Thanks in part to a silly, funky new points system for qualifying for the Cup team, the final four automatic spots going into the PGA Championship last week were held by players with extremely thin resumes: Vaughn Taylor, J.J. Henry, Zach Johnson, and Brett Wetterich. With boatloads of points available at the PGA, all four seemed at serious risk of being passed on the list unless they could summon a top-10 finish of their own at the PGA.
Result: Taylor, with room to spare to make the cut to stay in the tourney for the final two days, melted down. He went six over par on the final seven holes to miss the cut by a mile. Wetterich, meanwhile, ran up the leader board early, only to self-immolate with two quadruple bogeys in one round. Johnson also missed the cut. And Henry, after a good first round, faded to 41st place, 18 shots behind Woods.
Yet even though a host of players were well positioned after two rounds to pass these four, not a single one stepped up to the plate. In order: John Rollins missed the cut entirely. Stewart Cink at least held semi-steady, and by virtue of at least not embarrassing himself became a “captain’s pick” for one of two final spots on the team. Jerry Kelly tied for 48th. Lucas Glover faded from a first-place tie to a tie for 46th. Davis Love, tied for first after 41 holes, imploded by going eight-over par from then on. Fred Couples missed the cut. Tim Herron contended but fell back on the last 11 holes. Tom Pernice missed the cut. So did Captain Tom Lehman, eventual second captain’s choice Scott Verplank (blowing up at the end of the second round almost as badly as Taylor did), and Arron Oberholser. Established stars Justin Leonard, John Daly, and Lee Janzen (among others) didn’t even enter the radar screen.
And so on. So ignominiously on. Only four Americans (including Woods) finished in the top 11 of the PGA.
And, a few “it girl” teens notwithstanding, the American record on the women’s pro golf tour is even worse.
Now take tennis. This year, for the first time in history, not even one American made it as far as the men’s or women’s singles semi-finals in any of the first three major tournaments. Indeed, only one American, the nearly retired Lindsay Davenport, even made it to the quarterfinals of a major — and that was back in January at the Australian Open.
Now take the sports we Americans invented, baseball and basketball. In the World Baseball Classic this year, the U.S. team featured many of our best Major Leaguers. It was crushed. In basketball, the American “Dream Teams” of the past have turned into embarrassing nightmares. In the 2004 Olympics, the U.S. team barely took the bronze medal, and not a single American was named to the all-tournament team.
In men’s soccer, we get kicked. In track-and-field and cycling, we seem to have joined the dopers rather than trying to win fair and square.
At this rate, an NFL team sometime soon is bound to lose to a squad from NFL Europe — and one made up primarily of Czechs and Norwegians and Swiss, to boot.
It’s not that elite American athletes aren’t fit. It’s that, Tiger Woods aside, they don’t seem mentally tough.
Is our nation going soft? Is our comparative wealth making us complacent? Do our iPods and video games, our SAT tutorials and our grade inflation, our reliance on sports psychologists for emotional sustenance and on our soccer moms for driving us hither and yon, all combine to make us spoiled rather than self-reliant, and over-programmed instead of creative?
SADLY, THE PROBLEM DOESN’T SEEM to be confined to sports. Somewhere along the way, our national will, our national hardiness and our national competence seem to have started to wane.
Our self-appointed intelligentsia can’t seem to find the heart to wage a winning war against jihadists. Fewer Americans (every one of them precious, it must be said) die in three-and-a-half year operation in Iraq than in three-and-a-half hours in some U.S. Civil War battles, yet the talk is all of disaster and despair. The Pentagon so much as considers using mild psychological stress to glean information from imprisoned terrorists, and the hand-wringers fulminate about “torture” and run off to the nearest courtroom.
Heck, even the supposedly hard-hearted Bush administration kowtows to the “Let’s Not Be Audacious” Brigades by letting the French and the United Nations set the terms for a “cease-fire” by our Israeli allies. (Make Hezbollah disarm? Mais non!) And, when Moqtadr al-Sadr first made murderous trouble in Iraq two years ago, American policy was to try enticing him into the new government rather than treating him as the terroristic thug that he is.
We either can’t or won’t secure our own border with Mexico, much less Iraq’s borders with Syria and Iran. We can’t rebuild the nation’s most quirkily romantic and historic city after a hurricane of wind and local, state and federal incompetence. We whine about the need for economic “protection” against foreign businesses rather than competing against them and outperforming them. Our politicians pork up their spending bills and protect their own perks rather than finding the courage to rein in the budget (or to rein in their own appetites for free meals and travel). And we try to fight Islamo-fascists worldwide without a single word from our leaders about the need for shared sacrifice of any kind, much less blood, sweat and tears.
Our national sense of entitlement is huge and metastasizing. Our national sense of duty looks ever more puny by comparison.
A reader might ask if this is all making too much of too little; if it’s making anthropological conclusions far too sweeping for the evidence available. The reader might be right. But who has time to do all the difficult research to prove the thesis? There’s a ballgame to watch on the tube tonight, the steroids are flowing in the clubhouse, and the government will make everything all right anyway. And if we can hire some of those foreign athletes — who keep beating us at our own games — to go fight those terrorists for us, maybe we can close Guantanamo Bay. After all, I hear our Gitmo waterboarding team isn’t even good enough for the medal round.
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