In a letter to the editor in 1988, literary critic Eddie Dow tried to set the record straight:
In 1926 Fitzgerald published one of his finest stories, ”The Rich Boy,” whose narrator begins it with the words ”Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”
Ten years later, at lunch with his and Fitzgerald’s editor, Max Perkins, and the critic Mary Colum, Hemingway said, ”I am getting to know the rich.” To this Colum replied, ”The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money.” (A. Scott Berg reports this in ”Max Perkins, Editor of Genius.”) Hemingway, who knew a good put-down when he heard one and also the fictional uses to which it could be put, promptly recycled Colum’s remark in one of his best stories, with a revealing alteration: he replaced himself with Fitzgerald as the one put down. The central character in ”The Snows of Kilimanjaro” remembers ”poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of [ the rich ] and how he had started a story once that began, ‘The very rich are different from you and me.’ And how someone had said to Scott, yes, they have more money.”
World-class athletes, though, really do seem to be different from you and me, and not just because they have better physical skills and (some of them) more money. We act shocked when athletes we think we understand, like LeBron James or Tiger Woods, surprise us with their behavior, or when a great player like Isiah Thomas degenerates into a complete lunatic once he’s off the court. (Sorry, Knicks fans.)
The strangeness (and unbelievable abilities) of top athletes is the theme of David Foster Wallace’s 1995 essay “The String Theory,” about the lower rungs of pro tennis:
Americans revere athletic excellence, competitive success, and it’s more than lip service we pay; we vote with our wallets. We’ll pay large sums to watch a truly great athlete; we’ll reward him with celebrity and adulation and will even go so far as to buy products and services he endorses.
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 cliches 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 focus. 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.
This willful ignorance breaks down when 1) an athlete is sufficiently famous and dominant that we expect more from him, 2) an athlete suddenly fails to succeed, 3) an athlete allows those idiosyncrasies out more than is necessary, 4) an athlete’s competing in a sport that we don’t understand well or follow closely.
For instance, Michael Jordan is a great example of a top athlete who never broke character, whose talents never let us down (that stint with the Wizards being apocryphal, and best ignored), and won at the highest level in a widely followed sport. Yet by all accounts, he was a hypercompetitive, gambling-addicted sociopath. In The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons offers my favorite take on Jordan:
Chuck Klosterman pointed this out on my podcast once: for whatever reason, we react to every after-the-fact story about Michael Jordan’s legendary competitiveness like it’s the coolest thing ever. He pistol-whipped Brad Sellers in the shower once? Awesome! He slipped a roofie into Barkley’s martini before Game 5 of the ‘93 Finals? Cunning! But really, Jordan’s competitiveness was pathological. He obsessed over winning to the point that it was creepy. He challenged teammates and antagonized them to the point that it became detrimental. Only during his last three Chicago years did he find an acceptable, Russell-like balance as a competitor, teammate, and person.
And still, nearly everyone agrees (and I do too) that this made Jordan the best basketball player, certainly better than Shaq and Wilt and (so far) LeBron, who just had different pathologies.
At Deadspin, Katie Baker takes this in a different direction, looking at ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary on BMX and X-games legend Mat Hoffman:
[A] leprechaun-faced, sparkle-eyed freestyling daredevil who did things on sketchily self-constructed ramps in his tweenage backyard (“he’s this shady little kid from Oklahoma just blasting,” recalls one former pro from that era) that no one else in the sport had even conceived of. Hoffman was so instant a splash that in his first sanctioned competition he took first in the amateur bracket, turned pro on the spot, and then went on to win first place in that class as well. By the next day he had 15 sponsors lined up.
But while the retrospective into Hoffman’s game-changing theatrics appears on the surface a delish amuse-bouche for the X Games, it also may cause a few viewers to choke. He nails 900s, yes, but he also breaks over 300 bones. He flies high, but then he lays low. Like, in a coma-type low. As one friend of Hoffman says in the film, describing his jumps off an ever-heightening ramp: “It would go from this beautiful soaring thing to a violent crash so suddenly. We’d be like, ‘is he dead?’…
It’s easy to see films like these and lament the death-defying choices of men who have families and children, to judge them harshly for their inability to say no, but I wonder sometimes what the alternative is. Some people are simply hard-wired this way. (It’s almost too perfect that Hoffman had a dear friendship with Evel Knievel.)
Tony Hawk understands, saying: “That’s who we are! We love it too much to hang it up. I hate when people ask me that: ‘When are you hanging it up?’ Like, if I’m standing on my own two feet? I’m riding a skateboard.”
You can’t watch the footage of Hoffman as a young kid and not see that he’s different, that he can’t not do these things. “I just kick my feet,” he tells one professional rider who asks how he pulls off an impossible move, sounding like some kind of Will Hunting savant. He talks about lying in bed dreaming about how to build higher ramps. “That’s the fabric of who Mat is,” says one friend. Who are we to tell him to change?
Add in the fact that Hoffman suffered his most life-threatening injuries trying to perform for TV audiences for ESPN and The Wide Word of Sports, and it’s hard to see exactly what the difference is between him and football players or boxers suffering one concussion (or some other major injury) after another, sometimes dying on the field or in the ring, in far too many cases dying too young.
The one difference between Hoffman and the others is that he didn’t make fans feel betrayed by a celebrity like LeBron, he wasn’t easily ignored like Wallace’s low-level tennis pros fighting it out in the qualies just to make a living, and he didn’t entertain a gigantic audience for more than a decade like Michael Jordan or Muhammed Ali.
We are all witnesses.
Update: Reader Nick pointed out that the first version of this post implied that Hoffman’s career was significantly shorter than Jordan’s or Ali’s; the contrast I was trying to draw was between the allowances most of us make for athletes in “major” sports versus those in “extreme” competition, especially when the former are just as dangerous and personality-specific as the latter, if not more so.