Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sports Ethics: "Body of Work" & Responsibility for a Life

People around sports will often refer to a player or coach's body of work in comparison to a particular game, season or even  moment in their career. They point out that sometimes this is the best way to judge a person. This theme arose quite often as individuals struggled to make sense of and eulogize Joe Paterno after his death and in light of the sex abuse scandals that helped end his coaching career. This phrase has wide currency and to me makes a lot of sense.

Body of Work offers a powerful way to view a human being or institution. Looking at the body of work requires a particular moral point of view. It insists that a person or institution should be judged by the entirety of the work they have done, and the entirely makes room for both good and bad. To achieve this point of view a person must step back from the clamor of the moment and call up a person or institution’s history in all its intricacy.

This frame of reference often arises when a person is begin discussed for an award like the Hall of Fames, All American or all star teams. Sometimes it arises when people struggle for eulogies such as people trying to make sense of Coach Joe Paterno’s life given the disgrace of his last months. It invites a person to stand back and assess the history and arc of a life, not just a moment. This approach offsets the American and sports penchant for very short memories and shifting between anger and adulation on the swing of a bat or shot of a ball.

I believe assessments should always try to account for the body of work especially in these broader assessments. I think “body of work” matters because this angle of vision offers individuals the chance for redemption or to balance mistakes or sins.

Let’s face it we all make mistakes and often sin. By sin I mean committing an act we know is wrong, sometimes from lack of courage or negligence or just momentary bad judgement, but we do it. This is not one of those “it is what it is,” this means we blew it. As Tom Brady so succinctly put it at the end of the Western Division NFL championship game, “I sucked big time today.” As coach Mike Krzyewski mentioned on an interview on Joe Paterno, “we all sin.”

Body of Work also matters because it balances off the human memory’s tendency to remember the worst and forget the best. So many people get enshrined for a mistake. Think Bill Buckner in the sixth game of the world series when he booted the ball and the Red Sox went on to lose the series. Many regard this error as definitive proof of the “curse of the Bambino.” It took an entire team to lose the series, but Buckner, a solid and fine player who has gone on successful business and coaching career, is frozen in time with that one error.

I think Body of Work captures nicely the pattern of human life. Our lives have ups and down. We flourish, we fail, we get up or others help us get up. We have good years and bad years. But beneath a good life lies a tenacity to achieve and colleagues and friends who help each other along the way.
An individual can view life the same way. Seeing life as a body of work enables a person to forge a moral balance. We make mistakes or we may do the wrong thing. We know it and accept responsibility. We may pay for our mistakes in humiliation or like Michael Vick and his infamous treatment of dog betting, going to jail. But each of us can work to right the moral balance with actions to help or build up the good. People perform penance for wrong done and redeem themselves all the time. Mortal men and women strive to rectify and learn from mistakes and overcome the failures.

So body of work matters for assessing a career by others but also by myself. Italian renaissance thinkers believed that creating our own life is our greatest work of art. They believed each of us carries a responsibility to fashion moral balance and beauty in our life, even with our flaws.

We respect a life, not just a moment. Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers has struggled with addiction and alcoholism for years. Recently he relapsed. Appearing before the media, he reiterated his own faith and insisted, "I could hide in shame and not show up tonight and be withdrawn, but I didn't want to do that…I'm doing what I had to do today. I am fessing up. I am going to be a man about it, I am fessing up. People are going to call me a hypocrite, but I am a sinful man."

Granted any good spin-doctor will script such a phrase, and people like Tiger Wood or Bill Clinton live and die by the repetition of such a script. But even its abuse suggests the strength of this life narrative. The body of work offer all of us, mortals and hypocrits, the opportunity to restore a moral balance. My own religious tradition insists that we do not need to be good per se, but if we act as if we are good, we may grow into integrity.

The conflicted and tortured eulogies around the death and burial of Joe Paterno at Penn State reflect this. People wanted to acknowledge the power of his body of work but somehow ignore or downplay the moral failure around the child abuse.

I think of another approach. Joe Paterno was no saint. College coaching is not a profession for saints. He was hard nosed, demanding, ref baiting, domineering but he could touch certain type of young man and help him grow into a better human being. If we do not demand that he or anyone be a saint but a mortal flawed human capable of good and bad, integrity and error, then the remembrance becomes less torturous.

He permitted his considerable reputation and winning to benefit Penn State University. He also made a moral mistake and abetted by negligence a culture that hid a pattern of child abuse. As a Catholic he would have known well the desire to do penance and right the moral balance. But judgment balance by the body of his work.

Body of work builds on the metaphor of humans as artists, but it may be too kind. It suggests a coherence or orderliness while I think our lives possess immense chaos and randomness. We struggle to give it shape and meaning with effort, grace and a little help from our friends. We should always remember this in judging.


  1. I basically agree with your post, but I take some slight issue with the statement "Joe Paterno was no saint." First, we need a bit of definition. The following came from
    The word "saint" literally means "holy," and, in the New Testament, "saint" referred to all who believed in Jesus Christ. (see, e.g., Ephesians 1:1 and 2 Corinthians 1:1). Very early on, however, the meaning of the word began to change to those who lived lives of extraordinary, or heroic, virtue. Eventually, the Catholic Church created a process, called "canonization," through which such venerable people could be recognized as saints by all Christians everywhere.

    All that said, and even with the narrowed definition of "canonized saint," if to be considered a "saint" one must never have committed sin, then only the Blessed Virgin Mary could qualify. If we look at the "body of work" of some "canonized saints" we see some interesting pictures:
    Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was one of the key church fathers who lead in the development of Christian theology, however, his early years were checkered, something he himself admits to in his seminal work Confessions (400), but after flirting with Manicheism he eventually converted to Christianity, the faith of his mother, St. Monica. His conversion is often attributed to St. Monica's continual prayers for his conversion during his early, and certainly not very saintly, years.
    Saint Olga married Prince Igor I of Kiev in about 903. Igor was the son of Rurik who is considered the founder of Russia. Igor became the ruler of Kiev, a state which included parts of what is now Russia, the Ukraine, Byelorussia, and Poland. When Igor was murdered in 945, Princess Olga assumed the regency until her son was of age in 964. She was known as a ruthless and effective ruler, revenging her husband's murder by executing the killers and their followers. Again, not very saintly.
    Of course, we need not go that far to find canonized saints who were not flawless. We need look no further than those two icons of the Catholic Church, St. Peter, the first pope, who denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed, and St. Paul, f/k/a Saul of Tarsus who was a famous persecutor of Christians before his conversion on the Road to Damascus.
    From these few examples, it appears that, even the Catholic Church examines the "Body of Work" in determining sainthood (with emphasis on ones later life, particularly after an event or period of conversion). The Church also has the ability to rely on verified miracles to bolster its proclaimed judgment that certain people are "saints."
    Thus the statement that "Joe Paterno was no saint," is a judgment as is any pronouncement on the life on the man. The purpose of this post is to say that such a judgment, in my opinion (or judgment): (1) is premature (we certainly have not yet exhausted the time allotted for miracles to be attributed to his intercession); and (2) ignores the totality of the lives of those who are recognized as saints and whose lives are not entirely without stain.

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