Essay / Culture

Arrogant or Thankful?

A great many people idolize professional athletes. Watching a professional athlete drive a golf ball 300 yards to the pin, dunk a basketball, serve a tennis ball at over 120 miles an hour or pass for a touchdown is impressive. But, why do world-class athletic abilities so often lead to world class arrogance? Does athletic competition bring out the worst in us as humans? Are professional athletes a microcosm of our own arrogant attempts to control and make meaning out of a life that is anything but perfect?

Arguably, one of the best basketball players in the world was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday. At his induction speech this individual took shots at anyone he felt held him down or didn’t give him his due respect. He wanted to prove they were wrong in either their assessment of him or show they couldn’t hold him down.

He started by naming the player who beat him out for a spot on his high school basketball team when he was a sophomore, and didn’t stop until he named seemingly all the NBA coaches, general managers and superstars who he felt disrespected him. Mostly, the speech was a cavalcade of arrogance and one-upmanship. He didn’t thank very many people, but talked about how basketball was everything to him.

A few days ago a very famous female tennis star was in the middle of a very tough tennis match. She was in the midst of losing serve (15-30), and, if she did so, she would lose the match. She double faulted and was down 15-40.

The tennis star stormed over to the line judge who had called the double-fault, and in a profanity laced tirade yelled, “If I could, I would take this ____ ball and shove it down your _____ throat.” (To quote Ralphie from A Christmas Story, she used “the queen-mother of dirty words.”) The umpire of the game took a point away from the star for unsportsman like conduct, and she lost the match ending her tournament run.

At the ensuing press conference when she was asked if she was going to apologize to the line judge for her actions said,

An apology for? From me? How many people yell at linespeople? Players, athletes get frustrated I don’t know how many times I’ve seen that happen… I haven’t really thought about it to have any regrets. I was out there and I fought and I tried and I did my best… I used to have a real temper, and I’ve gotten a lot better.

In her arrogance she was blinded to the egregious nature of her actions toward another human being during a tennis match (which is not life and death), but she was so personally wrapped up in the match that she was not able to control herself–even when she knew her actions were being broadcast around the world.

The good news is that not all professional athletes are created equal. David Robinson, a professional basketball player, who played center for the San Antonio Spurs gave an amazing speech at his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame (Watch it here). The speech is best characterized by the word “thankful.” He spoke for 7:45 of which 2:45 were about basketball.

He started by talking to each of his 3 boys saying unique things about each one–David Jr.: “So intelligent and so wonderful…” Corey: “A man after God’s own heart…” Justin: “He is my heart, on my lap… brilliant… a leader.” He wanted them to live up to the Robinson name and make them proud.

He thanked his wife by saying, “You make me want to be a better man every day.” He thanked his parents for, “Planting the seed of faith in me that has grown.”

He ended his speech by sharing about the story of the 10 lepers in Luke 17. After Jesus had healed them only one came back, and how he fell at Jesus feet thanking him. Robinson is a man who has it all: money, fame, influence, and, yet, he compares himself to a leper who is thankful because Jesus healed him. Robinson finishes his speech by saying,

God has followed me during my career and he has blessed me… if anybody who knows me or if anybody has watched me you have seen his hand in my life, and my prayer is that he will walk with you as he has walked with me all through my life.

This was not your typical induction speech, but Robinson is anything but typical. He has donated over 11 million of his own dollars to start a school that helps underprivileged children. The NBA has named its monthly service award after him. When asked if he ever wishes he could play again it is clear that he has moved on with his life, and he does not need or miss the limelight.

It takes a man who knows that all the world’s accolades are nothing, and that we are broken and sick like lepers who need the great physician. It takes a man to know that he is 7’2″ of weakness who desperately needs the strength of the Christ to unflinchingly share his desire that all are healed like he has been because of the love of God. Arrogance is done away with by a clear conception of your person in relation to God’s holiness. May David Robinson be an example for all of us of what true greatness is all about.

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