That to philosophize is to learn to die

One of my outstanding college teachers was English professor Dain Trafton, now retired. Professor Trafton had devoted his dissertation to Shakespeare; he loved the literature of the Renaissance. The only Renaissance writer he ranked in the pantheon with Shakespeare, just a notch below him, was Montaigne.

In Professor Trafton’s course on the literature of the Renaissance we read Montaigne’s essay “That to philosophize is to learn to die.” Talking about it outside of class, Professor Trafton remarked that he thought participation in sports taught the wisdom of Montaigne. He recalled watching a Dartmouth team being mercilessly trounced on the field, yet continuing to perform with a kind of stoicism and detachment reflected in Montaigne’s teaching. Professor Trafton thought that the athletes had learned something important about life from their sport.

On Friday evenings Jonathan Last and Michael Goldfarb preview the new issue of the Weekly Standard in their Weekly Standard Newsletter. In last night’s Newsletter, Jonathan Last writes in the spirit of Professor Trafton’s observation:

I’d like to direct your attention to this amazing story on the AP sports wire. It seems that the sensitive folks in the great state of Connecticut have decided that they need to look after the feelings and self-esteem of high school football players:
The football committee of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, which governs high school sports, is adopting a “score management” policy that will suspend coaches whose teams win by more than 50 points.

A rout is considered an unsportsmanlike infraction and the coach of the offending team will be disqualified from coaching the next game, said Tony Mosa, assistant executive director of the Cheshire, Conn.-based conference.

“We were concerned with any coach running up the game. There’s no need for it,” Mosa said. “This is something that we really have been discussing for the last couple of years. There were a number of games that were played where the difference of scores were 60 points or more. It’s not focused on any one particular person.”

Some have dubbed it the “Jack Cochran rule,” after the New London High football coach, who logged four wins of more than 50 points last year.

In a sense, the only thing surprising about this story is that it’s taking place in Connecticut and not Vermont. But still, it’s an amazing triumph of the victim culture of self-esteem over the virtues of stoicism and manliness.

High school sports are wonderful things. If I had to pick the one thing from my childhood that I miss most, it would be varsity sports: the camaraderie, the excitement, the competition. But looking back on those times, I also valued learning how to handle adversity and loss; how to accept bad calls and embarrassing losses. It’s all part of the package. Losing by 60 is every bit as much of a part of sports as is winning by 1. Both experiences shape us in equally important ways.

We don’t want to think too much about those sorts of things these days. The culture keeps telling us that we’re all winners now. That’s not the truth. The truth is that in life, you win some, and you lose some. Growing up means learning how to handle both with grace.

The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference should let the kids play.

UPDATE: In a telegraphic style, Gordon Daugherty makes a related point:

Agree with everything you say abt character-building effects of playing on in a losing cause. Also think anybody who runs up 50+ point margin (unless he’s got the 4th string in there) is a piece of ****. What does that say abt the character of that coach? What does that build in his players?

I played on a very good HS team (went to state finals), 3rd and sometimes 2nd string, and once our lead was safe, the coach started putting in the scrubs, many of whom were gaining experience for when they became starters as seniors. I still feel that’s a better example. Re the specifics of Connecticut, maybe they shouldn’t have that law (hell, you can’t have a law for everything) but I do agree with what they’re trying to do. I don’t think it’s so much to spare the little darlings’ feelings as to put an end to bad practice.

Maybe his teams can’t help themselves, maybe they can. My guess is that Coach Cochran might benefit from a short course in Montaigne’s “Of moderation”: “As if our touch were infectious, we by our handling corrupt things that of themselves are beautiful and good. We can grasp virtue in such a way that it will become vicious, if we embrace it with too sharp and violent a desire….” The linked translation is Florio’s; the quotation is from Donald Frame’s superb translation/edition.

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