The Man in the Arena vs. sports criticism

Brian GaylordCorrespondent IFebruary 17, 2008

Teddy Roosevelt  gave a speech titled “The Man in the Arena” at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, on April 23, 1910. A famous passage from the speech reads as follows: 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” 

When that speech was delivered nearly 100 years ago, there wasn’t much by way of sports criticism occurring in the world. Heck, by comparison with today, there wasn’t much by way of sports occurring in the world. There certainly did not exist the numerous mass communications outlets that we enjoy today. ESPN wouldn’t launch for another 69 years. 

Today, Roosevelt’s words still pack a punch. They may have been a bit self-serving: Having been a high-profile politician, Roosevelt certainly had his detractors. As one scribe wrote, while Roosevelt was on a 10-month safari in Africa his critics at home actively rooted for the lions.

Pro athletes are both admired and envied. For every Bobby Orr for whom adulation will follow him for all of his days, there are countless others not nearly so revered. Perhaps there is no defeat as great as the fall from grace in the court of public opinion. Ask Marion Jones, Roger Clemens, Pete Rose...Bill Buckner. 

Roosevelt’s powerful words are but a couple of keystrokes away from staring me in the face. Maybe one day I’ll print them out, frame them and give them a home in my writing space.

Do I criticize athletes? Uh, yeah. But often more for their character—or lack of it—than for their performance. 

Certainly there’s a place for sports criticism. But I’m reminded of a cautionary tale of sorts. A longtime friend of ex-Patriots quarterback Tony Eason told me a couple of years ago that Eason lives a rather reclusive, lonely life out West these days. The picture he painted of Eason was sad.

Many of Bleacher Report’s readers doubtless recall Eason’s poor performance in Super Bowl XX, when a dominant Bears team ground Eason and the Pats into the turf, 46-10. Though Eason led the Pats to an AFC divisional playoff game the following year -- a loss to the John Elway-led Broncos—he generally was held in low regard by Boston fans, who felt that he was soft.

My advice to aspiring sportswriters: Be able to look at yourself in the mirror and others in the eye. Don’t lose your humanity along the way.