A World of Hurt

Athletes get back up and play again. Just ask Zab Judah. Scott Heavey/Getty Images

Maybe Mike Rice is the Buddha.

Maybe Mike Rice means to teach your children that the world is filled with suffering, and that the only way to move through it on the way to enlightenment is to let go of longing and ignorance.
As an educator, he'll teach this lesson by screaming obscenities and throwing basketballs.


When Jason Taylor took the needle and Dan Le Batard later wrote about it, what was the lesson for the rest of us? That a career in the NFL is worth whatever pain you're willing to pay for it? That one man's threshold exceeds another's? That professional football, like sainthood,
demands an earnest and systematic mortification of the flesh?

Is pain a means to grace? To clarity? Is it an "instrument for perfecting" ourselves? If so, how? Where's the line between the instructive and the destructive? Between, as Bill Rhoden asks here, abuse or cruelty or absurdity on our way to the toughness we prize so highly in our heroes?

If pain ennobles us, surely it does so by making us more empathetic and sympathetic. By making us more compassionate. Is pain the method by which we teach the lesson? Or is pain the lesson itself?

What are sports meant to teach?


If, as Joyce Carol Oates suggests, sports are an American religion, these questions aren't as crazy as they seem. How we become who we are, and how we "build character," are fundamental to the faith.

I asked some answers of Howard Nixon, sociologist and professor at Towson University, and the author of some of the defining work in the field of sports sociology. I quote his thoughtful and generous reply here in part. The rest appears as a sidebar to the right of this column.

First and foremost, "serious" sports depend on the acceptance of pain and risk of injury, since all of them push the body and many involve increasingly violent contact and collisions. Athletes learn to accept pain and the risk of injury as part of being an athlete. (See Jay Coakley's work on the "Sport Ethic," which is about the beliefs embedded in the culture of sport that define what it means to be a serious athlete.) Furthermore, coaches, fans, the media, sponsors, and others create pressure on athletes to risk their bodies by glorifying risk takers and those willing to play with pain. The fact is that this kind of behavior serves the interests of those who run sports, invest in sports, and watch them more than it serves those whose bodies are sacrificed. Indeed, bodies are sacrificed so that we can see exciting, highly physical competition. Viewers seem to perceive intense physical contact as especially entertaining or at least this is what sports promoters appear to believe.


"Aus der Kriegsschule des Lebens: Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker."
("Out of life's school of war: What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.")

-- Friedrich Nietzsche

"No pain, no gain."
-- Jane Fonda


Even as the NFL frets over CTE (or the CTE lawsuits), no sport makes a cult or culture of pain like boxing. Even in its twilight, prizefighting isn't (only) about how much pain you can inflict, but how much you can bear.

Watching Zab Judah train for a fight this weekend, I was reminded of the body shot he took from Amir Khan in 2011. It was a punch so evil and perfect that my friend Chris Jones wrote a whole column
about it.

A punch like that causes all sorts of strange satellite pain, express-delivered by your scrambled, panicking nervous system. You can feel a punch like that in the arches of your feet, in your balls, in your back, in your eyes. A punch like that somehow leaves you gasping for air and feeling as though you're full of air all at once. A punch like that makes you feel, frankly, like you're going to s--- your trunks. But more than anything else, a punch like that puts a terrible picture in your head: You can see this black, spreading stain just under your skin, all of your body's essentials bleeding out and filling spaces where they don't have any business. A punch to the head can make you feel dizzy or woozy or sleepy, but it doesn't hurt, exactly. A punch like that one, like the one Hopkins slipped into De La Hoya, makes you feel as though you're about to die.

To understand what it means to throw a punch, try this 1996 short (subscription required) from novelist and lunatic Richard Ford.

And once punched, why would any of us ever seek it out again? Is our memory of pain bright and specific across the mind and the senses? Or is it just a blank, a gap in the timeline when we recall being hurt, but not the specific pain of the injury?

"Mentally and physically I give myself an A-plus," Judah said four days before his next fight.

Is this the blessing of forgetfulness?


The idea that physical and mental toughness are essential to performance isn't limited by sport or by sex, as Abby Wambach reminds us this week.

Pain is the crucible, the forge, the hammer and the anvil. It is the brand strategy and the sales pitch and the slogan on the poster at the foot of the bed.

Buttercup: You mock my pain.
Man in Black: Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.

-- William Goldman


Emotional pain; psychological pain; spiritual pain; physical pain. Pain management. Pain killers. How much are we willing to bear? How much are we willing to inflict?

Does it toughen us? Or just make us compliant? Obedient?

From John Wooden to Bobby Knight and back to Phil Jackson, even a real Zen master needs to keep the student's attention.


"I do strongly feel that among the greatest pieces of luck for high achievement is ordeal."
-- John Berryman

In sports, pain is status. Pain is a vanity. Pain is currency. Except to harden ourselves, why would we ever choose it?

Can a cliché save you? Can the example set by an athlete help you manage your breakup? Your job loss? Your cancer? Yes.

But after Kevin Ware, let every American coach go forth and please shut up forever about how you're not hurt unless there's a "bone showing." And remember as well that verbal abuse doesn't work.

Does the value of our own suffering lie only in understanding how to end suffering in others? Every generation, every individual learns and forgets and relearns the same small part of the human puzzle.

In the meantime, Mike Rice is screaming at your children.