On Mitch McGary, Nietzsche, and Ressentiment
I’m coming at this thing as a fan and as an educator, and as an educator who is a fan of those he educates. Yes, I’m talking about UM men’s basketball players, but not only about them. I’m a fan and educator also of water polo and volleyball players, of hockey and lacrosse players, of soccer and tennis and baseball players; of swimmers and divers and runners and throwers, and of dancers, trumpet players, and writers.
This morning I woke to the news that one of my former students, Mitch, was foregoing his college eligibility to enter this year’s NBA draft. As the tweets rolled in the story emerged that he’d been suspended by the NCAA for failing a marijuana test he was “randomly” administered during this year’s NCAA tournament. At first, I thought someone had hacked the @umichbball Twitter account. But then I saw other media reports quickly follow that confirmed the story.
My first and most abiding feeling was concern for Mitch and I expressed it and will continue to do so. But as I followed the reaction to the story on Twitter and in the news media, I also began to feel angry. It doesn’t take much to make me feel angry with the NCAA: it hypocritically and parasitically sucks dollars out of the lifeblood of the talented young people I educate and who it swears it is protecting, even as it sinks its rapacious fangs into their necks again and again. So that part was easy and I feel my anger has been adequately expressed by others online over the course of the day. Besides, as fucked up as the NCAA is in this and pretty much every other way, they didn’t make Mitch smoke a joint and to make him a victim in the (very appropriate) course of criticizing the NCAA is to diminish him and his freedom to act as he pleases.
But mostly I felt angry at Michigan fans who were sanctimoniously clucking and wagging their fingers at my student. Don’t get me wrong: I understand, to some degree, that they are passionate in their desire for the Michigan Men’s basketball program to win games. And I certainly agree that losing Mitch to the NBA draft will make that a more challenging endeavor next year than it otherwise would have been (though, as others have pointed out, there’s plenty to be excited about for next year if you are paying close attention and are truly a fan of the exhibition of unbridled adolescence that is college hoops.) But the brief spike in self-righteous vitriol directed against this young man still pissed me off.
I’m not interested in rebutting the hostile criticism of Mitch point for point. I can say, and have already said, that he’s a fine young man, by all account appreciated by his teammates, and that I can testify first hand that he is a conscientious student and a very generous classmate. I could remind you all of how during last year’s Cultures of Basketball class 3 on 3 tournament, Mitch (like all the other UM ballers who have played in the tournament over the past four years) treated the games with seriousness and his classmates with respect; how he unselfishly sought to give his teammates opportunities, as though aware that this was a bigger thing for them than for him, but somehow without ever making it seem like it wasn’t a big deal to him; how he gave one of his teammates the MVP medal he’d earned (peep the smile on Lauren’s face in the picture above: that was a moment). I could say, as I have said, that Mitch, like all my students, like all of us, is a human being in process and that this makes him more, not less, interesting, likable, and worthy of my support and admiration. I could point out, moreover, that perhaps the humanity he has shown, in class and in smoking a joint, might actually be an integral part of (rather than some unfortunate obstacle to) what made him so effective and thrilling as a basketball player.
But right, I said I’m not interested in rebuttals or defenses: a real rebuttal would dignify the original hostility and Mitch doesn’t need me to defend him. I’m not certain my anger is any more justified than theirs, but let’s just say I believe it is rooted in something more worthwhile and, for sure, is more honestly and directly expressed. So what I really want to do is point out what I see as the pathetic jealousy and self-frustrated desire I think fuel those who say, for example, that rules are rules and that however dumb they are we must still follow them and that Mitch was selfish for breaking one. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had a term for what is at work behind such statements: ressentiment. It means resentment, of course, but the specific form of resentment we feel when someone else is doing what we wish we could.
The American novelist Henry Miller has a stirring passage on how the feeling arises. He writes:
“Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers”
I don’t mean of course that everyone who criticized Mitch for smoking weed wishes they could be smoking weed. I do mean that behind the proprietary attitude that allows such individuals to feel that they somehow have a claim on Mitch there is the secret feeling (secret perhaps even to themselves) that their own lives aren’t worth very much, that they have been following (even the dumb) rules, and that it’s just not fair goddamnit that some young kid should even try to get away with acting in disregard for the rules. Ressentiment is what we feel when we’ve enslaved ourselves, forgotten that we did it, and then despise those who have refused to do so as though they were evil and trying to get away with something.
So step off. Lay off my student, who is, after all, doing nothing more than what we should all want for ourselves and those we love: imperfectly going about the work of making his real life look like his dreams. Instead of stewing in your suburban hole where you stoke the glowing embers of your resentment by bullying those weaker than you and berating the strong from a safe distance, all in the guise of pseudo-objective moral judgments, try to step up and make your own life what you’d like it to be. It’s not too late for you. It’s never too late.
Or, you could just light up a j and relax. After all, no one is watching you…