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


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  • Right. Because anyone who criticizes Mitch for smoking weed is a sanctimonious insecure shut-in who clearly doesn’t understand that a 19 year olds right to smoke pot is tantamount to his right to breathe air


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  • Great post, and thoughts that give an insightful portrayal of life. However, your last paragraph is very passive aggressive, and may lose your very true and real points!


    • Thanks for the constructive criticism!


    • Great read–thank you for posting!

      I would just like to add, there’s an aspect to McGary’s situation–and others just like his–that never seems to get mentioned. The NCAA’s reasoning behind banning the use of recreational drugs is the alleged potentially negative public perception of its players. But if you think about it, what’s the genesis of that negative perception? In both Mitch’s case and the vast majority of others, it’s the NCAA/school/league/etc. testing those players and then making the results public. In other words, in the absence of Mitch bing tested and subsequently punished, there’s no issue for the public to perceive negatively! The NCAA essentially generated all the negativity it claims to want to avoid.

      Now, had McGary been arrested for his dalliance with the diggity dank, had his mug plastered on the front page of the Daily while toking a fatty, or even had a fan tweet a pic of him elbows-deep in a bucket of Spots wings with eyes a-blazin’, then and only then should testing and some sort of punishment be considered. But I find it patently absurd, and dare I say “unamerican,” to just randomly and indiscriminately administer what is essentially a physical exam on amateur college athletes with the sole intent of “busting” them, and then pretending to have their best interests at heart!


  • Thank you for writing this! It serves a greater purpose & holds true to so much more than the ongoing situation with Mitch. The hypocrisies and childish demeanor of the NCAA extends to many of our countries elite, starting with elected officials. Well written piece good sir.


  • With all due respect, don’t you think it is fairly hyperbolic to bring up Nietzsche in regards to a 19-year old smoking pot? I appreciate your efforts trying to defend your student and someone who (to most fans) seems like a good kid. But the context of the point Nietzsche was making in terms to “ressentiment” is not the same as what you are making.

    Yes, the “rules are the rules”. No, it doesn’t mean they are right. In this case, there is probably broad sentiment for change. But part of maturing is the realization that the rules apply to everyone and hopefully your student has learned that valuable lesson. It, in fact, will be more valuable of a lesson than any he would have learned in another season at Michigan.

    I look forward to cheering for Mitch McGary in the NBA.


    • Thanks for reading, and for the kind words. But I disagree about Nietzsche … and about the rules. But that’s what’s great about philosophy! Thanks again.


    • The lesson was that the rules do not apply to everyone. Think of how many people on campus, including those he smoked with, who generally see no consequences for smoking pot. And yet he was the one who was drug tested by the very people who earn billions from unpaid players like him. It’s the fact that he and other players get extra scrutiny for their mistakes and are expected to keep to a moral high ground dictated by an organization that is actively taking advantage of them. That is the lesson here.


      • That is well said. Definitely at least one of the (many) lessons here.


      • @csh: I do not defend the NCAA or their rules. But your analogy is false as the other students on campus are not playing the same game as Mitch McGary. You are forgetting that it is the NCAA’s game he is playing and if he wants to play it then he needs to play by their rules (no matter how much you and I may agree about the duplicity, greed, and insipid nature of the NCAA). And he is being treated exactly as how any of his peers who play the same game who test positive for marijuana would be treated. He seems to have made the logical choice, which is not to play their game. There is no blame or selfishness on his part and I do not judge him (and why would anyone?).

        Digressing, if you walk the path of Nietzsche you will find that as an Übermensch you know better than everyone else. Their morals are irrelevant and do not apply to you. And their rules? Based on nothing but vagaries passed down over the millennia. Sorry, but life is inherently unfair. The deck is stacked for or against you from birth. And no laws are ever completely applied equally to everyone. At some point, we are all “bigfooted” or stomped on in life. But the answer is not anarchy or dissolution, the answer is maturity, evolution and change. Fortunately, Mitch McGary seems to be taking the latter approach.


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  • Could not agree more with you. If they wanted to help students they wouldn’t ban them for a year. How about random alcohol tests? Would they be banned for a year for having a drink as well?


  • Because, after all, Heaven forbid a 19 year old kid make a mistake or act like a 19 year old kid. Those at the NCAA and those directing anger at Mitch must have skipped that whole part of life. With compassion, instead of vitriol you made his critics look much worse than a rant would have. Well done.


  • Thank you for expressing very well what I’ve been pondering for some years. It seems to me that one of the dominant ‘voices’ in our culture today is that of the frustrated suburban male, angry at others – at least as he perceives things – ‘getting away with’ what he cannot or does not. It permeates political discourse and it is a poison eating away at our social empathy, in my opinion.


    • Thank you. I didn’t mean suburban as much more than an evocative rhetorical device. If I’d been more precise I’d have said white middle class heterosexual male… Then: many of these seem of late as you say. Thanks again for your comment!


  • Well written. However, this piece was admittingly written from the perspective of a teacher, fan and obvious admirer of the player. I do not know if the author is a father but, I am, and have a son that was has been involved in athletics all his life. For the record, I have no doubt that Mitch is a great kid. All the more reason for a parents guidance. Thus from the perspective of a father, here is my speech to him for his senior year ( yes, I have given variations of this to my own): ” Son, this is a very important time in your life to be aware of your situation. You have turned out to be a great young man and son and you do not want to do anything stupid to risk that in the home stretch. You also have a responsibility to yourself and others, particularly young people that look up to you…to set an example. I will be the first to tell you that you are going to experience a high level of hypocrisy as a young student and athlete. Some of the rules you have to follow don’t make sense and will piss you (and me) off. It is a part of life. But, if you break them knowingly….that will be on you and you will only have to answer to yourself. Others will defend you but, in the end result, will then go back to their daily lives feeling better because they made a statement……. but it will be real for you and the consequences will linger. Look and learn from the other kids that are only remembered for even small indiscretions despite their overwhelming good deeds and otherwise commendable citizenship. So, don’t do anything stupid son and, if you do, I do not want to hear any excuses because there aren’t any. You know the consequences, right or wrong, so don’t let the assholes bring you down and go do great things.”


    • Thank you for reading, and for taking the time to share your response. Best of luck to you and your son!


    • As a parent, teacher, and life ponderer, your advice to your ‘son’ is spot-on. Life is not fair, and what is fair is not always what is equal. Life is full of choices and we reap the benefit (or not) from the choices we make.
      We must accept that as humans, not all our choices will be the right ones. We will continue to make choices – both good and poor – until the day we die. As we grow older, let’s hope we make fewer mistakes – and that learning truly happens. May each of us find our days on Earth rich with life-lessons surrounded by friends and loved ones with whom to celebrate when choices result in good things. May we also find support, acceptance, and perhaps even love from those very same people, when those choices may not have been the smartest/best/most insightful. We are, after all, human.
      Mitch- I wish you the best as you explore ways to make the most of your gifts. I hope you surround yourself by those who nurture your spirit, feed your mind, and will offer guidance as you make life choices. You have as much to offer others as they have to offer you. Keep giving.


  • I am not angry at Mitch, and I don’t think he owes Michigan fans anything, but I am disappointed that this is how his chapter at UM will end, and I am worried about the impact on his future. He shouldn’t have avoided pot for me or for any other Michigan fans, he should have avoided it for himself. I truly hope this doesn’t affect his NBA career and I will cheer for him no matter where he lands. Go Blue!


  • You want constructive criticism? My criticism is that this article is juvenile and not worthy of a UM professor.

    Let me deconstruct:

    Paragraph 1: I’m a fan of all students and student athletes. (Fine. Who isn’t?)

    Paragraph 2: I heard Mitch, being suspended for pot smoking, is leaving UM. (Yeah, we know. You’re addressing the people who are angry about it. Get to it.)

    Paragraph 3: I’m mad at the NCAA for sucking the souls of kids. (So you love the athlete, but hate the institution. Reminds me of that land owner in Nevada.)

    Paragraph 4: I’m pissed off at the UM fans who are angry at Mitch. (Alas, a point! Took you four paragraphs, but we got there. Do your students get away with this kind of lazy writing?)

    …and those angry fans are upset because it hurts UM Basketball 2014-15 (Really? Has nothing to do with our moral compass? Seems like a straw man to me, but tell me more…)

    Paragraph 5: An anecdote about how Mitch passed the ball and gave away his “MVP” medal at a cultural event. (Wait, what does this have to do with UM fans being angry? I thought we only cared about next season? And this story is pretty lame. Mitch has won a Big Ten Championship. Do you really think he cares about running up his stats and getting a medal at a student cultural event? What an angel for not doing so. Oh, and every UM baller according to your point has done the same in the past, so I guess all the ballers are angels, too.)

    Oh, and smoking pot makes Mitch more interesting, not less. (Totally agree. So?)

    Paragraph 6: My anger is rooted in something more worthwhile than yours. (Wow! Big red flag. Can’t wait to hear why.) “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.” (Did he just equate a desire to follow the rules with jealousy for those who cheat? Look out, because there’s a hay shortage building this straw man. And this guy teaches UM students? I smell tenure.)

    Paragraph 7: You’re angry; you’re jealous. (Uh-huh.)

    Paragraph 8: “I don’t mean of course that everyone who criticized Mitch for smoking weed wishes they could be smoking weed.” (Now I’m convinced the professor is smoking while writing. What the hell does this have to do with the anger of UM fans? I thought we were jealous of Mitch’s greatness, not his pot habit.)

    You feel resentment because you’ve followed the rules yet live a hollow life, and someone who breaks the rules lives an extraordinary life. (Huh. I’ve been starving for a real thought, and I think you stumbled on one in the penultimate paragraph. But why is it jealousy to want our heroes to play by the rules? I’m sure you’ll explain…)

    Paragraph 9: So step off. (That’s it? No, wait, here comes the point…) Start living a life of value, like Mitch, it’s not too late, or do nothing and smoke a joint, like Mitch. (Wait, which Mitch are we supposed to emulate? Am I supposed to go spark up? Or is that a bad thing? My god, I’ll never get these ten minutes back. I wish I sparked up before reading. Or I wish that this professor would spend less time idolizing student athletes and more time on his arguments. The latter needs him more.)


    • Thanks for reading and for your meticulous commentary. You ought to write your own post!


      • That’s the right response to an unfortunate troll. Thanks for the article. Yes, I’m sure you could elaborate. I however enjoy reading your opinion without reading a treatise.


  • 19? The guy is like 37! Ask his coach if he agrees with you.


    • Thanks for reading. Did I say he was 19? I think that was a reader in an earlier comment. I’m not sure, but I believe Mitch is 21 or 22. I probably don’t need to ask: I’d guess Coach Beilein has a different point of view than mine, which is cool.


  • Wow,
    I’m not normally a fan of the posts of liberal writing professors, but that was a truly fantastic and coherent piece to read. Much appreciated.


  • Professor Colas:
    Double-degree M alum here, and I love this piece. I think you nailed the “ressentiment” feeling. Keep up the great work.Don’t let the negative comments affect what you’re doing, either (I’m sure they won’t). Bravo.


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  • I am with you 100%.

    Twitter @gshea21


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  • UM jock-sniffer writes article pandering to Walverine Nation who, in turn, kisses ass of said UM jock-sniffer. OMG he gave a worthless MVP medal to a classmate in basketball class!!! What a guy!

    He knew the rules ahead of time. He broke them. End of story.


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