LT is an officer in the US Army proudly serving in the Middle East. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of the US Army, the US Department of Defense, or the US Government.
Find your buddy in the Army. The relationship is, in fact, institutionalized — “battle buddy.” As in, have one. As in, make sure his straps are squared away, his weapon’s on safe. If he’s late, you’re late; if he’s sad, BOOM. Don’t blank your buddy (or his wife). Above all, talk to your buddy, because subjects like whether you’d rather have hands-for-feet or feet-for-hands matter.
One conversation with my “battle buddy” has persisted.
The He-Man argument.
I say everybody is He-Man. He says there are some Skeletors. I say that everybody is the hero in their own real life story. He says some people knowingly are the villain. That protagonists don’t have to believe they’re good. I say that everybody at any given moment pursues what they consider to be right and just and good, despite what their actions suggest to everyone else, and he calls that naïve and says that some people just do bad and evil things for bad and evil’s sake. He usually cites a serial killer he read about who stitched lampshades from victims’ skin.
Then we play ping-pong or something.
This He-Man question has relevance to sports. And war. And life. It’s about judgment. It’s an important one. Not a new one.
Our coverage and watching and commentary and thinking of sports are substantially rooted in our judgments of its players, its coaches, its owners, its fans. “Moss’ 2010 season was emblematic of how big a jerk he could become.” “Emmit Smith Thinks Dan Synder is Prideful, Arrogant.” “Tiger Woods Needs to Clean Up His Act.” (Natch, another $50k for Rick Reilly off that last column). An imperfect and grossly insufficient sampling. ESPN, for example, largely thrives on this Skeletor witch hunt paradigm — big-shouldered, big-smiling, ex-players with big hands gingerly crossed on HD-iridescent set tables, judging current players as too loud or too lethargic or too arrogant or too something. Watch Monday Night Countdown (with some former Skeletors (Me-Shawn) commentators now identifying current Skeletors). Around the Horn. PTI. Modern day Van Helsings.
And we all do the same. I spent the bulk of my formative twenties pounding out fantasy football message board posts judging Kobe — he fist pumps like Jordan and one-earrings-it like Jordan and he talks like Jordan which means he is masking insecurity and he is arrogant and devil-spawned and I would never do what Kobe does.
We all do this. You did it about the mastodon named Eddy Curry. Or the shyster Calipari. Barry Bonds and Michael Vick and Mark Cuban. Lebron gets it. Villains all, because they just are (or were).
We did it with Deion Sanders.
He was far too loud. Far too brash with his “This will always be my house!” tirades. Far too disloyal, too mercenary-ish, whimsically altering the NFL’s power dynamics by bouncing from team to team, coast to coast, riding here and there and everywhere on a big-rimmed money train. His tackles-by-fetal-position were self-preserving and selfish. Me-first. Thick-chained. Don’t be fooled by our current, post-retirement, collective reimagining of the NFL Network version of Deion with his preacher intonations and hosting of youth camps; in his heyday, we viewed Deion as a few driveway sit-ups short of Terrell Owens. And we condemned. We juxtaposed Primetime with the Steve Taskers and the Darrel Greens of the world who just “got it” and “did things the right way.” We didn’t even have to work hard to fit Deion’s black hat. He was “Primetime.” There, under neon lights, he manifested whole those vile traits we knew festered in him — materialism, greed, arrogance, pride, ungratefulness — and which swelled and concentrated to such degrees that there was no choice but for them to Big-Bang-burst in a Soul Glo explosion of iniquity and Jheri curl and vice to produce this Thing, this fiend, this…Primetime.
So we Skeletorized his ass.
And that’s who he was. And we said that’s not who we are. And we said that, if we were field-neutralizing All-Pro cornerbacks, we’d do it with more grace and humility and reverence. And it didn’t really surprise us when we learned that Primetime twice attempted suicide because, of course, his roots drank from someplace rotten.
Then Deion gave his Hall of Fame acceptance speech.
Flipped the script. A great speech. I’d say it was a great f%^&*#g speech, if it were not unbecoming of an officer to say so. Deion exposed us. Showed us the injudicious judgers that we are. That we are largely incapable of separating man from what our senses intake from his actions. That what we see a man do and hear a man say is what we judge that man to be.
Turns out that, when we were judging, we did not take into account Deion’s mama. Deion was a kid and his mama was a janitor in a hospital and some other kid saw her working there and Deion made a promise to change her life. “So I made a pledge to myself that I don’t care what it takes… but my mama would never have to work another day of her life…[So] I created this image…You could love him or you could hate him, but he was Primetime… All the things that you really thought I was, and some of the things you didn’t like, you didn’t love, you didn’t want to accept, I was doing it for my mama.” What’s more He-Man than that? Boy doing what he has to do to lift up his mama. Primetime acting brash and uncouth and ostentatious not because he was those things, not because he worshipped those attributes at a platinum altar, but because he loved his mama. And so the Primetime we judged and held in contempt now looks different. Same acts. Same high-steps. Different verdict. Now we know he had a compass. If Deion hadn’t made it to the Hall of Fame — as Albert Haynesworth and Pacman Jones certainly will not — then we never would have known. And he would have remained that old Primetime, seemingly only to have existed to feed off excess and ego and infamy.
Everyone is He-Man. In their own story. Everyone operates from what they think to be right at any given moment. Even when their acts are repugnant to us. Even when they look like Skeletor.
And the fact that we are constantly judging matters. It’s about how we think about others. Which leads to what we say. And then to what we do, and how we treat one another. And that becomes our experience. Which crystallizes our perspective. Which, in turn, informs our thoughts. And round and round we go.
But this is just sports! Entertainment! Isn’t this ultimately insignificant? I say no. I say every thought of ours, and every word, and every action has a consequence. I say the small things we practice on Tuesday impacts game day on Sunday, and whether our straps are tied in basic training impacts whether more important straps are tied when bullets fly later, and how we think about and talk about and act towards the seemingly frivolous, in fact, informs our world view and behavior regarding the more important. So this does matter. For better or for worse, sports consume many of our lives. It’s what we discuss. How we connect. Where our money goes. It is not a stretch, then, to suggest that how we relate to sports and our thinking and discourse about it necessarily influences those same processes regarding the more significant things in life. It impacts how we think about and treat our neighbors and co-workers. Our family. Democrats. Republicans. Other countries.
And that’s where this He-Man theory gets damn difficult. When we talk about enemies and terrorists and war. When the cartoon theory is applied to the extremes of human behavior — maiming and bombing and the killing of our brothers and sisters and friends. He-Men?
With my battle buddy, the debate inevitably reaches the Hitler quandary and I am compelled to comingle two seemingly opposite archetypes by anointing Hitler as He-Man, and then my battle proclaims “Boom, game over” because who was Hitler if not Skeletor with clipped mustache, and I offer gently that he has not yet reached my level of transcendent understanding, and then he next-levels it and claims my hair is devolving to the Ben-Franklin-cut, and I launch back that he has an oversized, Travolta face.
Let’s be clear. Bad acts are bad acts. Bad acts must be checked and punished and defended against. Read this. I’m in the Army. 9/11 remains seared to my cortex. I’m in Kuwait, now, and elsewhere later. I get it. The He-Man argument is not one that justifies the taking of innocent life or concentration camps or pedophilia or any other act you want to scream: “What about the guy who did [insert act]?!?! Is he He-Man?!?!”
The He-Man argument is only one that says there might be value in drilling deeper. Every time. Don’t cut the analysis off at the act. There might be understanding there. Which might mean something. Where it leads, and whether it impacts our response, is not certain. In truth, with Hitler, whether or not he believed he was operating justly, matters little to me. But with everyone in between Hitler and Santa Claus, such an understanding might matter more. It might impact our thoughts about people and then our words and our actions towards them and then our experience with them and then our own perspective.
We expect the same treatment, do we not? We remain He-Men, correct, even with our collective dropping last weekend of $54 million on Rise of the Planet of the Apes while famine strikes millions? (Yes, that link was actually an Albert Haynesworth joke, fooled you.) I mean, we expect that understanding, right? That our choosing to spend money one place and not another is not rooted in a naked desire to deny others sustenance for the sake of it, but rather in the need for family bonding and sparking the economy and an escapist end to a rough work week? We’re still good. We’re not Skeletor. Don’t judge us. Drill down damnit.
We didn’t drill down with Primetime.
In Sebastian Junger’s excellent book, WAR, he describes an old Afghan fighter entrenched in the Korengal Valley who believed that the U.S. forces were the Russians returning for a seconds. Think about that. Some old, weather-beaten Afghan hunkered down against a rock shooting at what moves not because he hates big buffets or Fords or Jesus, but because the Russians attacked his home once and now he thinks they are again.
Does that alter our calculus? Should it? Can it, in the wake of heart-wrenching tragedies like this week’s shot down Chinook?
What do Primetime and He-Man actually mean in the context of these huge and seismic and life or death issues? What if we did genuinely seek out an understanding of our enemy’s motivation, and actually verified that they believed they were He-Men doing what they believed to be He-Men things and not pure evil-doers, but, in the end, our soldiers kept getting killed? Would our behavior change? Would the theory mean anything?
It’s hard to see how.
If Travolta-face ever asked me these questions he’d render me speechless. I don’t know what the answer is. Even with the answers, I think I would still be here.
Heading elsewhere later.
Maybe one day I’ll understand.
By the power of Grayskull….