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Athletes know what nihilists don't: Real power is discipline, not unchecked rage

Protesters attempt to force their way through a police barricade in front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

KENT NISHIMURA/LOS ANGELES TIMES

By SALLY JENKINS | The Washington Post | Published: January 8, 2021

The difference between a Patrick Mahomes, a LeBron James, a Sue Bird or any other athlete-champion activist and a mere street rioter is that one is an expert in real power and voluntary constraint of it, while the other is an aggrieved raver with an instinct to break down something because he is too weak to build up himself. What separates an activist from an arsonist is the difference between using a platform and lighting someone else's on fire.

These raggedy snarlers miss the exercise of power entirely. The most powerful thing athletes do with their muscle is not run or rampage. The most powerful thing they do is stop. Every Saturday and Sunday, small minor miracles occur in our competitive spaces. Groups of large men and women hurtle at one another to the point of potential endangerment yet manage self-command.

As former NFL player turned sports historian Michael Oriard has observed of the NFL, "Football's dangers are not incidental to the game; they are fundamental to the game." Yet when they reach that sideline, they stop. They reel in all of their uncoiled energy in an instant act of will to preserve not just themselves but their opponents. That, my friends, is real, honest-to-God power, and it's a marvel to watch and admire.

When a football player hits someone out of bounds or attacks a ref, what happens? He is thrown out. And the reason is, sports really aren't about violence but about real violence averted. Arenas and stadiums are circumscribed spaces — rotundas if you will — with miniature societal compacts, and when you lack self-management in that space, you get ejected. It's a very useful tool, ejection.

But here's the most interesting thing: Competitors abide by it. These mentally and physically strong men and women willingly accede to this ethos and recognize it as a higher authority. Otherwise, you aren't a competitor; you're just an uncontrolled hacker or jacker. When an umpire jerks a finger at the exit, the player leaves, voluntarily, no matter how aggrieved or unjustly wronged he may feel. Everyone who enters that arena recognizes there is necessary roughness and unnecessary roughness and, without the distinction, it's just rolling in the dirt.

Think about it: How often do you see hitting continue after a whistle, out of bounds? How often do you see deliberately vengeful, retaliatory actions once the game is over? Clemson linebacker James Skalski has been thrown out of two College Football Playoff games for misusing his helmet. He accepted his ejections. Emmanuel Duron, a defensive lineman who body-slammed a ref during a Texas high school football game this fall, was banned from all sports for the rest of school year, while his coach and the entire school athletic department were put on probation for two years. And everyone abided by it.

American games have some curious wrinkles that separate them from almost all others on this earth. As Oriard has observed, what distinguishes our football from the rest of the world's is that in our version, one team gets the ball and tries to run plays, and if it advances, it gets to keep going. But if not, it has to give up the ball, and the other team gets a chance. It's a distinctive structure. "There is an attempt to execute certain ideas," Oriard says. The NFL explicitly states that its rules are about making sure players "control their emotions" and keep the action between the sidelines. The game always has been partly an experiment in learning and mislearning how we want our larger societal rules to work.

With that understanding, any close American sports observer surely has been struck by what he or she has witnessed in the political arena over the past four years: the steady normalization of naked aggression and destruction of rules. The steady attempt to circumvent conventions, to redefine what people will accept, the continual fouls until officialdom is all but numb to offenses, the steady descent into uncontrolled brawl.

On Wednesday, the rioters were all about trashing the arena itself, stomping on every ordinance and protocol, crashing through gates, and bashing in doors and windows. Richard "Bigo" Barnett of Gravette, Ark., pushed his way into the Capitol, broke into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office, stole her mail and left her a note that said, "Bigo was here, you B****," and bragged that he had rubbed his crotch while he was at it. This was his idea of a power grab: a trespass, a brief foul boot across the boundaries of real strength.

How pathetic.

Our sports are not perfect, but one of their worthiest qualities is they still recognize and honor covenants. What is a covenant? It's an unbreakable spiritual and material promise to limit our behaviors for common good, and it's on what the founders based the Constitution.

Take away the covenant, and there is no game. There is not even a floor or a field. Boxing can exist only if you agree not to hide a knife or a gun in your glove. Without the covenant, there is no arena, not even an enclosure, no sphere, no pursuit, no goal. There is only an empty space of naked aggression, suspicion, instability, violence. Paranoia gaming.

And the only reason, you figure, that these people broke into the Capitol and broke the covenant is that they were interested less in competition than in destruction. If you are so comfortable yet utterly aggrieved that you have to wear a race-baiting slogan or flag over your paunch and storm the Capitol because you think you aren't getting your due from crooked pervert politicians, well, nothing and no one can help you.

Bigo, he's got nothing but a brag. He and his folks, they don't trust themselves to excel inbounds, so they ignored the rules and, eventually, got themselves ejected. The arena still stands.