This past Sunday Reggie White died at age 43 from a respiratory ailment. Yesterday Susan Sontag died at age 71 of complications from leukemia.
Reggie White grew up in Tennessee and played football at University of Tennessee. He had an exceptional career as a football player. He was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year twice and he was the leader in career sacks when he retired. White and Brett Favre were the key players on the Green Bay Packers team that won the 1997 Superbowl.
I don’t see much television because I have an addiction to watching sports. Staying at a hotel can be excruciating. I never get to sleep because I can’t stop mindlessly flipping through the two or three sports channels on hotel televisions usually showing high school football and skeet shooting or endless repeats of ESPN’s SportsCenter. But I did watch Monday Night Football and flip channels a little bit. Every channel had a tribute to Reggie White that celebrated the positive and totally ignored the controversy.
Can you imagine a news report about Ted Williams that didn’t mention the bizarre ending to his life or a piece about Ty Cobb’s life that didn’t look at his racism? Granted, White led a very productive and positive life as an athlete and, arguably, as an evangelical minister. But if an athlete used his position as a public figure to present bigoted views, that should have been covered. In a speech before the Wisconsin legislature, White pronounced homosexuality a sin and used racial stereotypes to describe minorities. Here is a short excerpt from that speech: “As America has permitted homosexuality to establish itself as an alternate lifestyle, it is also reeling from the frightening spread of sexually transmitted disease. Sin begets its own consequence, both on individuals and nations.” He later apologized for the racial stereotypes but appeared in an ad campaign for a group opposing homosexuality wearing his Packers uniform. The Packers organization apologized to gay and lesbian groups.
Susan Sontag, on the other hand, got plenty of mixed coverage. Sontag was a celebrated (and celebrity) intellectual. She was best known for her groundbreaking and provocative essays on subjects ranging from the roll of photography in contemporary culture to societal myths around illnesses such as cancer and AIDS. Unlike Reggie, she helped dispel myths about disease instead of preach them.
She also got into a lot of trouble. She praised the communist societies of North Vietnam and Cuba and blamed U.S. policies for the 9/11 attacks. You’ll get into a lot more trouble if you attack the government than if you attack homosexuals and the lengthy article about Sontag in today’s New York Times is proof of that. I don’t think I’ve ever read such a mixed review posing as an obituary except maybe the New York Times article following the death of Derrida. And he’s French! Some articles were even worse. Roger Kimball writes in the New Criterion, “Sontag enjoyed an extraordinary career. But, … her celebrity was not the gratifying product of intellectual distinction but the tawdry coefficient of a lifelong devotion to the mendacious and disfiguring imperatives of radical chic.” Ouch, and this on the day after she dies. I’d hate to read what he wrote about her when she was alive.
They left something out of Sontag’s life too. Everyone mentioned her husband and son but gave the impression that her sex life ended at age 26 when she left her husband. Many articles mentioned Annie Lebovitz and some even mentioned Sontag’s essay for Leibovitz’s book, Women. Even though it’s right there in the Associated Press report about Sontag’s death, very few newspapers disclosed that Leibovitz was Sontag’s longtime companion. If you want this information, you have to read the Arkansas Democratic Gazette or the Forth Worth Star-Telegram, not the New York Times.
Things left unsaid are some times as damaging as those included. Budding intellectuals would get the idea that Sontag didn’t have a personal life outside her marriage. Young male athletes who are starting to discover feelings for the boy next door know that sin and disease will follow because Reggie said so and no one’s disputing him. Suppressed feelings always get expressed, sometimes violently. And sometimes in violence towards ourselves.
Practice and Competition Report: true to my instructions for handling an injury, I took to the courts today to play shadow tennis, tennis without the ball. I went through part of my practice routine generally looking like an idiot as I bounced the imaginary ball three times before practicing my serve. It got even worse after I put my racket down and went through the rest of the practice routine without the racket or the ball.
I would rather look like an idiot, though, than sit out another two months because I reinjured my thumb by coming back too fast. Besides, I learned something important. My twisting range of movement is increasing from doing the exercises in my workout. If I can twist further when I serve, that takes pressure of my shoulder because my trunk is doing more of the work and my shoulder less.