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A Sense of Proportion
Steve Rushin
December 25, 2000
As their fame and fortune grow ever larger, athletes tend to lose sight of how little that matters
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December 25, 2000

A Sense Of Proportion

As their fame and fortune grow ever larger, athletes tend to lose sight of how little that matters

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Dear superstar athlete:

Congratulations. Enclosed is your (circle one) Man of the Year/League MVP/Humanitas Award. We enjoyed seeing you at the ceremony. It is regrettable indeed that your Gulfstream V has insufficient overhead space to accommodate this magnificent trophy. But we were more than happy to ship the award, per your instructions. As a world-famous "personality," you no doubt receive many such prizes. Still, we thought you might benefit from the following Owner's Manual.

Warning: Overinflation of the ego may result in a catastrophic blowout. So...

For your safety: Remember that you are a human being. And that as uniquely gifted as you are, there are six billion other uniquely gifted humans on Earth. And that Earth is only one of nine planets orbiting the sun. And that the sun is only one of several billion stars in the Milky Way. And that the Milky Way is only one of 30 galaxies in its local galaxy cluster. And that this cluster is only one of many more in the inconceivably vast Virgo Supercluster. And that the inconceivably vast Virgo Super-cluster is, well, it's scarcely anything at all: Just an infinitesimal dust mite in an ever-expanding universe.

In short, we admire your many talents. But to say that you're merely a subatomic quark on a single grain of sand lodged in the navel of Dom DeLuise is, in fact, to overstate your significance. You do, however, look swell in a tux.

Troubleshooting tip No. 1: Still believe the hype that engulfs you? Then remind yourself that being "world famous" is, in the cosmic sense, a ridiculous trifle. Don't even get us started on "world champion."

Troubleshooting tip No. 2: Still not convinced of your extraordinary ordinariness? Then take time to reflect on your epic record of underachievement. It is truly appalling. You spend a third of your life—25 years on average—asleep. In those remaining hours awake, you use only a fraction of your brain. You are, like the rest of us, an indolent dolt. What's more, your athletic "achievements" are largely the product of some masterful p.r. work. Consider the fact that almost all baseball hitters fail more than two thirds of the time, or that Michael Jordan lost out in seven out of 13 attempts to win an NBA championship. One of humankind's more becoming qualities is that we choose to dwell on what you've achieved. But the fact is, we could as easily dwell on what you've failed to achieve. (Downside: Such a world would be no fun. Upside: We would no longer have the Heisman Trophy show. Result: Call it a wash.)

Troubleshooting tip No. 3: Still feeling full of yourself? Then consider this: The enclosed trophy was almost certainly bestowed on you by a vote of sports journalists—and we're even dumber than you are. As a professional writer, I have 291,500 words at my disposal in the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet my working vocabulary consists of a mere 5,000 of them. Athletes are always telling sportswriters that we don't know what we're talking about, and they may have a point. But if so, then it stands to reason that we were ignorant, as ever, when we named you the MVP or the Cy Young or the Heisman winner. Right?

Care and maintenance: Never polish, wax or kiss your new trophy. Never look at, think of or display your new trophy. In fact, if you never remove it from its box, this trophy will give you a lifetime of satisfaction. Because the trophies that do not bling-bling in your trophy room, and the self-portraits that do not hang in your billiard room, and the magazine covers that do not grace your living room walls—these will be the ones we remember you by.

"Humility, a sense of reverence before the sons of heaven—of all the prizes that a mortal man might win, these, I say, are the wisest. These are the best." That lesson, written by Euripides 2,500 years ago, is truer today than ever. Just because society enriches you beyond reason and accords you an embarrassment of accolades doesn't mean, well, it doesn't mean much of anything, really. Your valet still puts your pants on one leg at a time, nearly the same as the rest of us.