The Last Meritocracy

mer·​i·​toc·​ra·​cy \ ˌmer-ə-ˈtä-krə-sē\ : a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement

Part I

What with the advent of international sanctioning bodies and unified rule sets, are athletic contests the last functioning meritocracies? 

Boardroom seats are expeditiously filled with members chosen primarily to meet quotas that revolve around company optics. College admissions criteria have been revised to the extent that Harvard University has been indicted for discrimination against certain ethnic groups even as admissions officers have promoted others through Affirmative Action policies. Tariffs are levied upon businesses in certain industries for the purposes of intervening in unfair international trade policies.  Online campaigns promulgate disdain for company branding or sociocultural faux pas, which often undermine an otherwise sympathetic mission or service. In light of these widespread iterations of the times in some of our most prominent institutions, which reward and promote people based on inherent qualities or superficial considerations as opposed to ability and achievement, perhaps athletic contest is the last vital repository that rewards hard work and achievement. 

A return to tradition.

Pacification of the masses through violent athletic spectacle.  That was the aim of politicians and noble elites who governed what could at times be an unruly “mob” in ancient Rome. The “games” were offered at the bodily expense of the slave and the poor man.  Contrary to popular knowledge, hand to hand combat and combat between men and beasts were not the only types of contests that might be had in the Coliseum.  There were ship battles that involved the flooding of the coliseum floor to produce a seafaring theater that pit competitors against one another in a type of Naval war exercise.  However, contemporary historians and popular culture purveyors focus primarily on the hand to hand interactions between men that usually ended in maiming or death. 

None of these contests or their sponsors were immune to political manipulation.  Patron houses and gladiator schools vied in the back alleys, on the senate floor and in the arena for political leverage.  Furthermore, the rules of engagement within the arena could be altered or manipulated on a whim, and yet there was a viable path to corporeal freedom for the ancient gladiator who captured the imaginations of patrician and layman alike.  And while weighty the burden, this lower caste of society were bridled with a benefit all but overlooked by the governing powers; inclusion in a system by which the arduous work, discipline and sacrifice of ludus training led to the attainment of virtues esteemed by the Greek philosophers of the time; an invaluable spiritual consolation for those unfortunate enough to be thrust into the brutal games.  

A crooked level playing field. 

While sports have proven to be meritocratic institutions over millennia, the idea of a level playing field for modern athletes must still be appraised skeptically.  In recent years, chromosomal differences have come to confer advantages to some at the expense of others where male and female athletes are traditionally segregated in competition.  While track and field surfaces have exalted the strides of mortal running apparatus, of late, carbon based appendages have been replaced in specific instances with carbon fibre prosthetic “blades”.

In another example institutional bias by both parties was alleged when the International Olympic Committee cracked down on alleged abuses by Russian athletes to the extent that the entire Russian track and field team was suspended from the 2018 Olympics even though the alleged violation was not attributed to all team members. Some competitors were eventually allowed to compete under a neutral flag, but not before training regimen, morale and the taint of PED abuse turned Western popular opinion and perhaps the favor of the judging staff against Russian competitors, to say nothing of the penalty of not being allowed to represent your country in sport.

And yet given these counterexamples, if one can make it to the field, arena, pitch or velodrome with a fixed rule set and a reasonably unbiased panel of judges, then one can succeed or fail on merit. There is always room for corruption, or at least significant bias in interpretation where judging is concerned. As a former judge, I can attest that the formal hierarchy of criteria is at best a reliable set of guidelines for how an athlete’s performance is to be evaluated.  There is even more room for interpretation than one might suspect.  However, combat sports offer a unique opportunity.  The rule set provides for the possible outcome that a competitor can end a contest before a judge can weight in.  Moreover, combat sports are democratized in the way that Soccer is.  A person of any stature and ambition has the potential to succeed at an elite level.  In combat sports the trade tools are pedestrian and primal, shared by most every man, woman and child:  135lbs, 67 kilos, Heavyweight, it doesn’t matter. 

Speaking of Heavyweight in aid of an objection, “jab and grab” is a clear example of the sanctioned rules of Boxing providing an opportunity for manipulation.  A referee has the agency, especially in the Heavyweight division where physical attributes can be most exaggerated, to affect the outcome of a fight by rewarding a fighter with significant reach advantage.  He might do this by intervening in clinches as they occur rather than allowing the two fighters to “work” in the clinch or by alternatively penalizing a fighter who continues to clinch after repeated warning.  How the referee intercedes in these clinches determines which style is most tactically advantageous when that particular referee officiates.

The argument can be made that combat sports which involve wrestling are less subject to manipulation or interference.  As practical people we are forced to talk of a spectrum of meritocratic purity in the myriad of sports.  Perhaps Boxing is a shade less meritocratic than Mixed Martial Arts. And yet, both sports have seen promoters and matchmakers offer interdivisional title shots to champions who arguably jump the line in what might be viewed as a flaw in the meritocratic system.  For all of the benefits of Capitalism, the profit motive can interfere with the purity of a merit based system, and yet of all the meritocracies in the world, athletic contests do seem to be near purest.  

In fact, combat sports provide an essential service to men and women in general as well as youth in need of guidance and support as they grow up into the men and women of tomorrow.  The process of learning and competing that practitioners undertake places them in contact with the classic virtues, which when attained, confer a poise, self-reliance and quality of life that transcends fame, salary and title.  The value of the pursuit of virtue lies in the fact that a person can attain them irrespective of their social standing or recognized achievements. “Victory” is not considered a virtue.  However, “pride”, “temperance” and “courage” are, and they are equally available win, lose or draw.  When stepping onto the mat, into a ring or cage, it matters not whether you were raised in a certain area code, and there is no box to check in hope of receiving an Affirmative Action advantage.  The person prepared and practiced who is able to perform best will win the day.   

Part II

The Athlete’s Pursuit of Aristotelian Virtues

There is an innate need for a person to experience progress, cultivate consistency and feel safe in the world.  A person must contend with the fight or flight response and make peace with the choice made well after its occurrence.  Though you’re participating in a sport, it takes time and experience to be able to psychologically endure crushing pressure underneath a person you may have just met. A lopsided sparring session is not an intellectual endeavor the first few hundred times you get punched in vital areas.  For many, many rounds it may feel like a life threatening assault.  Fight or flight.  The decision is made and the psychological effects are registered, maybe indelible.  What level of courage were you able to muster in your spirited defense? Was your time under the pressure of your opponent’s suffocating hold experienced with grace, calm?  To what extent do you value such an experience as a conduit to the attainment of some ethos or moral or intellectual standard?  These virtues that color your existence are made vivid through the stress and temperature of the struggle.  Are you able to begin to normalize this regimen?

Aristotle, one of the titans of Western philosophy, believed that the purpose of a human being is to participate in moral and intellectual activities that elevate the soul in accordance with virtue.  Every person, every child, has opportunity to benefit from such a lifestyle in which martial arts are a conduit for the achievement of such life endowing virtues. Make no mistake, combat sports are sports for thinking people who seek to integrate their mental faculties with their physical abilities.  To name a few of these virtues and how they might be as applied to combat sports, consider the following:

  • Justice– evenhandedness and fairness in how one conducts oneself on the mat or in the ring.
  • Friendship– camaraderie of a depth that can develop when physical and psychological stress commingle in a competitive environment to form a bond of companionship between teammates who are both friendly and adversarial.
  • Truthfullness– the ability to be honest as a coach or training partner, so that a person who seeks feedback can consider, at times, unflattering information in the interest of personal development.
  • Friendliness– conviviality and social grace are an essential ingredient of the bond that allows teammates and training partners to test one another’s limits one minute and joke about underperformance and “failure” while nursing a sprained ego the next.
  • Temperament– the ability to carry your own burdens of effort, success and failure along the path of achievement with a level head.
  • Honor– the act of respecting and having reverence for those who have accomplished their objectives and given you a lamppost to follow.
  • Pride– the self-satisfaction of objectives realized, whether it be a submission mastered or a training camp completed.
  • Temperance– the ability to control one’s emotions and behavior when experiencing visceral fears and psychological capitulation during a fight, training session, or upon reflection days after a particularly humbling experience.  
  • Courage- facing the fear that comes with presenting your best competitive self before an uncertain outcome. 

Increasingly modern society exhibits a dearth of structured, institutional opportunity in which to pursue psychological and moral growth.  Opportunities are being winnowed out of the school curricula, and degraded in popular culture narratives (see What to do with your son in this era of “Toxic Masculinity”).  Material rewards are an essential motivator in all Capitalist societies, and yet the emotional growth that occurs as one meets a steady diet of worthy challenges can easily be undervalued and non-prioritized.  There is a calming sense of accomplishment that can be felt when one completes a day of physically or emotionally exhausting work; a day that with a little less effort would topically look the same to the casual observer, but in fact be a lost opportunity to transcend that mundane experience for the individual doing the work. Such a day is a day of effort to which only the individual is privy.  Materially uncapitalized, but impossible for anyone to ever take away!

The Moral Oversight

Lifelong, meaningful relationships can be made in the pursuit of high stakes outcomes and values with people of similar interests.  There is an emotional catalyst that strengthens the bonds between people who participate in high pressure situations.  Soldiers often experience this phenomenon in battle. The ancient Greek philosophers advocated a lifestyle that involves intellectual and moral growth in proportion to bodily and material development.  Aristotle believed that a person must concern himself with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the “goodness” and “badness” of human character.  Athletics can be an indispensable catalyst of such moral growth.  Taken a step further, combat sports provide a unique framework in which a person can develop an ethos, or personal governance code, to help ground himself/herself and develop a positive sense of identity, community and what is “good” and  bad” for all involved as he/she navigates the modern world off the mat or outside of the ring.  

How is it that punching someone in the face can be such a spiritually and morally grounding preoccupation?  When done with respect for your opponent, restraint in prosecution, temperance when enduring the hardship of the exchange, courage to come back out for another round or training session, and reverence for the athletic and fraternal institutions, a blow to the face which can certainly swell an eye closed can also open eyes to virtuous transcendental experiences.

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