Thomas, Ovechkin and Tebow and the Virtue of Humility

Several sports figures have been in the news recently over their controversial actions. Reflecting on these stories brought home for me how truly dark and destructive pride and arrogance are and how truly beautiful a humble soul shines.

The Boston Bruins hockey team was recently invited to the White House as the Stanley Cup Winners for 2011. This is done to all championship athletes unless there are unusual circumstances. This is a congratulatory ceremony and an honor for the team to be received by the President of the United States. Recently, Tim Thomas, goalie for the Boston Bruins, refused to go based on his political beliefs about the size of the federal government. He states, in part, that:

“This was about a choice I had to make as an INDIVIDUAL.”

The Boston Bruins are a hockey team – the team being the operative word. Being a part of that team means belonging to something bigger than yourself and accepting the privileges, duties, and responsibilities that come with it. In this instance, Mr. Thomas decided his individual status usurps the team and because of that he could decide what responsibilities or duties he owes to the team as he sees fit. This was not an individual invitation that he as an individual could decline. This had nothing to do with him personally or his personal views on government. He had a duty to his team which was given a team invitation and the team honor to appear at the White House. Whatever Thomas may personally feel about the U.S. government was irrelevant. This was a time for humility and the grace to stand by his team and accept the honor being given to the team and respect the authority of the office of the President of the country in which he resides as a citizen.

I find it particularly ironic that in his statement the word individual is capitalized – that he had to make this choice as an INDIVIDUAL. This is so telling of how important he regards himself and how closed off he is to others including his team. Furthermore, whatever his political beliefs are – and I am not judging them – they are now usurped by his ego. The darkness of pride has sullied whatever good he is trying to put forth because he has acted rashly and without due regard for others. Pride is a deadly sin and darkens the soul it possesses.
Finally, it is interesting that according to Bruins Director of Communications Matt Chmura, the team decided to withhold Thomas from an afternoon charity appearance at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington because his presence would have been a distraction. Yes, his presence is now a distraction for the team because every event, every appearance becomes about Tim Thomas’s political beliefs instead of what the appearance is intended to be. And blaming the media is scapegoating because it was Thomas who threw his ego out there when his beliefs should never even have come up.

Alexander Ovechkin has recently suspended three games for an illegal check – his usual style of leaving his feet to deliver the check. Ovechkin recently made the statement that he would not be attending the NHL All-Star game as a result of his suspension. As I listened to him, he seemed to say he was not deserving to attend and honestly I appreciated him for it. But as he continued his statement, it became all about the suspension being unfair, that ‪Zbynek Michalek‬ should have been suspended too and that the hit was not wrong. However, it is a clear rule that leaving your feet to check is illegal. Further, players know that the NHL is cracking down on illegal checks to promote more safety in the game. Too many players are ending up with concussions with careers in shambles.
The more Alexander Ovechkin spoke about his refusal to attend the All-Star game and why, the more pride and arrogance spewed out. Ovechkin plays for a sport that has rules. Following the rules is essential to any game – if the game is going to be any good. Does Ovechkin really believe he is immune from the rules? And even if he thinks that his suspension was unfair, it would be nice to see him respect the sport enough and himself enough to accept the punishment, learn from it, and be thankful that he is asked to participate in the All-Star game. Instead what we see is someone trying to escape responsibility for his own actions, trying to place blame on another, and attempting to seek revenge with an immature “I’m not playing” stance. This behavior diminishes the great player he is by showing an ego-driven character out of touch with others and the game.

Tim Tebow is in the news for his public acts of faith. His pose is beloved by so many and despised by so many. Writers are decrying him for mixing religion with sports and others are lauding him for “representing.” As for me personally, I am cautious with public acts of prayer as I have seen too many hypocrites similar to the Pharisees who are decried by Jesus for leading double lives – on the outside holy but on the inside sinful. So, with all that weighing in, I became interested in listening to Tim Tebow speak. As Socrates so famously said, “Speak, so that I know you.”

I got online and listened to several interviews. I researched Tim Tebow purposefully trying to find some self-serving statements or false modesty. I couldn’t find anything. Instead, I found a humble guy whose interior wholly matches his public acts of faith. Whether we completely agree with his acts of faith or not is not the point. The humility of this guy stands out in the face of the ego-driven behavior evidenced by Mr. Thomas and Mr. Ovechkin. Tebow does not put his faith out there simply for show. It is who he is. He humbles himself before God and before others and is clearly appreciative of what he has, where he is, and what is his life is right now. He lives in the moment counting on his faith to get him through – win or lose – and is thankful for all of it.

The virtue of humility is not one of the Western cultural values. In fact, we equate low self-esteem with humility – which is utterly false – and therefore coddle and extol those with an inflated sense of self. If on top of that those same people are at all successful, they rise to the top to be imitated, listened to, followed, and even forgiven serious wrongs. Athletes are no exception. Thomas and Ovechkin should have been disciplined for their prideful actions that hurt their team and the sport. Perhaps they were not because they are too big to discipline. By valuing them that way we do them a disservice. In fact, we encourage their arrogance and pride. Tebow may have a draw to the religious for religious reasons but I submit he has a powerful draw because of his humility. His healthy fear and love of the Lord, his value of others, and his placement of himself last not only gives him the strength we see but it makes him someone so many want to cheer.

A true understanding and humble estimate of oneself is the highest and most valuable of all lessons. To take no account of oneself, but always to think well and highly of others is the highest wisdom and perfection. Should you see another person openly doing evil, or carrying out a wicked purpose, do not on that account consider yourself better than him, for you cannot tell how long you will remain in a state of grace We are all frail; consider none more frail than yourself. Thomas A Kempis – The Imitation of Christ