What’s in a game: don’t “just do it”

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Nike has been under fire lately, leaving many to wonder what lies behind the infamous “swoosh” that bedecks our shoes, leggings and backpacks. 

First came the doping allegations against Alberto Salazar, the founder of the Nike Oregon Project who changed the face of competitive running in the U.S. The running world was shocked. 

Just a few weeks later, Mary Cain emerged from her post-glory day shadows to denounce Salazar and the Nike coaching staff for emotional and physical abuse. The New York Times headline “I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike” proliferated across social media platforms.

Nike scrambled to defend itself, saying that the accusations “are completely inconsistent with our values.” 

I think, rather, that the doping scandal and Cain’s accusations of abuse reveal the absolute pragmatism underlying Nike and its motto, “Just do it.” 

Underlying the urge to “just do it” is the subtext “no matter what it takes, no matter what you have to do to win, just do it.” For Salazar, that was trafficking testosterone and pushing Cain beyond her own well-being. 

Cain’s body manifests the singular outcome of this kind of pragmatism: she broke down, unable to sustain the self-destructive behavior Salazar allegedly enforced. 

The pragmatism that lies behind the swoosh extends beyond Nike: there is an endemic of pragmatism in the world of athletics, and it likely even seeps into your own self-talk. 

The difficulty is that pragmatism in sports is often very effective. You will likely perform better if you train with a mentality that disregards pain relative to your goal. But the pragmatism that I am concerned about is deeper than pushing through tough practices; it is allowing for an outright destruction of human dignity and freedom in order to win. 

This sounds abstract, but I think we ourselves often operate under this destructive mode of motivation.

I recall overhearing my high school cross-country teammates conversing before a race. “Curse at yourself as you run up the hill,” one of them explained. “It works.”

Although this self-destructive motivation may work for a time, it is contrary to our human nature and the nature of competitive athleticism: we ought to strive to supersede ourselves, not degrade ourselves. When we give into negative self-talk in order to motivate our performance, we have already lost the best prize of the race: a sense of self-ascendency and transcendence of our own limitations.

Once an unknown boy from an impoverished village in Kenya and now the man who The Times called “the greatest marathoner, ever,” Eliud Kipchoge embodies a constructive, non-pragmatic model of motivation, which he sums up with his motto “no human is limited.”

His motto expresses the fact that at the core of athleticism is something much more profound than “just doing it.” 

Instead of the empty pragmatism expressed by Nike, Kipchoge offers a deeper explanation for why we “do it.” In that discipline and definitive choice, we express the integrity of our human freedom. 

It’s not that Nike’s slogan is entirely wrong,we do have to make a conscious decision to do the thing, but I think that Kipchoge proves that it does not go deep enough.

“It’s not about the legs,” said Kipchoge. “It’s about the heart and the mind.”

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