Well, the change has begun from the top for France as the Sarkozy government has called upon the French to abandon their “old national habit” of thinking too much. From Rene Descartes, Jacques Lacan, and Emile Durkheim, France has been known for its philosophers, who use their leisure for scholarly and intellectual pursuits. This goes squarely against the Sarkozy government's avowed anti-intellectualism. Its not as terrible as George W Bush's library collection that includes a single copy of My Pet Goat but for the French it comes close. The backlash has been swift as France's intellectuals have weighed in with Bernard-Henri Lévy aka BHL, the irascible mascot of the movement leading the way.
“This is the sort of thing you can hear in cafe conversations from morons who drink too much,” said Mr. Lévy, who is so well-known in French that he is known simply by his initials B.H.L. “To my knowledge this is the first time in modern French history that a minister dares to utter such phrases. I’m pro-American and pro-market, so I could have voted for Nicolas Sarkozy, but this anti-intellectual tendency is one of the reasons that I did not.”
But if Nicolas Sarkozy is looking for any French athlete who might have dared to stray from his jogging track or from the soccer field to ponder the vicissitudes of life, he can be reassured. Except for Pierre de Coubertin, and his contribution came more than a century ago, no other man or woman from France made the Scholar Athlete International Hall of Fame. Pindar and Plato do make the list. Plato comes as a wrestler and Pindar as a somewhat woolly headed chronicler of the Pan Hellenic games. These selections will come as a shock to Sarkozy and his notion of mankind as a giant group of wind up toys.
Never fear. All French athletes are hard at toil and not wasting time taking courses at the Sorbonne or École Nationale d’Administration (Enarque). Sarkozy is proud of the fact that most of his administration are not "Enarque." You are paid not to think but to do. Jogging is in, walking out. The public veneration of money rather than ideas is being celebrated. And Zinedine Zidane's leads the way with the disclosure that he earned $18 million last year, more than singer Ronny Halliday, or any other political figure.
Which would put Sarkozy at odds with the US mens soccer team with many players earning college degrees and the NSCAA regularly awarding scholar athlete awards. Certainly, I would have never thought of the soccer team as the vanguard of the US intellectual movement but David Brooks caught my eye with this entry during the 2006 World Cup.
Says Brooks, " Going into today's World Cup match against Ghana, no American player has managed to put a ball into the back of the net, but the US team leads the world in one vital category: college degrees. Most of the American players attended college. Eddie Pope went to UNC, Kasey Keller went to the University of Portland, and Marcus Hahnemann went to Seattle Pacific. "
Brooks compared them to their European counterparts joining soccer academies when young, living and breathing nothing but soccer. Zidane at the age of 16 played for AS Cannes, Figo with Sporting Lisbon at age 17, and David Beckham signed with Man U when barely 17. The point being made was that US soccer players have lots of things going for them compared to the Europeans, including a superior university system, that make them thinker players.
Bruce Arena called them a group of fiercely intelligent individuals who have very enlightening conversations on every topic under the sun in the locker room. But maybe the public veneration of ideas and not money has to do with fact that most MLS players earn a fraction of Zidane's 18 million salary.
Fortunately for Sarkozy, the face of the contemporary US soccer player is changing. Under Generation Adidas (formerly Project 40), players from US universities can be drafted into the MLS before completing their college degrees. The recently concluded Copa America squad had players like Marvel Wynne who left UCLA after two years and joined the MLS (Toronto FC) under Generation Adidas. Foreign clubs are also snapping up US talent early and Benny Feilhaber, the hero against Mexico in the Gold Cup finals, signed with Bayer Leverkusen in his second year at UCLA. So it seems likely that the tradition of the scholar athlete increasingly appears outmoded and quaint. Locker room conversation may now center around salaries, clubs, and 'that damn Beckham;' not the theater of ideas.
By the way, I expect David Brooks any day to come out with an article praising the anti-intellectual bent of the Sarkozy government because of course it has to with keeping those darned French elites under tether, individuals that hate the war on Iraq, and love big government. He may, however, have not much to say if the US loses again in South Africa.