Everybody found something to be alarmed and horrified by at the congressional Supreme Court hearings for Brett Kavanaugh last week, but I might humbly suggest one that has been somewhat overlooked. Sure, Kavanaugh screamed and cried and wailed and gnawed and hissed his way through that harrowing afternoon testimony, we all saw that. But the more he spoke, the more I heard almost every athlete I’ve ever talked to. He was truly Judge Jock.
In interviews, athletes stay relentlessly on message. They say all the clichés: You just look for your pitch and try to hit it. You trust the training of all those hours in the gym. You just try to do what Coach tells you. They all come down to: Try not to think. The job of any athlete who wants to succeed is to put everything from the outside world aside, to focus solely on the task, and the plan, at hand. You just plow forward. Anyone who tries to stand in your way, you push them aside. Doubt is for the weak. You are strong. You are powerful. You are right. When you combine that with aggression and single-mindedness — you respond to challenges with more force; you don’t care how you win as long as you do win — you have the world of the hyper-focused, tunneled athlete. You have someone who is stuck there, maybe forever.
That unthinking, dogged fight really stood out to me in Kavanaugh’s performance last week. It was registered by some others, too, from New York’s Noreen Malone, who pointed out that while Kavanaugh seemed eager to brag about his athletic exploits to almost every senator and almost whatever the question had been, one person he avoided trying to show up in that way was former All-American football player Cory Booker; and Adam Sternbergh, who noted a similarity between Kavanaugh’s drinking denials and Roger Clemens’s denials of PED use; to Jezebel’s Diana Moskovitz, who smartly reminded us all that, Kavanaugh’s insistence aside, evidence that sports builds better character is … specious. But nearly a week later, I can’t get over how much Kavanaugh sounded like a Bill Belichick, or a more benevolent character like LeBron James. Everything was about him, and the team, and anyone who was against him was either an opponent who must be vanquished or a hater who wasn’t going to get him down. It’s true, of course, that Kavanaugh answered hardly any of the questions that Democrats put to him (as this terrific graphic from Vox documents). And nobody knows how to filibuster a question like an athlete in a post-game press conference.
And he had those talking points — those few things he was going to bring up in response to just about anything. The way he told it, Kavanaugh’s teenage world was divided into a few simple activities, the way every athlete desires: Working out. Hanging with friends (teammates, really). Drinking beers. All with the idea of close bonding with other men, and mainly other men, all nicknamed in the peevishly belittling but-hey-we’re-just-joshing-here way athletes are always nicknaming each other, as the only universe with any judgment or value … the only one that matters. It’s funny to mock Kavanaugh’s nicknaming conventions, but this is precisely how athletes talk. Commiseration with fellow athletes is the highest form of camaraderie. Forget Georgetown Prep: What happens in the locker room stays in the locker room.
Of course, he wasn’t just defensively bunkered behind those few talking points. Mostly he was the opposite — outraged at his critics. This is another thing he has in common with professional athletes, nearly all of whom see themselves in me-against-the-world terms. Kavanaugh attacked doubters as if running through an opponent’s secondary, or, more accurately, like an offensive lineman knocking people to and fro, not worrying much about whether or not he was breaking any rules. (It helps that there were no refs to throw any flags.) A more measured person — say, a judge — might have covered his flank, or made certain he had plausible deniability, or would be careful of offending any of his interlocutors. But there is nothing measured about being an athlete. You just forge forward.
That’s what was most telling about watching Kavanaugh: that he, like so many retired athletes I’ve spoken to, seemed stuck in the athletic mind-set of decades earlier. There is a certain arrested development that comes with having your athletic career — your total focus up to the point that it ends — be over only a third of the way through your life, or less. This is why athletes often struggle when their careers are over. The skills sports taught them are no longer useful. And they’re too old to start over. You can’t just head-butt your way through the world anymore.
Kavanaugh had the certainty and precision of someone who still thinks about their heyday of years before; it’s clear that the time he spent Lifting Over at Tobin’s House is something he still considers among the best years of his life. It can be sad, sometimes, to talk to an old athlete, in his 70s or so, who still focuses almost all his energy on tiny moments that happened to him five decades ago. If you truly loved being an athlete — as Kavanaugh obviously did — it becomes something you can never let go. (And I get it: I’m still angry about a curveball I struck out on against Taylorville in a traveling team baseball game 30 years ago.) But most people grow up, and grow out of it: Athletics were a pursuit, not an obsession. But if you don’t move on, it becomes all that matters. It becomes how you still see the world.
That’s how Kavanaugh talks: Like a guy who sees sport, and winning, in everything … like a guy who will never see past that because to see past that would be to admit that the world is grayer and more confusing and scarier than any athlete wants to admit. Everyone who isn’t a teammate is against you — standing in your way. It’s the only way to survive in sports … even if you’re not in sports anymore. This is a sad thing to witness in a retired athlete. But it is absolutely fucking terrifying to see it in a judge.