A Word About Character and Class as Alabama Takes On LSU

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The Big Picture
By Glynn Wilson

The word “character” has many definitions, and it is often combined with the word class.

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It is often said that learning to play as a member of a team builds character and class in the individual.

This subject is on my mind this morning for a number of reasons. But since the Alabama Crimson Tide takes on the Louisiana State Tigers today in Tuscaloosa at 7 p.m. on CBS — and the attention of most of the public in my home state and one of the states I used to call home is focused on this today — I thought it would be a good time to bring it up.

If you Google a simple dictionary definition of the word, you are likely to come across these, among others.

Character, as a noun, is defined as: The combination of qualities or features that distinguishes one person, group, or thing from another; a description of a person’s attributes, traits, or abilities; moral or ethical strength. Then there’s this: public estimation of someone, a person’s reputation.

In all my years in and around university campuses, I learned that you can’t just rely on the simple dictionary definition of a word. As living, breathing human beings with brains and the ability to think and reason, you and I have the power to define things beyond what a dictionary writer must get past an editor for publication. Artists know this.

There are many factors that go into determining whether a person possesses character and class over the course of a lifetime. There are also many other factors that determine how members of the public might come to judge a person as having character and class, or whether a person is just “a character.”

“Character is like a tree, and reputation like its shadow,” Abraham Lincoln once said. “The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”

In sports, exhibiting good sportsmanship on the field might contribute to the positive reputation of a player or a team, as well as showing humility in the press room and giving others credit for success. Meanness and arrogance will earn you a bad reputation and people will not respect you as a person or a program with character and class.

The psychology of the individual and the sociology of groups work much the same in politics and journalism.

While people respect strength, they also respect what has been characterized in myth and lore as “the humble giant.”

Someone with towering size or strength who treats the small and meek with tenderness.

Sometimes arrogant people who let their hubris take over their character have to be chastised by their family, their team or society at large.

Sometimes that means getting fired from a job or even being locked up in jail for awhile.

Can character be taught? Or is it genetic? Is a person born with great character or can they learn to have character and class?

Some people just seem to be born with it. But others do seem to develop it over time.

It’s obvious, at least to me — although it does not appear that the mainstream media gets it — that Nick Saban believes character and class can be taught. His entire program of success through excellence is designed around this idea.

Does it always work? Obviously not. There have been more than a few players who had to be banished from the team. But it has led to three national championships in the past four years. So something is obviously working.

In my life and times, I have personally known only a few people who seem to get this instinctively. It is not the time to go into great detail about this, but for the record, I do want to point out one person who may not have been born with the characteristics of great class and character, at least to hear him tell it. But my friend Rick Bragg has been a true gentle giant since I got to know him in the late 1990s. He is still teaching at the University of Alabama, writing for Southern Living and recently recorded this piece of writing for National Public Radio.

Bragg and I share many things, and not just a lot of lunches in New Orleans when we were there at the same time from 2000 to 2004. We are of the same generation. We are Baby Boomers. We grew up and came of age listening to rock ’n’ roll, driving fast cars and dating fast women. We both turned to newspapering as a career. We even shared a byline in the New York Times. And we’ve both spent time trying to teach a younger generation what we know.

I cannot truly be the judge of my own character. Others will have to do that. In the era of the Internet and social networking, this is a tricky business. Although I must also say for the record that I truly do try to be a person of character and class.

It’s just that at times, when I see other people being mean, arrogant or stupid, I can’t help but point it out. Call me a critic. There’s no doubt I am one. But I believe I have earned the right. I’ve put in my time and paid my dues.

Sometimes it might be better to keep one’s mouth shut and say nothing. I do that more than people know. I can pull a punch and hold my tongue, or keep my powder dry. In fact by writing this column today, I am doing just that.

There are some things I could say about certain people in the news right now that some people would not like. There are some things I could say about people I’ve had dealings with who are exhibiting characteristics that do now show character and class. I could lash out by e-mail or on Facebook or right here in this space.

Instead, I am going to let them figure it out for themselves. Most people have to learn things the hard way anyway.

As Norman Maclean wrote in the conclusion to his memoir A River Runs Through It, “Help is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly and needs it badly. So it is that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don’t know what part to give or maybe we don’t like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted…”

The problem with developing and judging character, at least according to author Joel Hawes, is that “character is like white paper; if once blotted, it can hardly ever be made to appear white as before.”

According to the Frenchman Alexandre de Talleyrand, “The reputation of a man is like his shadow, gigantic when it precedes him, and pigmy in its proportions when it follows.”

Like we always say, let History be the judge. You can only do the best you can do — and hope things work out for the best.

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Self Portrait: Glynn Wilson

© 2013, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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