Old Philosophers Would have Known Ryan Leaf was a Bust or Ryan Leaf and the Marshmallow Test

Ryan Leaf Midway Through the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

What could be a better measure of a man’s virtue than his quarterbacking ability? A quarterback has to exercise several kinds of intelligence, lead in the face of well-trained and motivated opposition, and appease a widely varied group of people off of the field. By comparing Ryan Leaf and Peyton Manning, we see many of the ways that western philosophers have been right about the characteristics necessary to be good quarterbacks and, by extension, good humans.

Take Aristotle and his approach to the idea of prohairesis, which Wikipedia translates as “’moral character’, ‘will’, ‘volition’, ‘choice’, ‘intention’, or ‘moral choice,’” and phronesis, which is practical wisdom, the sort of practical knowledge acquired through experience. So far as I can tell, Ryan Leaf consistently showed that his prohairesis was poorly developed. While Peyton Manning hustles and generally shows us that he’s a stand-up citizen, Ryan Leaf regularly indulged his impulses, no matter how ridiculous. He went golfing instead of practicing football, despite an absurd salary, didn’t bother to show up when prospective employers wanted to interview him before the draft, and, he has now taken to stealing painkillers from acquaintances while wearing business attire. Because of that lack of prohairesis, he never gained the practical wisdom that comes with the exercise of rational, deliberate choice.

Speaking of will, what about Nietzsche? Were he whispering into Bobby Beathard’s ear in 1998, he would have pointed out that Leaf was just one of the herd. For Nietzsche, a true leader is one whose strength of will and intellect allow him to surpass the limitations implicit in a given culture, religion, or language. He is a contemplative introvert who leads men. Does someone who got fired from his coaching job after trying to coerce a player into giving him painkillers sound like he belongs in this category? I didn’t think so. On the other hand, instead of faking injuries in order to play flag football, Peyton Manning has played through pain for the past few seasons. How ubermenschish.

While we’re on the topic of categories,  (or categorical imperatives, anyway), I should point out that Kant would have warned against drafting Leaf. For old Immanuel, virtue that didn’t come about as a result of a perceived duty to resist impulse was not virtue at all. Translating this into football-ese, all of the raw talent, arm-strength, and field vision in the world is useless if it isn’t accompanied with discipline. Ryan Leaf can’t even resist the impulse to steal drugs from stranger’s homes.

In light of this, I’m not even convinced that Leaf could pass the marshmallow test. If you haven’t taken introductory psychology, the marshmallow test is a means of measuring a child’s ability to resist impulse. Arguably cruel experimental psychologists place a marshmallow in front of a child and tell him or her not to eat it. If they manage to abstain, they are told, they get a whole bag of marshmallows. The kids who can resist the urge to eat that sweet treat go on to earn higher SAT scores, make more money, and marry more attractive husbands and wives (I have presumed the last one). The kids who eat the marshmallow go on to be the Ryan Leafs of the world. I’m not even convinced that our ill-fated quarterback could pass the test today, let alone as a child.

All joking aside, it’s hard not to empathize with Ryan Leaf. Some of the best athletes I’ve known have had similar issues with discipline, and that doesn’t necessarily make them bad people. Similarly, Ryan Leaf’s faults aren’t his fault (…). He seems to be a genuinely decent person, but it is fair to assume that none of these three giants of the pantheon of western philosophy would have trusted him to guard their marshmallows, let alone paid him record-breaking signing bonuses.


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