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LoVanté Battle, Virginia's junior safety, comes by to check on Joseph. "You look pathetic," he tells him.
Joseph feels the pressure growing. He's entering the final week before spring break, has papers due and exams to take for which he can't possibly focus, and he has a flight to Belize in five days to colead a group of a dozen UVA students in renovating an orphanage, a commitment made weeks ago.
He feels doubt arising. He knows that doubt always arises in movements like this one, and that here is where his heroes dug in ... but their battles were so much more personal than his. Ali was getting drafted into an army during wartime. Walton's friends were getting shot at in Vietnam. Jim Brown, Tommie Smith and John Carlos had to go to the other side of town to eat and sleep. Billie Jean King was playing for prize money that was sometimes one sixth of what men received and breaking the law to get an abortion in 1971. Their success as activists four decades ago is one more reason that today's athlete doesn't feel he must stand up. If he's black, he can eat or sleep anywhere his wallet allows, make just as much money as any white icon and, like everyone else, leave wars to men and women who choose to fight them. It doesn't seem necessary to risk his playing time, reputation or commercial popularity ... unless ... unless he fully understands the hero's quest and wishes to fulfill it.
It's not enough, in that quest, to overcome all the obstacles and enemies in the forest and seize the Holy Grail. "The mystique of the hero is that he goes into a realm that the rest of us can't go to, but he's got to come back with something that's important for everyone," says Edwards. "If he comes back with the Grail and doesn't use it to support the people and place he came from, there's a huge chunk missing from his halo. Jackie Robinson isn't a hero because he was a great baseball player or Ali because he was a great boxer. Joe Frazier and Larry Holmes were great boxers too. It takes something more than that. Heroism has been downgraded into a pursuit of celebrity, and celebrity doesn't carry any obligation to anything except to fame and money."
Psssst. Here's the secret that Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali discovered, the one that no agent or handler whispers into the modern athlete's ear: When you play your sport for something much larger than yourself, than your wallet, than your ego or even your team, when you tap into that power, son ... look out.
Crunch time. Summit meeting with the university president. Eighth day of Joseph's hunger strike. He crawls out of bed at 6:30, slogs across campus to stand vigil with 30 others outside Sullivan's office. In the rain. For nearly two hours. Does she know that ESPN's next, that Joseph and the hunger strike are about to be featured on Outside the Lines and ESPN.com?
The meeting finally ends. Six Living Wage supporters walk outside, nearly empty-handed. The administration agrees to little more than to meet again. At the second meeting, two days later, it agrees to form a student advisory committee to look further at the issue.
Joseph walks his hollow gut through the drizzle, feeling a little bit of everything. Hollowness spreading into his chest because the clock's running out on him. Disappointment that there'll be no fourth-quarter game-winning drive. Excitement about ESPN. Worried that "success," even if it comes, might amount to little more than what previous Living Wage Campaigns have achieved: a small raise for the workers that's not tied to the living wage, that doesn't cover the growing legions of contract workers and that can get swallowed in no time by inflation ... which is, in fact, exactly what will happen two months later.
He has lost 12 pounds. He has to start eating, the campaign's doctor has told him, to give his body a chance against the new bacteria he'll be encountering in Belize in just four days. He twitches back and forth for hours over his decision, and finally, at 9:30 p.m., he gives in. He and his roommate order takeout.
A half hour later, in silence, Peter tears into a slice of pizza and Joseph lifts a spoonful of miso soup and a sushi roll to his mouth. Sushi tastes great. Sushi feels lousy. He tells his fellow strikers the next morning that eating just doesn't feel right, and how much he appreciates their carrying on, then wonders what the consequences of his act will be.