Sports are terrible now. The NFL is in the middle of a lockout because the millions they’re all making isn’t enough. MLB has seen two no-hitters this year and fans continue to stay away from ballpark. Even the media are having a hard time to find compelling stories to highlight. The NBA is a joke — players collude in the off season to determine what team to play for, demanding salaries that could relieve entire nations of health and medical problems. Tiger Woods was the reason to watch golf and now he can’t make it through nine holes. Seriously, do sports suck so hard?
I read a very interesting anthropological report a few years ago. Some French researchers spent ten years radio tagging and observing the two dominant groups of orangutans in the jungles of Madagascar. They discovered that every year, as the dry season approached, the males from each group would participate in a bloody battle. The winners would be ceded rights to territory, as well as a certain number of females from the other group. Invariably, fortunes were reversed the following year, so territory and females were traded back and forth, while the corpses piled up. What’s interesting is that during the eleventh year of observation, one of the groups was stricken with a disease, and almost all of them died. There was no dry season battle. So the remaining group went to war with itself. It staged a contest where there was no territory or females at stake. They killed off a third of their own tribe, entirely for sport.
It appears we are not the only ones hardwired to find release through violence, choreographed or otherwise. Which would lead me to believe that sports “suck” because there are no actual corpses, territory, or prize females at stake. On any given broadcast, during the endless truck and beer commercials occasionally leavened with reenactments of lower primate mayhem, there is a complete absence of true consequence. This is because certain monkeys are paid huge sums to strap on helmets and absorb the punishment for us. They are glorified to the point of infantilism, a conferred regency for the ability to leap unusually high or shoulder another to the ground with maximum force. All while the rest of the tribe watches from a safe distance. Or at least a flat screen. Sports suck because we have long ceded the right to join in the violence, and can therefore never be happy. Every weekend, in our deepest pre-conscious brains, while pretending to cheer, we sublimate the all-encompassing shame of not participating. Of not baring teeth and pulling fur. Of not snapping femur and dragging off a new mate by the tail. This simultaneously relieves and enrages us. It is an exercise in impotence. And so, because it is the only release left to us, we bitch about the coach and the general manager and the owner. We bitch about players and salaries, gilding memories of “the old days” when athletes were tougher, less money-conscious, and somehow better people. We whine about schedules and uniforms and rules changes. We scream about conspiracies and fixes and payoffs. We bitch, because bitching is the only recourse left to those who prefer a sedentary and voyeuristic fandom to the danger of getting their fur bloody. The question, really, is not why sports suck, but why don’t sports suck so much worse?
Big Roethlisberger fan from Ohio here. Found this site from my Ben google alerts, which led to some article about the date rape thing, which lead to your Mike Vick comments. On the article, lots of smoke but no fire, was essentially nonsense and money grubbing. Did you know girls follow NBA teams and then keep the rubbers after they have sex and impregnate themselves with them? Paternity suit in a bag. It’s true. Groupies want to be near guys and bling, they’ll do anything. Haunt team hotels,bars and clubs. Anyway, I have a question and thought you were the one too ask. Do you pussies know anything about sports at all? So, if not, why are they talking about it?
The Roethlisberger situation is interesting to me in the sense that it brings up a lot of questions about why we view athletes the way we do, and the breadth of our expectations for them. My understanding of his case, and admittedly this comes without doing the reading I should–mostly because my research budget was slashed in half by Helmsman Listi last month–is that your hero Ben forced himself on a woman in a bar bathroom while they were both drunk. A bodyguard blocked the door. Roethlisberger wanted sex and the woman wanted proximity, and during the negotiation he failed to cease groping her when she asked him to. She says he had sex with her. He says they just messed around. Apparently there wasn’t enough DNA evidence to charge him with sexual assault in court, but his behavior was deemed sufficiently ugly to suspend him for six games under the NFL’s morals clause. I don’t know what really happened in that bathroom, and I don’t know if anyone but Roethlisberger and his accuser do either. It wasn’t the first incident of this type he has been connected with. In any case, I can’t say I found another episode in the long line of athletes taking advantage of their celebrity to either cajole or demand sexual favors particularly surprising. Many months later, when the incident was resolved, at least legally, I was interested by what seemed to be a fairly genuine public reappraisal by Roethlisberger. He did a few interviews where he said he’d had an epiphany. After facing a judge, and real consequences, he suddenly realized that he’d been acting like an asshole for years, in almost every facet of his life. He confessed to being arrogant, rude and entitled. He’d said he’d taken to drinking too much and treating women poorly and mooching random sex (not really his exact words, but I read between the lines.) He finished by admitting he was not the person he wanted to be, was raised to be, or intended to be in the future. Now, perhaps these confessions were all orchestrated by his agent and comprise nothing more than a cynical ploy to get him back on the field and cashing paychecks. But looking into his eyes, I half-believed him. And I’m fascinated by instances where people, in whatever circumstances, and for whatever reason, come to profound realizations about themselves. And further, begin the process of enacting real change in their lives. Mostly because I think it’s rare. The majority of us pass the years imbued with a degree of certitude, and don’t much waver from it, if for no other reason than that the severity of our “bad” experiences are not sufficient enough to force us to. It’s possible that because of the “bathroom incident’ and the resultant publicity, loss of career, and potential jail time, Roethlisberger truly altered his behavior. It’s possible he’s become a better person, son, teammate, and sexual being. Maybe for the first time in his life he’s having genuine emotional connections with women. Or maybe it was all bullshit–he’s giddy he got away with rape or something like it, and he’s just biding his time until he can do it again.
I don’t know. But what I do know is that in any of these highly publicized instances of athlete misbehavior, we rarely take into account the ingrained mindset of the people we’re talking about. Most high-level athletes have done little of cultural consequence during a youth dominated with training and performing. They rarely interact with those outside of their sport. They don’t take a year off to backpack in Europe, or spend the summer smoking pot and reading comics, or take courses in classical literature, go on protest marches, or play in a cover band. They were likely identified at a very early age for their physical gifts, and have been isolated, coddled, and constantly told that they were special ever since. I am quite sure I was at least half an asshole when I was eighteen. I can’t imagine what the percentage would have been had I been handed a thirty million dollar contract. Or had a super bowl ring by time I was twenty-two. Or had endorsements and personal assistants and people screaming my name wherever I went, not to mention women jostling for my autograph every time I stepped off the team bus. I’d like to think my ethical foundations, which I had already spent some time exploring, would have stood firm. But I’ll never know.
People always complain about “the modern athlete,” either due to the money they make or their increasingly egotistical behavior, traipsing out the same tired cliche that hasn’t been true since 1938: “they get paid a fortune to play a kid’s game.” Well, most athletes do get paid a fortune. And there is certainly a measure of fame and glory. But they’re also getting paid for grueling year-round physical training and all the sacrifices it entails. They’re on the road half of any season, living out of a suitcase and staying in hotels, which for security and publicity reasons are difficult to leave. In a cell phone camera/stalker society, they’re constantly vigilant about what they do or say, lest it end up on ESPN the next morning, or the crime blotter at night. They handle huge sums of money with very little real-world experience, often parceling it out among jealous family and friends. Playing means performing, in front of huge live crowds and even larger TV audiences. They are doomed to fail (not score, not hit, not throw a touchdown, lose, fumble, strike out, let the winning goal into the net) again and again on a national stage. They are contractually bound to answer tedious and ridiculous questions before and after every game. They can never lose their temper. Never say anything the least bit controversial. Never make a sexist joke, or a racial comment, or say anything that offends any particular group of fans without immediate protests and boycotts and rounds of pre-written apologies. They are expected to sign autographs and found charities and visit hospitals. They are often pilloried for not being “authentic” enough off the field. Pilloried for being too black. Pilloried for not being black enough. At the mercy of radio and talk shows and magazines for every personality flaw or example of temperament which fails to display the requisite humility, graciousness, and good humor. All of which really means not frightening white fans over the course of an analysis which takes place during the 24 hour sports news cycle, in living rooms around the country. Oh, and on top of all that, perform. Consistently perform, against all mathematical odds. Hit .300. Average 4 yards a carry. Have a plus/minus of at least 6. Have a first-serve percentage of 89. Snag 12 interceptions a year. Don’t fall down, don’t be slow, don’t throw the ball away, don’t commit an error.
Very, very few fans who feel perfectly comfortable casting aspersions and demanding better performance could balance these same demands, let alone admit that they most certainly do not take place under the auspices of a “kid’s game.”
Of course, none of this excuses sexual assault or any other egregious behavior. But it does bring us closer to understanding where the sense of entitlement, detachment, callousness, and shocking immaturity comes from. In fact, it always amazes me that most athletes handle themselves so well. I am astonished there aren’t more arrests, more deaths, more crimes, a higher rate of suicide. Especially among football players. Before the Roethlisberger whispers started, he crashed a motorcycle while not wearing a helmet, apparently hitting a car head-first. Google Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. Google Dementia Pugilistica. The high rate of neurodegenerative disease among even very young football players is the dirty secret of the NFL, one they have ignored for decades and is only now beginning to be talked about, in the same way that steroid use was “discovered” in baseball eight years ago. By the end of this decade, football will no longer exist as we know it, or perhaps not at all, when it is learned exactly what the true long term costs of running full speed into another body are.
Maybe Big Ben got smacked in the head too many times.
Or maybe he’s just an asshole.
Either way, by the end of next season, his brain will be significantly more damaged than it is today.
Finally, Tom, in terms of us here being pussies? Yeah, it’s probably true. Writers are rarely athletic, tough, or particularly cool. But you spent the time to read and consider those other articles, and presumably this one as well. Which seems to me a small victory, because, if nothing else, I will never spend a single moment watching you watch football.
Why don’t you ever mention Canada? More to the point, why don’t you ever mention hockey? Unlike America, we did not sell out our people by deregulating the banks. And unlike the talent level in other sports, which has decreased due to apathy, huge salaries, and league expansion, today’s hockey players are more fearsome and skillful than ever. The hits continue to be brutal, the games are fast-paced and there are plenty of compelling players to follow. If ever there was a time for hockey to rise to prominence in the US, it’s now. The Dust getting on board would be a big help. Thanks!
Hockey remains a minor sport in America for three reasons:
1. Most of us didn’t grow up playing it, and so the rules aren’t second nature. More damaging, the unfamiliarity with the game makes it difficult for Americans to envision themselves performing icy heroics, and thus even the best Bruins/Habs nail-biter will always be far less fulfilling than a single fantasy dunk over Lebron.
2. While it may not be fair or accurate, on a base intellectual level, there is something disconcertingly feminine about men on skates. Which means, by extension, that hockey is gay. While it is certainly time for an all-gay sport to rise in both America and Canada, finally giving us common ground to put aside decades of animus and border antagonism, I’m seeing something along the lines of Sweatiest Twinks or Competitive Fashion Dont’s as more likely to land all-important sponsorship and endorsement deals.
3. The NHL commissioner, Gary Bettman, is a moron. Hockey has no television deal. Television is sports. Broadcasting hockey on Versus is like listening to Fleetwood Mac on 8-track. The playoffs have been going on for a month and a majority of the country hasn’t seen a single game. Do you remember when boxing became irrelevant in America? It was during the mid-eighties, exactly the same time it went to pay-per-view. The sport barely exists any more, due to short term greed. When boxing was on ABC every Friday night, poor kids across the country grew up wanting to be Marvin Hagler or Leon Spinks. There is not a single kid in the world, except possibly those who grew up eating two-headed carrots outside Chernobyl, who wants to be Vitaly Klitchko. If Bettman weren’t a moron, he would lease broadcast rights to CBS for free for a decade. Even after giving his product away at a loss, once 8 year-olds who play with Matchbox cars while hockey flickers in the background grow up and become nostalgic and sedentary young professionals, the sport will explode.
4. I was kidding about hockey being gay. It’s more like super frenetic bi-curious, but with way fewer teeth.
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