Telander: The twisted world of sports
RICK TELANDER firstname.lastname@example.org December 14, 2011 9:56PM
Milwaukee Brewers' Ryan Braun drops his bat after hitting a two-run home run during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs on Sunday, Sept. 28, 2008, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Updated: May 9, 2012 10:06AM
This sure isn’t the Golden Age of Sport.
I don’t know what you’d call it — the Aluminum Age, the Strontium-90 Age? — but it’s rare and shimmering only in the way a nuclear explosion is.
The 2011 MVP of Major League Baseball testing positive for synthetic testosterone might be the crisp cherry atop the mushroom cloud of fraud and cynicism and toxic greed that once was good ol’ sport.
MVP Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers’ left fielder, certainly doesn’t see it that way, and he has vowed to fight his failed drug test and the 50-game suspension that comes with it.
But baseball commissioner Bud Selig — the former owner of the Brewers, remember — had been crowing about what a great job he and his forces have done cleaning up the cesspool of performance-enhancing-drug-taking that MLB had become under his watch. Braun’s cheating adds hubris and smug self-satisfaction to the sins within the wreckage of the unending Steroid Era.
Nobody is saying that sports were ever pure. At least you won’t get that from this corner. Heck, I’m not sure David’s method for beating Goliath was sanctioned by the rules.
But sport of the last 20 or so years doesn’t appear to have even a vestige of the morality or glorious lesson-learning that old sport seemed to have.
Heroes? Be careful, lest they have names like Bonds, McGwire, Clemens, Palmeiro, Sosa. Or, yes, Braun.
Lance Armstrong? Beware. Marion Jones? No. Mike Tyson a hero, even after the ‘‘Hangover’’ movies? Not a chance. Kobe Bryant, after Eagle, Colorado? Mike Vick, after the dogs? Magic Johnson, after HIV? Pete Rose, after the gambling? A-Rod, after so much?
There are many superstars, some of them good people, but we know too much about them now to believe in the fantasy of their transcendence.
The once-worshipped Babe Ruth was part of that Golden Age in the 1920s, but he likely wouldn’t have made it through the microscope of modern times without being sent to rehab or even jail at some point.
The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame? We’d laugh those little Golden Age guys back to the stable!
What does winning mean?
Blame TV, the Internet, the multiheaded beast known as ESPN, even Twitter. Blame us all for having let a fascination with sport grow into an obsession that reminds us, by the energy it demands and which we gladly give, how empty our lives must be.
Yet even as we grow ever wilder over sport — winning, mainly — we learn more and more that cheating abounds and winners want money more than anything. Why would a young, handsome, educated guy like Braun cheat? Maybe to get a $131.5 million contract. Which he got.
But we now know that athletes will cheat for almost nothing. Those ’roided-up East German swimmers of the 1970s begat dirty Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson who begat the Chinese swimmers who begat the Dutch cyclists who begat the American weightmen who begat the high school boys everywhere who want muscles like, well, your average NFL linebacker or ‘‘The Situation’’ from ‘‘Jersey Shore.’’
Fantasy sport makes it easy for us to care less about the real people (in any depth) and more about the virtual athletes and virtual games of which we are the masters. Narcissism is cool. That’s reinforced every time we watch an end zone dance, a soccer knee-slide, a fighter standing on the ropes pounding his chest and screaming, ‘‘Me!’’
We also learn it when NCAA coaches of ‘‘amateur’’ sports make more money than Hollywood stars, because they are fast-talking producers of revenue-driven, mass-market entertainment, not men.
Indeed, how the role of coach has changed in a generation! The whistle-tooting adults who once were stand-in parents for our kids are now seen as greedy, mercenary maniacs who will use their power to surreptitiously fulfill base needs and even fetishes.
The pedophilia awareness started by football coach Jerry Sandusky at Penn State has now hit almost every North American sport, from swimming to gymnastics to baseball to basketball to hockey to . . . we have no idea where it will end.
Recent autobiographies by Andre Agassi, Jerry West, Amanda Beard — as well as the full documentation of the Todd Marinovich test-tube-baby-as-quarterback — have shown us in detail the horrors of sacrificing all to be the best. As West, the NBA logo, put it, ‘‘There have been a number of moments when I haven’t wanted to live, when I felt so hopeless. Nights I went to bed and hoped I didn’t wake up.’’
You want that for your kid?
And then there is the head trauma, the concussions, the old ‘‘bell rung’’ moment that can affect an athlete forever, in terrifying ways.
Young Sid Crosby, the best hockey player in the world, out for 10 months with a concussion, is shelved once more with concussion-like symptoms. From Mike Webster to Bob Probert to Dave Duerson, the list of brain-damaged, life-shortened star athletes is long.
Safe tackle football? An oxymoron?
And yet we watch humiliating reality shows like the hour-long, self-serving Heisman Trophy presentation on ESPN, wherein seemingly decent, team-oriented athletes are forced to brag and smirk just like the hosts and analysts who control them.
Speaking to USA Today about the Ryan Braun sadness, Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson said, ‘‘It’s fair to say you can’t trust anybody.’’
Maybe that’s true.
But if there’s a good side to whatever metallic age this is, it could be that we’ll never get fooled again.