Tuesday, January 5, 2010
The best movie about sports I saw during the last ten years was Big Fan, a blackly comic character study starring comedian Patton Oswalt. Oswalt plays a shy, sad sack of a man whose life revolves around the New York Giants and one player in particular, a linebacker whose poster dominates Oswalt's room in his mother's basement. One night Oswalt has a disasterous run-in with the linebacker that reveals the player is a cruel, uncaring, violent brute. The meat of the movie is Oswalt moping around, questioning his faith in the almighty Giants. His hero is an asshole. How can he continue to care about a team that obviously doesn't care about him back?
The tens of millions of sports fans in this country now find themselves in the same situation as Oswalt's character. Professional and big-time college sports used to be a kind of sanctuary, odd as that may sound to the non-fan. The outside world is complicated, and rendered in shades of gray. The person you love leaves you, the US government kills people in the name of saving lives, a politician you respect goes to jail for embezelling campaign funds, you get fired from a job you never liked in the first place. But your team remains your team. You might paint your face for games and scream your lungs out in a freezing stadium, or you might just catch an occasional game on TV and check the box score over your morning coffee, but either way it's something in your life that stays constant, uncomplicated. You aren't asked to make hard moral choices or examine yourself. You can hate Kobe Bryant, but that's okay because you don't actually hate him, you just like to root against him. I've always subscribed to the theory that so many men become sports fans because it gives them a way to express their emotions, which society otherwise encourages them to bottle up—crying is sissy, unless your team wins the Super Bowl. Or, looking at it another way: getting angry at the front page over young men dying in a worthless war would compel us to do something before more lives are lost; getting angry at the refs over a few blown calls is safe because we know it means nothing in the larger world.
This last decade was the decade of the larger world suddenly invading the sports section. Or maybe we just started looking at sports more critically, which destroyed our illusion that professional sports is a realm of pure and noble competitors. Whatever happened, it's almost shocking to look back on the scandals surrounding sports the past ten years. A sport-by-sport breakdown:
Baseball: Do we need to go over the steroid scandal again? So many words have already been written about this, but the basics: it turns out that nearly every important player in the past 15 years was taking steroids, which were not tested for because the people running Major League Baseball were idiots. This matters because more than other sports, baseball relies on its history and its numerical records as selling points: Ruth! Mays! Mantle! Rose! 61! 56! 4,256! 755! So the steroid users, especially guys like Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, who artificially bosted their home run totals, were not just cheating against their current competition, they were cheating against history. And lying about it. Understandably, the revealation that these men—who, in the naive 1950s world of sports, were supposed to be role models—were liers, drug users, and cheaters all at once was not good for the popularity of the sport. If you believe that performance-enhancing drugs invalidate the performance—that is, you can't say you've “beaten” the campaign mode of Starcraft if you've used cheat codes—then the last ten years of baseball basically didn't count. That's bad.
Basketball: Here's what's bad: referees might have been straight-up fixing games in the NBA. Basketball junkies have always been conspiracy-minded, from the “frozen envelope theory” (look it up if you haven't heard it, it's insane) to the idea that the time Michael Jordan took off from basketball to try professional baseball was actually a secret suspension handed down by Commissioner David Stern. So when a referee who was caught bettting on games and later claimed the NBA fixed games to get more “marketable” teams into the Finals. That might not be true, but just the idea of it is horrible enough—what's at stake is the fundamental concept behind the NBA itelf: these are supposedly fair games that are decided on the court. As if that's not enough, this is also the decade that the league has had to deal with it's “image problem,” i.e., NBA players are young tattooed black men the average white middle-class NBA fan would cross the street to avoid. See: the 2004 brawl at the Palace, the recent guns-in-the-locker-room incident, or any of the many shootings that involve NBA players. The league is so desperate to fight the “image problem” they instituted a dress code, just like a crime-ridden high school. But maybe they should make sure their games are decided on the court first.
Football: And here we are at the most morally questionable sport in America, which is saying something. I like watching the NFL, don't get me wrong. But it's becoming increasingly clear that anyone who plays the sport risks brain damage, and if you are an NFL lineman for more than a few years, it's not even a risk—you will get brain damage. If you're an NFL fan, here's the quandry: the sport that entertains you, that you love watching, causes life-altering brain injuries. Routinely. Can you continue to watch, like a Roman at the blood-soaked Coliseum? Does it make a difference whether the players know the risks? Has the NFL been hiding evidence of brain injuries from the public on purpose? What is it costing the young men on the field to entertain you?
These are the kinds of questions we go to sports to avoid. Yet if we're thinking, self-critical sports fans, we have to answer these questions. Previous generations were protected from the ugliness behind sports by a media that never told them that Mickey Mantle was an alcoholic and Jim Brown beat women. Our media tells us everything, or at least as much as it can, and so we know, or should know by now, just how ugly the business of professional sports can be. And I haven't even touched on college sports in this post.
But here's the real problem: I love sports. There's still something beautiful in an alley-oop dunk, an 80-yard pass spiraling into a receiver's arms, a home run that travels 450 feet, steroid-aided or not. I'm going to watch the Super Bowl and try not to think about all the brain injuries. I'll watch the NBA and hope it isn't just the WWE with baskets at either end. When I watch a game, I try to believe that sports are still that sacred, seperate world that they're supposed to be, despite all rational evidence to the contrary—I imagine that's how Catholics go to mass these days. Because I still care about sports. I'm just not sure they care
(The image, by the way, is the difference between a normal brain and the brain of a career NFL player.)