So now it’s not only the flagship Stanley Cup down, but also news that our home-run heroes are crammed with steroids. National League Hockey and Major League Baseball offer different variations on a theme, but that theme is a crisis of body and spirit that grips all professional and American university sport and now threatens to engulf athletic activity at all levels.
Big-time pro and U.S. college sports today require the wealth of Croesus to prosper, let alone survive. The root of success is measured in attendance and media share, which in turn are products of location and the ability to win. If an owner has money -- citing the refrain in the film “Field of Dreams” -- then the talent will follow. At last count New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner had four players under contract for $100 million or more. Indeed, Steinbrenner could buy the NHL.
One should not term this situation “sport” save as an entertainment medium. For fans, notions of loyalty and permanence are now fool's gold. In the last quarter-century, free agency, big-spending owners, network and cable TV revenue, and endorsement deals enabled even mediocre players to become millionaires and change uniforms at will. Consequently we who care now root for laundry.
A similar dynamic governs NCAA Division I football and basketball -- the two American money sports. The word student-athlete is an oxymoron, as gridiron and hardcourt assert primacy over players’ lives. Often athletes do not even live or interact with the student body. They live in their own luxury dorms, take courses usually reserved for chickadees, and -- with the bestjump at the chance to jump to the NBA after a year or two. For too many athletes, university and even high school experiences fail to foster attitudes of intellectual and social maturity.
Sport today is all about money. It’s the money that separates athletic celebrities from we who take slap shots on weekends or shoot hoops at noon. This distinction also seasons the rap sheets that show how many superjocks live outside conventional boundaries of law, ethics, and civility. OJ Simpson, of course, heads the list with his notorious acquittal on two murder charges. But the short list of reprobates grows exponentially -- with names like Kobe Bryant (sexual assault), Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Gary Sheffield (steroids), Dany Heatley (very) reckless driving, and websites like cracksmokers.com.
Rule violating in this outlaw culture has consequences. Star athletes, alas, still provide cues for fans, spectators, and the credulous. When jock transgressors face little, if any music, the rest of us receive a strong message. The process of being set apart and honoured for athleticism, together with the admonition to win at all costs. The process of being set apart and honoured for athleticism, together with the admonition to win at all costs, exerts impact. Youngsters who play sport well learn early how to get away with figurative murder when coaches and administrators make exceptions, turn away, or falsify a record. Vancouver Canuck Todd Bertuzzi's disgusting plea bargain after he broke Steve Moore's neck in an NHL game epitomizes this trend at the pro level.
As does the case of Ron Artes of the Indiana Pacers, who recently distinguished himself by initiating a brawl that involved several teammates, Detroit Piston opponents, and onlookers -- giving ESPN and CNN that night a special jolt of hypermasculinity. Artest was suspended for the year, but this sentence is an exception to general leniency.
We've been defining deviance down now for half a century, so we should not be surprised when dad, mom, and the kids mimic the big stars in appalling behaviour. The hockey mom who shakes her breasts at opposing parents; the dad who attempts to choke a coach, referee or player; and the young studs who see stardom as a ticket to ride just about anybody everywhere possess sufficient affluent role models.
Perhaps it’s time to renounce the altogether the bright lights and boorishness that masquerade as sport.