Thursday, March 24, 2005


Athletic virtue

Part IV of V on steroid use in baseball

Here's another knock on steroid use. "It undermines our confidence in our sports heroes. We thought Mark McGuire was a hero but (if it turns out he indeed used steroids illegally), then he's just a cheater. We're disillusioned, our faith in our sacred institutions is shaken, and Mark McGuire must be punished for this."

Making heroes out of athletes goes back to ancient times, but the ancient Greeks and Romans were sophisticated enough to distinguish between athletic prowess and other virtues. It's an American thing to assume that all of the human virtues tend to go together and that, therefore, a great athlete is (or should be), in addition, a nice, kind, even-tempered person who lives a clean life and exercises good judgment about using the millions of dollars we pay him. (Or in the case of baseball Hall-of-Famer and addle-brained politician Jim Bunning, that the former star athlete would make a good congressman and Senator). We encapsulate this foolishness into the notion that a sports hero should be a "role model" to youth.

This is a neurotic belief system, because even people who cling to the "role model" idea know full well that it is false, and simply refuse to reckon with the contradictory facts. There is no earthly reason to assume that great athletic ability is correlated with any other virtue, and overwhelming evidence that it is not. Babe Ruth, while apparently big-hearted, was a wild partier who was viewed as so irresponsible that he was never seriously considered for a managing job after his retirement, which was a heartbreak to him. Ty Cobb was the great asshole of his day. Pete Rose is a gambling addict and a pathetic liar. Professional sports Halls of Fame are filled with many nice people, I'm sure, but also with the profligate, the substance abusers, the addictive gamblers, the spousal abusers, and many other sorts of rogue.

[Here I might add that among our many confusions on these issues of sports and morality, we are deeply confused even about the purpose of an institution like the Baseball Hall of Fame. Is it a museum of the history of on-the-field baseball performance, or is it an honor society for retired athletes who combine athletic performance and certain character virtues? Only the latter purpose provides any basis for excluding a ballplayer like Pete Rose.]

Why do we need sports "heroes" to have all these other virtues that make them "role models"? Is it because we pay them so much? That's ass backwards. Is it a "hoop dreams" syndrome: we want to reassure largely disenfranchised racial minorities that they have a stake in society because they, or one of their friends, relatives or neighbors has an outside shot at striking it rich in the big leagues? That's sick.

It's often said that sports heroes need to be role models because kids idolize them. That's confused too. I learned to love sports because my dad loved sports. Yeah, games are fun to play when you're a kid and have time and energy to play them, but the social meaning of sports is not hard-wired into kids' natures – it's acquired from adults. It is certainly childish to assume that athletic virtue goes hand in hand with other virtues – and therefore kids are more susceptible to that confusion. But the only thing stopping us from carefully explaining to our children that star athletes can be bad people – a fact of life that we somehow manage to accept and eventually explain to our children in the case of star actors – is our own childish and therefore neurotic refusal as adults to acknowledge that fact. It's the grownups who idolize the sports heroes, and our kids pick that up from us.

Why don't we just let ballplayers be ballplayers, and not load them up with all these phony -- and inconsistently applied -- moral character requirements? I take up that question in the next post...


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