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Picture this. You’re twenty three years old, a third round draft pick, skipped school to grab that bonus, nothing to fall back on. This competition is fierce, and you’ve been left behind, lapped in fact. In an idyllic youth, a minor celebrity in a small town, you were the special one. Gifted. Bigger, stronger, faster, beloved by all, took pride in the popularity, destined for greatness.
Now, everything’s changed. You’ve become average, a frightening reality. You are what you so secretly pitied, another aimless fish lost in a massive pond, submerged so deep you can’t see beyond the narrow borders of an incomplete dream. The MVP is suddenly replaceable, a pawn. You thought you had a rocket arm, could hit the highest miles per hour, but they moved you off short, exiled you to second base, now complain you can’t pivot. Your arm is starting to ache, from all the infield practice, when was this supposed to be fun? You were an amazing hitter, lightening quick bat speed. Had it all figured, before the ball started curving, a wicked optical illusion. It doesn’t seem fair, almost a trick of a mind. The coaches aren’t yelling anymore, only expressing subtle sadness through empty encouragement. They know you’ll be gone soon. They can’t wait forever. Your dad doesn’t know what to say anymore, your mom said she told you so. Should’ve taken that scholarship…
But this needle, this needle can change everything. Your world can be right again, make sense. Everything’s become so scrambled… did you ever have a real identity? You were the jock, the athlete, and now… you’re on the verge of nothingness. This isn’t about ethics, morals, though you often had those confused. No, this is financial survival. This is inner salvation.
How could they understand, if they never even tried?
You were special once. You played the game.
Now the game is playing you.
We don’t want stories.
So we get them. A couple of shockers, but nothing truly earth shattering. Roger Clemens’ statistical trends paint enough of a picture without the added evidence, though that should seal it. He defends his legacy now, and we sit captivated, Sixty minutes scoring record ratings.
And did we learn anything?
We sully, spray painting crooked asterisks within our minds, marking the cheaters, moving on. And the stories start running, celebrating those still clean, honoring their accomplishments, bury the sinners, elevate the saints, trust no one.
The narrow viewpoint justifies our anger, stokes it.
How could they?
How could they abuse our trust? How could they betray themselves and their contemporary competition?
But this isn’t the important question. This is a reaction. This is what a panicked sportswriter spits while a ticking clock counts down his argument.
This is our regret.
The right question takes us to a place we aren’t interested traversing. The landscape is dark and hollow, the terrain torched.
The right question explores the punctured, oozing heart of America.
What’s a successful American existence?
We separate church and state, because the values of the former directly deride those of the latter. But it doesn’t stop the fairy tales.
The American people have been sold on a society they never conceived, but are rapidly consuming. We want the red corvette and trophy wife, the mansion and the cigar, we want it all and we want to shove it in someone’s face. The arrogant wall-street broker, flaunting his power amid a drunken ego trip, is in fact no better than the rapper saluting money, ho’s and clothes. Greed’s all the same, a celebration of simplicity, and the masses embrace it, seeking something tangible to grab hold of.
Items are hyped to the infinite, bought, and replaced. When an I-Pod breaks, we get a new edition, perhaps springing for one with better features.
Sports are our reflection.
Players are hyped to the infinite, bought, and replaced. When a player breaks, our team gets a new one, maybe this time springing for one with better features.
It’s a merciless cycle. There’s no loyalty in sports. It’s an extinct romance nullified by the color green. Fans fit right in.
Earlier this year, I was stunned when the denizens at a Giant game booed Tiki Barber upon his appearance on the Stadium’s Big Screen. After all, Barber had pretty much dragged a beleaguered Giants into the playoffs the previous season, rushing for an obscene amount of yards, capping an extraordinary career in which the diminutive back flourished with age and experience.
But Barber had severed ties with football, pursuing a broadcasting career. The fans? They took it as a slap in the face. If Barber didn’t need them anymore, they never, in fact, needed him. They regard him as a transient distraction, an annoyance. They bemoan his lack of fire, never acknowledging his talent.
They throw out Tiki Barber, and find someone else.
No different for the owners, or sportswriters. A golden quote one day is nobody the next. Great games and seasons get sucked into a pathetic vacuum, colors running together. ESPN Classic now stocks it’s programming with assorted bile, trash left over in their vaults.
Donovan McNabb gets injured. The perpetually mediocre A.J. Feeley plays a good half against New England. A ridiculous, short-lived Q.B. controversy is born.
The lesson for McNabb, a legitimate star: Don’t get broken.
They always find someone new, and nobody’s immune.
Debating whether this lifestyle is right or wrong isn’t really essential. The moral is realizing the kind of world we’ve invested in, the type of totem pole built and fortified.
Celebrity has lost all substance. A person’s deeds have ceded importance, relative to status. What has Paris Hilton done really, besides being named Paris Hilton? What matters now is who we think a person is, instead of what that person has done.
We don’t want stories.
There’s a time and a place for everything in sports. Cocaine, a plague in the eighties, fits seamlessly within the twisted scenery. This was an era of excess.
The Pittsburgh drug trials, which implicated big time names, serve as a template for the tribulations today.
The waters become murky, however, when drugs improve performance. If an athlete in the eighties wanted to destroy his image and career by messing with illegal substances, the outrage would be minimal. There’d be sympathy. There’d be a short-lived ethical uprising against the scourge of drugs. But ultimately, nothing would change. Not in the cards. History may even see the athlete, Len Bias perhaps, as a victim of his times.
Today, we don’t call steroid abusers victims. Victims of a system that left them unprotected against themselves, their desperation, their relentlessly competitive spirits, their egos and arrogance, victims of a bottom line society that rewards deceit and punishes honesty.
We brand them with the same stupidity paving their original glorification. The same American machinery elevating a hero also tears him down. There is no difference.
Motive is everything.
How exactly does America reward the individual taking the right path, the athlete who had his brilliant skills erode, his dreams disintegrate?
In a capitalistic sense, what’s in it for them?
Consider this before attacking a name.
Because there are no easy answers, and I really wish we’d stop looking.