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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Can we perhaps talk about sports now?
Posted by Jill | 7:56 AM
I'm sure you know people like the one I'm about to talk about; people who live these charmed lives where nothing ever goes wrong. I have a friend, a former colleague whose life at least appears to be like that. She has her head together, a great marriage, a good job with a lot of flexibility, and two beautiful children. Her family is always doing something -- they ski together, they do dog agility, her daughter has variously during her life so far been involved in Irish step dancing, gymnastics, skiing, just to name a few -- and she also plays the violin. Her son is a hockey demon. This isn't a couch potato family that likes to watch sports. These aren't people who talk about "Carmelo" and "A-Rod" and "Eli" as if they're talking about their friends, these are people who are always out there DOING.

And yet during the height of Lance Armstrong Mania, this woman was glued to the web stream of the Tour de France, proud as hell of her yellow Livestrong bracelet. There was just something about Lance Armstrong.

Last year you couldn't get away from coverage of Tim Tebow when he was with the Denver Broncos. Plenty of athletes are devout Christians; R.A. Dickey is one. But Tebow was so "out there" with his, and when he played well over his head and was nice to the press, suddenly you had people actually speculating about whether he really WAS the second coming of Jesus.

America is trapped in its own mythology of a rugged individualism that largely only existed in movies and television. The myth of the cowboy painted in decades of John Ford westerns and the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and on TV shows like Gunsmoke and Have Gun Will Travel, evolved into the Lone Cop mythos of Dirty Harry and gave rise to an intransigent gun culture whose adherents seem to take these images and extrapolate them to actual modern life. Having a Bushmaster doesn't make you Paladin or Marshal Matt Dillon or Dirty Harry.

The sports mythos is newer in this country; a phenomenon that had to wait until the advent of mass media. But beginning in the 20th century, America has had a love affair with sports heroes, going all the way back to From Babe Ruth, Jim Thorpe and Jack Dempsey in the 1920s. But it has really only been during my lifetime that the elevation of sports into a quasi-religion has taken place, and with the advent of 24 x 7 sports talk radio, everything athletic becomes a Story.

Every professional athlete that has emerged from the pack as a sports hero has a story, and most of the time it fits very nicely into Joseph Campbell's hero myth, in which:
...a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Every sports story contains some variation on this myth, which is sometimes combined with Greek Tragedy. When that happens, we get a president like Ronald Reagan, whose very nickname evoked the Tragic Athletic Hero he had portrayed in a movie decades before. The Tragic sports heroes in the American consciousness are guys like Lou Gehrig and Brian Piccolo and George Gipp -- cut down in their prime and made immortal in movies.

These mythical archetypes have such power over our consciousness that we do whatever we have to in order to keep them from crashing on the shoals of reality. Whether it's the old colleague of mine who reacted to the news of O.J. Simpson's arrest for the murder of his wife by saying "He couldn't have done it...he's O.J., man!" or the millions of people like my other colleague who despite being otherwise pragmatic, truly believed that a man could beat stage IV cancer and then come back to win seven grueling bicycle races, we are a people of illusions about sports and sports heroes.

Today, towns that won't pass school budgets if the bulk of the money is for science labs and will cut band and orchestra in lean years will think nothing of voting "Yea" on $700,000 for lights for the high school football field. Parents push their kids into soccer and Little League and Pop Warner football whether the kids are any good or not, because in an age of six-figure college costs, they know that the athletic scholarship is going to bring more help than the few thousand available for academic scholarships. They may know intellectually that only a few select kids grow up to be Tom Brady, but then they look at the bigass house that one NFL player who grew up in my town built for his parents and they think, "Why not my kid?"

All of which brings us back to the power of the Great Sports Story and the news from this week. Anyone who hadn't figured out yet that Lance Armstrong had to be doing something to give him an edge was either delusional or an idiot. If Lance Armstrong had merely beaten cancer with lung and brain metastasis, that would have been incredible. To do that and even COMPETE in the Tour de France would have made him heroic in the truest Joseph Campbell sense. To have won once, even if doping, would have made him a Great American Sports Story. But Armstrong had to get greedy, becoming addicted to the glory and the endorsement deals and the women and the money. We've given a lot of lip service to illegal drugs and addiction over the years, but none to the addictive nature of sports heroism. For a while, Armstrong went on the hero's journey but ended up not even as a tragic Greek hero, but just another small-time con man.

Then we get to the more interesting story of Manti Te'o, the Notre Dame quarterback whose story was like crack to sportswriters -- the college football hero who soldiers through the Big Game despite his devastation at the loss of his beloved grandma. I don't think there's been a dead grandma this famous since Jonny Fairplay created a lie that his own grandma had died in an attempt to win Survivor: Pearl Islands. But the story didn't stop there. Te'o also had a supposed girlfriend who had survived a devastating car accident only to find out that she had leukemia, dying within six hours of Beloved Grandma, whereupon the Distraught Hero went out and led the Fighting Irish to a 20-3 upset victory over Michigan State. And the sports press lapped it up, just as they'd lapped up Lance Armstrong's Victory Over Cancer, and the steroidal tag team of Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa breaking Roger Maris' home run record, and the Tim Tebow is Jesus meme.

The Te'o story is more interesting than Armstrong's because of the many possibilities, and also because of the dilemma it presents to the very sportswriters who bought the Dying Girlfriend story.

Yesterday I posted a video from the musical "Avenue Q", in which Rod, the closeted banker, responds to questions about his sexual orientation by singing about his "girlfriend who lives in Canada." The song is hilarious, and it's also one of the first things that popped into my mind when I first heard this story. Speculation about whether the "girlfriend from Canada" aspect to Te'o's mythical girlfriend implies something about his sexual orientation can be easily found via Teh Google, so I won't go into them here (although being the first out quarterback in NFL history would be pretty Campbellesque all by itself). But whether Te'o is closeted, or took part in a lie to boost his Heisman Trophy chances (it didn't work), or if he's the dumbest fucking person on the planet, isn't really my concern. What IS interesting, though, are the roles of the institution of Notre Dame itself, and of the sports press, and how the how both continue to want to cling to this story of an innocent, devoutly religious young man (shades of Tebow) duped by Evil People.

The college seems particularly interested in finding out just who did this to their prize property, which seems disproportionate to a story that at BEST is just a particularly good episode of Punk'd, especially when one takes into consideration how the college dragged its feet in investigating the case of a young woman sexually assaulted by a Notre Dame football player in 2010 who later committed suicide. The player involved was deemed by the school to be "not responsible" and never even missed a game.

Sports sports sports sports sports. It's always about sports. If Lennay Kekua had been real, Manti Te'o would have been talked about as a hero for the next five years, while Victoria Soto, the Newtown, Connecticut teacher who made herself into a human shield to protect the students in her charge will be forgotten in six months outside of town. Whoever emerges from the pack to be the hero of the upcoming Super Bowl will be on a Wheaties box while no one will ever know who the Virginia firefighter is who in passing noticed an unusual glow in a house and notified the residents that their house was on fire. No one knows or cares in December, Boston police officer Edward Norton saved a woman from drowning. No one cares that Texas high school student Kensen Shi won a $100,000 science prize for developing a computer algorithm that helps robots navigate around obstacles.

Every day, ordinary people do heroic things that make a difference in people's lives. A doctor saves a sick baby. A teacher spends extra time with a struggling student who comes from a troubled home so that student can get the grades required for college. A kid derided by others as a nerd comes up with an innovation that could change the world. We never hear about those. They get a key to their town, maybe a parade, and then they go about their lives, remembered only by those whose lives they impacted. Perhaps that's how it should be. Perhaps heroism isn't about the Big Game, or about winning the championship, or even about getting the scholarship. It's time we stopped elevating people who we watch on television running fast, or hitting a ball really hard, or throwing it far, or running or cycling really fast, and start looking to our own communities, and sometimes even our own homes, for the real heroes. Then perhaps one of those kids who CAN run fast and throw a ball hard won't have to either create or be duped by a story of a dead girlfriend to gain a competitive edge. And a cancer survivor won't feel he has to take drugs to be a hero. And colleges like Notre Dame and Penn State won't feel they has to protect rapists and child molesters in order to sustain "the brand."

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