Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Suspended Disbelief - Reality Sucks

Perhaps the culprit is old age. It may also be a result of the economy. There is no question that Winter is at least partly to blame, and the sad end of Jersey Shore on MTV is certainly a factor. Whatever the combination of reasons, I've been a bit depressed lately.

The Super Bowl was a nice distraction, and I was happy for New Orleans but the viewing experience ended up being bittersweet. The commercials almost ruined it for me. My expectations were pretty low to begin with (since I do not particularly enjoy talking babies or snack and beverage-related humor) but I was especially bummed out when Joe Montana somehow ended up on a Sketchers ad for those ridiculous-looking clubfoot sneakers. It was so bad that he didn't even show his face and only did a voice-over with his name on the screen but still. This is not something that the best quarterback of all time should have been doing. The 49ers would never have won four Super Bowls with a Sketchers-wearing QB, and you can be sure that Ronnie Lott would rather cut his whole arm off than do a commercial like that.

It was also somewhat odd to see Lance Armstrong and various other people acting like Lance Armstrong in a Michelob Ultra commercial. I didn't mind the stunt-doubles and uber-extremeness of drinking low-calorie beer but I think that they officially killed any hope of coolness by using that freaking "Woo Hoo" song by Blur (Google "Woo Hoo Song"). That song actually makes me angry at this point. But strangely, it also makes me want to consume some crappy light beer while watching stupid movies starring Denise Richards and Drew Barrymore. Seriously though, that song came out in 1997...can we get some tunes from this century on the extreme playlist?

Oh wait, I just remembered that the Halftime Show featured a band of 65 year old dudes, so...maybe 13 years isn’t that bad.


Anyway, it's not like I'm sitting in a dark room listening to Cure records or anything but I have been a bit gloomy lately, and am trying to locate the positive mojo that usually influences my demeanor. The problem is that the world is often a horribly depressing place, and it is sometimes quite difficult to remove oneself from the soul-crushing weight of reality on display in places like Haiti, the UCI, Iraq and Massachusetts.

But the problem is not really reality. Reality and I have always had a somewhat contentious relationship anyway (I did grow up in Marin and Boulder...) so its influence on my mental state is debatable at best. Like many Americans, I will always have to shield myself from reality in order to avoid oppressive feelings of guilt for being so obscenely, ridiculously lucky. Again, reality is not the problem.

The problem is that my relationship with professional athletics - the primary tool with which I have historically detached myself from reality - has been damaged to the point that I am now having trouble separating the sanctity of sports from the nasty truths of human nature and life on planet Earth. There is no escape anymore.

The sports world is largely entertainment, but it is so much more. Professional athletics allow us a rare glimpse at a world which acknowledges concrete rules of play, with exceptionally qualified performers operating in a constantly shifting and unpredictable environment. Sure, there are always people who circumvent the rules but more than most, it is a world that overwhelmingly rewards those who deserve it.

What makes sports even better is that we have access to highly quantifiable statistics of performance that confirm the value of professional worth and success. There are very few cases of nepotism in sports and no one simply inherits a career as an athlete. Regardless of circumstance, the sporting world does not tolerate notions of entitlement. Unless you are a football coach (which seems to be the only profession that appreciates Bush-level name recognition) there are very few opportunities to coast on the efforts of your relatives or the relative size of their bank accounts.

For the most part, this is a great phenomenon but it can lead to some potential problems with how we, as a culture, view professional athletes as human beings. For example, just because some guy from a tough neighborhood can catch footballs exceptionally well and endorse a line of shoes does not mean that he is necessarily an excellent person off the field. But for some reason, our culture often views world-class athletes as better human beings, not just better physical specimens. Perhaps this is why we are so often disappointed by them.

In reality, the gift of supreme athletic prowess is arguably more random and unfair than any inheritance or trust fund could ever be. Physical superiority in sports is far more rare and discriminating than any Good Old Boys Network or family business could ever be. After all, you can’t buy things like coordination, size and speed.

All of these factors have likely contributed to my appreciation for cycling, a sport in which physical gifts and family finances are important but often trumped by determination, effort and sheer force of will. All things considered, bike racing favors those who have experienced adversity and possess the character to fight through suffering, not those who were conveniently born taller or wealthier than most.

I learned early on that professional athletes and other celebrities are really just normal, flawed people who happen to have benefitted from a rare combination of luck and talent. There is no doubt that most of them are very good at what they do, and probably work very hard at certain times, but I have never been under the illusion that they are somehow better or happier than most of the more anonymous people I have met in my life. It seems that the only real difference lies in the fact that normal people don’t have a vicious pack of reporters and pundits destroying them in the national media whenever they happen to get in trouble. Such is the price of fame in 2010.

The problem is that until recently, I have been able to remove the cold reality of normal life and human nature from my blind appreciation of professional sports. I used to be able to forget that my favorite baseball players were probably on steroids or that many of the players on my favorite football team were most likely not the kind of guys I would want my little sister to go on a date with. I knew these things from the start but at least I could suspend my criticism long enough to escape into the excitement of the competition for a few hours.

I fear that I no longer have this luxury anymore, as professional sports continue to become just another tabloid media-covered minefield. Thankfully, I still believe that professional cycling has one of the highest ratios of “good guys” to “bad guys” but it’s been a long time since I thought everyone who could ride a bike fast was a decent person. With that said, I think I’d be pretty cool with my little sister dating a bike racer, especially considering my prior hope that she would hook up with a professional golfer. Yeah…not so keen on the golf guys anymore.

In an effort to maintain this depressing theme, as well as the portrayal of cyclists as a pretty decent group of people to root for, please find the following 2009/2010 sports stories that have broken down the wall between the joy of entertainment and cruelty of life below. I have tried to limit these to one sentence because this stuff should not really be news to anyone at this point.

Football - Chris Henry died after falling off the back of a pick-up truck being driven by his wife, with whom he was arguing at the time of the accident.

Basketball - Gilbert Arenas was convicted of felony gun possession charges after displaying three firearms in the Washington Wizards locker room, then verbally challenging Javaris Crittenden, with whom he had gotten into an argument over gambling debts.

Baseball - Mark McGwire finally admitted to using performance enhancing drugs during his career, including the year that he broke the homerun records of Babe Ruth and Roger Maris.

Tennis - Serena Williams was fined a record $83,500 for verbally assaulting a line official at the U.S. Open who later claimed that she feared for her life.

Soccer – John Terry, captain of the English national team, has been accused of having an affair with the wife of a former friend and teammate.

Golf - Tiger Woods got caught with his pants on the ground many, many times.

Hockey – I can’t think of many scandalous hockey stories right now but I’m pretty sure there are toothless maniacs getting into trouble somewhere.

Yeesh. There are obviously many more examples of scandalous behavior among many other athletes in many other sports but again, this should not be a surprise to anyone. At least John Edwards and Charlie Sheen don’t play sports for a living. Woo Hoo!

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Poignant.

Sebastian said...

I read somewhere once that cycling in Europe is regarded a lot like boxing is in the U.S. -- it's a sport for kids from the wrong side of the track who know how to suffer, and where the occasional organizational and personal sleaziness is, to a point, just part of the atmosphere. I'm not sure why, but for some reason thinking of it that way put certain things (though certainly not the worst things) into perspective. At the very least the comparison with boxing seems to capture certain aspects of European cycling culture that can get lost on those of us raised in a country where cycling is a mostly an upper-middle-class health sport.

Also: a couple of days after first seeing Lance's Michelob slot, I ran across another cycling clip which suggests that flaunting cheap beer in public may just be part of the coping process for these aging who's-your-daddy types:

http://www.ina.fr/sport/cyclisme/video/CAB86019895/a-chacun-son-tour-hinault-et-lemond.fr.html

(Wait for about 1:39)