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Athletes make me think, man. They make me think about why my muscles aren’t as brawny as theirs. They make me think about what it’s like to run out to the roar of the fans. They make me come up with random hypothetical situations in my driveway like two-outs-bases-loaded-full-count-down-by-three-in-the-bottom-of-the-ninth-in-game-seven-of-the-World-Series. I fuckin’ love sports.
I often feel closer to my favorite professional athletes than my friends. Ask my friend Larry Zhou, we treat our fantasy baseball teams like our children every summer.
As the media started to grow stronger at the turn of the century, we began to see the dark side of athletes. Popular culture took advantage of its power to probe into the lives of the public figures we found most dear. The crime. The cheating. The shitty personalities. Should athletes be beacons of morality in addition to masters of athletic ability? Or should we merely see them as a spectacle of human capability?
We begin our analysis with America’s pastime: the wonderful sport of baseball.
BASEBALL IS BACK BABY!! Sunday was Opening Day, the day on which 30 teams begin their 162-game quest for a World Series title. The offseason came with only a few headlines. Yoenis Cespedes turned down more money so he could stay a New York Met. Elite closer Aroldis Chapman received a 30-game suspension for domestic abuse. Star Bryce Harper complained that the game of baseball wasn’t exciting enough, saying it was “a tired sport.” But all paled in comparison to my personal favorite headline:
Barry Bonds returned to baseball
That’s right. The face of the baseball’s steroid era is now the hitting coach for the Miami Marlins. Even though he’s a coach now, 51-year-old Barry beat the current Marlins in a home run contest. For those that don’t know, Barry Bonds hit the most home runs in baseball’s storied history, 762 to be exact. He’s also been convicted in the court of public opinion for performance-enhancing drugs. He was never found guilty of actual steroid use. Bonds was only ever convicted for obstruction of justice for his remarks during the investigation.
By and large, the public chooses to ignore this court ruling because he did in fact go from looking like a young Danny Glover to Me’Shell from Dodgeball in just a few years. For that reason, many refuse to recognize his records as well as the accomplishments of his abnormally buff comrades Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, and Roger Clemens.
If you’re not a baseball fan, I doubt you’ve heard names like Yoenis Cespedes, Aroldis Chapman, or Bryce Harper. But I’d be willing to bet you grew up hearing names like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire. The sport of baseball no longer has the names that transcend sport preference. Household names like Steph Curry, Peyton Manning, Lionel Messi, or Sidney Crosby shroud baseball stars in a mist of irrelevance. Baseball players today saw many of their heroes of the late 90’s condemned for the unfair risks they took to achieve greatness.
The home run race between McGwire and Sosa revitalized the game of baseball. The sport was faltering for fan support, and these two superhumans brought people back with the long ball. Barry Bonds followed with a historic 73 home run season. Baseball was riveting once more.
I am a diehard San Francisco Giants fan, and I love Barry Bonds. Most households in the Bay Area would stop everything they were doing when Barry came to the plate. Whether you were washing dishes, playing outside, listening to blink-182, or talking to babes on AIM, when you heard “Barry’s up!” you ran into the living room and watched in silence. You held your breath after every pitch, mesmerized by the calculated swaying of his bat.
I love the sport of baseball because of Barry Bonds, the supposed cheater.
Does the entertainment value outweigh the moral implication?
Athletes battle morality constantly. As a huge sports fan, I think there’s a looming conversation on the plausibility of athletes being moral champions for the general public.
Kobe Bryant was accused of rape, and now we’re reveling in his basketball genius in his final season. Adrian Peterson beat his son with a switch, and now he’s back to being a popular top five running back in football. Michael Vick tortured dogs, and now he’s a well-respected backup quarterback.
Barry Bonds was ostracized from professional baseball for over a decade because he may have cheated. Pete Rose, the all-time leader in hits, won’t get Hall of Fame recognition because he gambled on his own games. Shoeless Joe Jackson died a banished member of the MLB for fixing the World Series, even though he was one of the best of his time.
I do not condone the actions of Bonds, Rose, or Jackson, but I find the polarized reactions to moral mistakes to be quite interesting.
We are quick to forget the mistakes made in the personal lives of athletes, but when it comes to the sanctity of the game, our grudges persist for years. (Mind you, this is a generalized statement. Ray Rice will probably never play in the NFL again after viciously beating his girlfriend, and rightly so).
Should we look to athletes to uphold our culture’s moral standards? They are entertainers at the end of the day. Since they’re constantly in the spotlight, is it even possible for them to hide from the moral demands of the fans? Should we hold LeBron James to the same standard as Miley Cyrus, or Tom Brady to the same standard as Shia LaBeouf? We want one set of people to be our warrior-heroes, and the other set to be our flawed friends.
A man very close to me used to be an elite professional athlete. I’m also quite close to his wife, and she recently told me an interesting story about the man:
“He was on the team, and I worked in the ticket sales, so we weren’t allowed to date. We had to drive to work in separate cars. One day he was in a good mood, and kept taunting me to race. I gave in. We went back and forth for a couple miles, but then I got the lead. This didn’t sit well with him, so he got into the carpool lane, hit triple digits, and beat me to the stadium by 15 minutes. I discretely confronted him at the stadium and all he said in his thick Russian accent was, ‘Sometimes you need take risk.’”
Athletes are wired to take risks.
That’s how they made it to the big leagues. Doing anything necessary to get to the next level, to get that victory. They’re all a bit psycho to be honest.
Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa saw those performance enhancing drugs as a ticket to the next level, and they got there. There was no explicit rule against the substances at the time (a shitty excuse I know, but worth thinking about). If someone approached these men, who desired constant improvement and victory, with the proposal of greatness, why wouldn’t they take it? They’re only human after all. Athletes are human entertainers.
Are these the people from whom to need to exemplify American values? Is it even a choice? Have we, the United States, created demigods that cannot escape the clutching judgement of fans and the media? All I’m asking you to do is think about it, because I sure as hell have zero answers.
What do athletes mean to you? What are you willing to forgive? Where’s that mofuckin’ LINE?! Who’s crossing it, and who’s not? At what point do we separate occupation from personal life, and at what point do we view them as inseparable?
“I’d walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball.” – Pete Rose