Dirty Sports

The recent Detroit-area brouhaha in which some pro-basketball players, mostly with the Indiana Pacers, who were playing the Detroit Pistons, mixed it up with fans is but another example of the tawdriness being attached in ever greater intensity to professional sports these days. Seven players and fans are now facing criminal but relatively innocuous misdemeanor charges, while some of the players have been slapped by the NBA with stiff penalties, one, Ron Artest, with a one-year suspension costing him some seven million dollars or so. Tawdriness has always been attached to big-time college sports, as well, players being lured to and kept in schools by athletic department operatives and alumni/alumni organizations with cash, bogus grades or powder-puff courses or both, and other enticements. Graduation is not a serious option in most universities, and multi-tattoos, besides making the players appear to be paint-gaudy circus performers, seem to indicate some sort of rite of passage, a Hey, look at me, I'm something special entry into the world of the really, really, really important movers and shakers.

Professional baseball is in the process of shooting itself in the foot now (or should that be foul-tipping itself out of existence?). The use of steroids is the name of the game, not "how well you play the game." A few players have come forward to announce their use of these performance-enhancement drugs, either vocally or in books. The newspaper sports pages are full of material pertaining to the problem, and the consensus of the sports-loving public (either loving now or at some former time) is probably that the use of steroids and other drugs has made any recent record-breaking performances not just suspect, but totally intolerable and non-respected, the record books bound to honor fair play with either not taking notice of such records or asterisking them with explanations that they were accomplished by bionic robots of some sort rather than real players. The notion that a player does his best work between the ages of 35 and 42 is laughable, as any guy who has either watched or played the game or reached that age can affirm.

It is probable that no one actually accepts the fact that 73 home runs were hit by Barry Bonds the man a couple years ago; rather, they will roll their eyes upward and accept the record as being contrived through the use of drugs by Barry Bonds the bionic-miracle man. Bonds is not alone in all this, he just happens to be the highest-profile operator right now. Predictably, the players union is against the sort of testing that would eradicate this problem. The players do not actually belong to a union anyway - they're all entrepreneurs signing individual agreements with teams and angling for the highest return on their physical investment and, just as often is the case in the corporate world, anything goes. The bottom line is the almighty dollar, not a bad thing as long as everything is on the up and up, but when it becomes a thing to be had at any cost it comports with the likes of EnRon and WorldComm…dirty to a fault.

Tawdriness is practically synonymous with professional football, too. Perhaps the most high-profile death of any player caused by the use of steroids was that of a renowned defensive end a few years ago. Lyle Alzado died at age 42 in 1992 after having taken anabolic steroids and growth medicine since his college days, but he was a feared lineman during his 15 years of play. The price of steroids includes physical disabilities and often death at an early age, emotional upheaval leading to violence, and perhaps, as Alzado admitted, mental dependence on the drugs. Just a cursory look at football players in the NFL, or a look at their performance and obvious mind-set, is enough to convince anyone that most players, as Alzado affirmed, take some form of drugs. They are inhumanly strong, violent, large, and fast, and have changed the nature of the game because of this.

Uniformed to look like something headed for outer space, with regard to their well-padded, hard-hat helmets, today's players have turned the game into something akin to legalized guerrilla/insurgent action, visiting as much physical harm as possible upon the enemy not only to just stop him, but also to scare him half to death. The most important defensive player on the field is the "headhunter" who can deliver a brain concussion as early as possible in a game to the opposing quarterback. Particularly since the advent of TV and the billions of dollars it generates for teams and players alike, the game has become rougher, exemplified by the casual habit of grabbing an opposing player's face mask, never mind that his neck could be broken in the process. It's the money that counts, stupid!

The game has also become tacky. Now, after a play has been completed, some players are likely to celebrate, taunt, tease, do chest-bangers and high-fives, do the crotch-hop (a sort of duck walk that says "hey, look at me, the greatest thing since sliced bread"), participate in a bit of skipping, pump their arms and raise their fists, jump up on the stands in the end zone for some back-slapping, even break out a cell-phone and call Mom or the significant other. Trash-talk is the official jargon on the field as well as on the basketball court. This has all come about as men and boys began to wear their caps backwards and wear pants with the crotch at about the knee level and the pant-leg bottoms dragging through the urine on the locker room floor. It's the sordid kind of thing one expects, as one could have expected in the lurid half-time spectacle at the last Super-Bowl. Disgusting! But sports has become disgusting, no longer involving games that gentlemen (at least purportedly) play, but extravaganzas of excess that men who have not advanced emotionally beyond the high-school sophomore level writhe through.

During the game between Army and Navy last week, just the opposite of all the above took place, and reminded of another time when success on the field was handled humbly and with grace and loss was handled civilly and without rancor. No trash talk. No exhibitions. No beyond-the-pale celebrating. No hamming it up for the crowd. No disdain of the referees. No spiking the ball. No crotch-hopping or doing the wild-thing wiggle, in other words. This is the way it used to be, simply as a matter of course. As the society has grown coarser, so have all of its conventions, including those involving once-thought-to-be-manly manners in the great field of sports. Just as the cheerleaders strive to show more and more skin, the players try harder to be seen as real studs. More's the pity.