Yesterday’s athletes were heroes, today’s villains. Max White says it’s us, and the 24-7 news cycle we consume, and not the athletes who have changed.
There was a time not all that long ago when Major League Baseball unofficially anointed A-Rod as the steroid-free slugger who would wipe the record books of Barry Bonds’ BALCO-fueled bombs.
Ah, Barry Bonds. Remember him? The five-tool superstar who alchemized his body into a science experiment that Dr. Frankenstein would envy? Barry’s decision to transform his already freakishly awesome physique into a humanoid rocket launcher more potent than anything the Soviets ever produced rattled baseball officials, players, and fans from St. Pete to Seattle.
When Barry passed Hank Aaron, Bud Selig was nowhere to be found. Even Aaron’s video tribute (played on the AT&T Park video board), touching as it was, was a hollow gesture offered only out of the deepest respect for the game, the type of respect Bonds had blatantly disrespected since his earliest days in professional baseball.
From August 2007 through February 2009, baseball hoped. It hoped A-Rod would stay healthy and productive enough to pass Bonds (this seemed all but certain, at the time). It hoped A-Rod really was as clean as his record indicated. A-Rod, after all, had never publically tested positive. A-Rod had avoided being mentioned in the Mitchell Report. Outside of unsubstantiated accusations made by steroid-king and provocateur Jose Canseco, A-Rod’s reputation (at least as far as steroids were concerned) was clean.
That changed on February 7, 2009, when Sports Illustrated reported A-Rod’s positive test from 2003. On February 9, A-Rod went into full damage control mode and admitted to ESPN’s Peter Gammons that he had used banned substances, but only from 2001-2003. Infamously, he blamed his behavior on the “loosey-goosey” culture, when, he claimed, most players were using at least some sort of PED. He said that he regretted his mistakes and had been clean for years, assertions that have since been proven false.
If A-Rod’s fall from grace reaffirms a distinction between heroes and role models, then the media coverage it has received demonstrates that we live in a culture sorely lacking for both. It is fair to say that pre-2009 A-Rod was The Chosen One, but it is also fair to say that even The Chosen One was a tabloid darling, albeit hardly the first in American sports history.
Indeed, Americans have yearned for personal details about their sports heroes since the days of Ruth and DiMaggio. When the hero embraced the public, as Ruth did, he was canonized as a legend. When he comported himself with dignity and deference, even while dating Marilyn Monroe, he was revered as a cultural icon and memorialized in song.
Being romantically linked to Madonna, however, seemed more palatable for Alex Rodriguez as The Chosen One than Alex Rodriguez as A-Roid. Rather than cultivating a positive public image to counteract the increasingly critical tone and expanding scope of media coverage, A-Rod projected an image that was increasingly bitter, indulgent, and self-centered, and media outlets from ESPN to TMZ to the New York Post were only too happy to broadcast this image.
Forget about the old days when sportswriters and baseball players conformed to an unwritten code under which road trip indiscretions and drunken mishaps went unreported and were relegated to the annals of unwritten history. After his 2009 admission of steroid use, A-Rod entered a mediaverse all his own.
Which brings us to an interesting question: according to The Sandlot, heroes get remembered, but legends never die. What becomes of villains, though? Specifically, what becomes of baseball villains?
Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the greatest hitters to ever live, was implicated in a conspiracy to throw the 1919 World Series and has been banned from baseball for almost a century. Yet, he was the consummate hero in Field of Dreams, and today’s baseball fans seem willing to forgive his transgression of baseball’s one inviolable rule.
And what of Pete Rose, the all-time hit king, who’s been relegated to memorabilia shows and self-promotion events for almost twenty-five years? According to a 2012 poll, 59% of the public thinks Rose should be eligible for induction to the baseball Hall of Fame. Public opinion, it seems, supports Rose and Jackson.
So why not A-Rod?
Surely, part of it is the accumulating carnage of the Steroid Era. From Canseco in ’88 to Brady Anderson in ’96 to Mark McGwire in ’98 to Sammy Sosa’s entire career, baseball fans are just sick of it. There’s no telling how, precisely, Ryan Braun’s return to action will be greeted next spring, but I suspect he’ll be booed relentlessly and probably dodge more than a few projectiles emanating from unfriendly stands. A-Rod’s return to action this past August was remarkably unremarkable, aside, of course, from Ryan Dempster’s not-so-subtle message. But fan reaction seemed muted aside from the expected boos, which he’s faced since the 2009 PED admission.
Again, how is it that one of the most divisive and reviled athletes of the twenty-first century elicits barely a shrug?
The answer, I think, has more to do with how we, the fans, relate to sports and imagine professional athletes than it does with some identifiable element of A-Rod’s personal or professional behavior. Sure, we’re jaded, but who isn’t? Similarly, we have heroes. From Tom Brady to Michael Phelps to Mo Farah, there are more sports heroes than ever before. The Olympics produce world records left and right and NFL record books are rewritten every year. Even in baseball, the most historically aware of American professional sports, we have Mike Trout and Mariano Rivera. It’s not heroes that we’re missing.
It’s role models.
We want to find out where Joe DiMaggio has gone, and we want to go there, too.
Take a look at some of the most acclaimed and noteworthy sports books from the twentieth-century, and compare the titles to their twenty-first century counterparts, books like Canseco’s Juiced, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams’ Game of Shadows, or even (and this last one probably deserves its own category) O.J. Simpson’s If I Did It.
You’ll notice a trend. Whereas earlier books, such as Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer, present fables featuring larger-than-life, seemingly invincible men in all their glory, today’s books present broken, immoral, deeply flawed individuals most of us would never trade places with. Even Jane Leavy’s The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood forces readers to confront a professional athlete who is more mortal than moral. And according to my dad (and just about everybody’s dad, I imagine), there was no boy growing up in the 1950’s who didn’t want to be Mickey Mantle.
As sports fans, there comes a point at which we have to realize that, for the most part, professional athletes are only accessible via the media. We construct imaginary personas based on highly fabricated and carefully managed representations of real people, people who are often more similar to us than we care to imagine.
Think about that last point for a few seconds. I’ll even write it again: we want professional athletes to be different from us. We want them to be better. Obviously, they’re physically different, but the physical differences inspire us. We see Mo Farah win two gold medals at the 2012 Olympics, and we think that maybe we, too, can drop our 5k times by a few seconds. Or we see Mike Trout become the best player in MLB at the age of 20, and we think that maybe we can achieve success beyond our experience.
But how do we relate to the off-field issues, which serve as most of the fodder for today’s 24-7 news cycle and sports mediaverse? If A-Rod shoots up with steroids and then inspires us to work on our slow pitch softball hitting, does that undermine our own improvements that he inspired?
As sports media becomes increasingly omnipresent and multimodal, as mobile devices become more technologically advanced and bring us closer to the action than ever before, we’re going to have to learn how to step away. We’re going to need to learn how to become an ESPN outsider, rather than insider, and (God help me) not check the fantasy football waiver wire every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. This distance won’t be necessary only to keep us sane (although that will be a nice side effect), but it will be necessary to remind us that athletes are only people, and they have their own lives. What they do, for all intents and purposes, does not affect us in any way.
We, the fans, also have lives, and we have people in our lives who are much more relevant and important than A-Rod. We have spouses and significant others, parents and siblings, children and friends. We know these people, and we should know them better. Which stats are you more familiar with: your fantasy football running back’s yardage totals, or your best friend’s sense of well-being?
The people in our lives are our people, people like us, and there are role models among them. There are teachers helping students learn how to think for themselves, doctors saving lives, parents explaining the Golden Rule, and good Samaritans helping elderly neighbors cross streets. These people aren’t commercialized representations constructed by media consultants and agents. They’re human beings, just like us, and that means we can relate to them.
We can behave more like these everyday role models. We see them everywhere, but because of the time demands of modern life and the increasingly mobile and overbearing sports media we’ve learned to consume, we never really notice them. Maybe it’s time that we do. We’ll never be able to hit a baseball like A-Rod, but we all can become better people, more like the role models that surround us every day. And that, I’d like to think, is what we’ve wanted all along.