Baseball’s Mitchell Report on performance-enhancing drugs has already provoked a blizzard of commentary ranging from whom to blame, what to do, and musings about what has gone wrong with professional sports. Rather than adding my two cents, and being always more disposed to looking back than forward, I find myself thinking less about George Mitchell than about Christopher Lasch.
Lasch is best-known for his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism, which achieved further notoriety when Jimmy Carter called on the author to advise him for his infamous “crisis of confidence” speech that year. Though he tended to look at life in America with the dialectical skepticism of a Marxist, Lasch’s insights into how daily life had been degraded and trivialized, so that individuals were only capable of a crippling self-regard, still have value. The book has a chapter on how this diminishment has affected the sports world as well. Though written nearly 30 years ago, it is a penetrating examination of the traits that have gradually eroded sport’s once uplifting qualities — and which eventually may have helped give rise to a full-fledged doping culture.
Lasch differed with critics such as Michael Novak, whose own sports study had appeared a few years earlier, and who felt that sport’s decline had to do with its becoming too mixed up in the affairs of the world, indistinguishable from business and politics. That critique is familiar to us today, with stories of athletes and their agents, stadium deals, and “collective bargaining agreements” between management and players’ unions that represent a work force earning many multiples of the average American’s wages. Alex Rodriguez, in signing a contract extension with the New York Yankees worth hundreds of millions of dollars, spoke of his desire to win a World Series — and noted that this was an achievement that he had not yet added to his “resume.” Try to imagine Lou Gehrig or, closer to our own time, Pete Rose, talking that way.
BUT AS CORRUPTING an influence as money has been, Lasch argued that what was really ailing sports wasn’t that they had become wrapped up in the world of commerce but that they had been, on the contrary, sectioned off from the rest of the culture, fetishized into a fantasy world of entertainment and spectacle, thereby severing the ties they once had to our common lives. “It is only when games and sports come to be valued purely as a form of escape,” he wrote, “that they lose the capacity to provide this escape.” This was a complex and seemingly self-contradictory point: that the more sports focused on entertainment, the less of it they actually provided.
Yet consider the empire that is 24/7 sports channels and talk radio, merchandising, and the incessant and ever-proliferating chatter about the games themselves. The impression, as New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick and others have noted, is that the audience is not satisfied with mere sports — that not an athletic contest, but “entertainment,” is required. And as sports, for Lasch, became more of an escapist fantasy from the grind of bureaucratic work, another manufactured commodity, they also became less playful, more cynical and self conscious — and here, perhaps, is the link to our own time. “Prudence, caution, and calculation,” Lasch wrote, “so prominent in everyday life but so inimical to the spirit of games, [came] to shape sports as they shape[d] everything else.”
This generation of baseball players from what is finally, and justifiably, being called baseball’s “steroids era,” gave Lasch’s “prudence, caution, and calculation” a much darker spin, tampering with the very standard we use to judge athletic success — their own bodies. In the process, they laid waste to baseball’s record book, a century-old trove of statistics linking generations of players who otherwise had little basis for being compared to one another. Among all such records, the holy of holies was surely the career home-run record that Barry Bonds broke this summer. Owned by Babe Ruth for many decades and then by Hank Aaron for almost as long, the record was like the dim peak of the most distant mountain range. Yet Bonds made his assault on the summit as if he had a helicopter, and he did — performance-enhancing drugs. As Bonds approached the record, baseball’s commissioner, Bud Selig, who should have resigned years ago, enacted a self-serving drama about whether to attend the record-setting game, ultimately deciding to stay away. The unsavory work of congratulating Bonds was left to Aaron himself, who must view the home-run record by now as something like a baseball version of Ham’s curse.
The new record, of course — like the statistics compiled by others implicated in the Mitchell Report — can only be viewed with suspicion. The owner of the ball that Bonds hit to break the record even pledges to brand it with an asterisk before sending it to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown — a perfect illustration of how conflicted we are. We enshrine the ball, because it represents an achievement that we recognize; yet we vandalize it, too, to indicate that we don’t quite believe the achievement is on the level. It’s either postmodern or Talmudic, I can’t decide.
By and large, fans seem to have greeted the Mitchell Report with an angry sense of having been cheated. Such reaction to corruption or greed in sports, Lasch wrote in 1979, “indicates the persistence of a need to believe that sport represents something more than entertainment, something that, though neither life nor death in itself, retains some lingering capacity to dramatize and clarify those experiences.” We continue to be offended when rot is revealed in sports, in a way that we are not when it is revealed, say, in the business world. We get angry about scandals like Enron, to be sure — because we have suffered in our pocketbooks, or because, as did the unfortunate employees of that company, we’ve lost our life savings. We get angry about sports scandals, on the other hand, for much more idealistic reasons — in good part, I’d guess, because we played these games when we were kids, we remember them as something pure, and we wish to teach them to our own kids. And so long as such sentiments survive, all is not lost for sports.
In contrast to the general public, some in the media dismiss the Mitchell Report’s findings. They remind us, with the jaded sophistication of an adolescent, that nothing is on the level, anyway. Even so superb a baseball analyst as Tim Marchman declares that the only integrity that matters in baseball is that gamblers not control it: “Integrity, in the normal everyday sense of the word, means very little in sports, except as it relates to the integrity of money,” he writes.
I suppose adopting this stance, and recognizing that idealism is for fools, protects people from ever being fooled — always the worst of fates in a culture where detachment is a survival skill. But the cost of such detachment is an imaginative life with all the grandeur of a urine test. We get spiteful home run chases, melancholy coronations, and — soon enough — dreary congressional hearings. Even the ball is branded with a smirk.
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