Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A-Rod, Banned Substances, and the Nobility of Sports

SPORT IS NOT A virtue.

It may be embodied by virtuous people and have as some of its goals the betterment of humanity, the goodness of human potential, and a team ethic over individual excellence, but sport as a practice or an endeavor is not itself a good. Of the many annoying aspects foregrounded in the doping case of Alex Rodriguez, the most annoying has got to be the ongoing discourse of sport nobility.

Lovers of sport tend to invoke words like "pure," "ideal," and "natural" when describing what they think sports should be. Fans feel "wounded," "disappointed," even "heartbroken" when they hear their favorite athlete cheated--as though it were their wife or girlfriend who broke the faith.

These aficionados make the great mistake of seeing sports as a democracy. They think sports should be "fair," and that athletes should be on a "level playing field," and no one should get an advantage. They think sports should be about the game, and integrity. They believe that sport, through its nobility, rewards those with a true heart, those who work the hardest.

But, sports are not democratic. Sports are capitalistic.

Sports are about acquisition, accumulation, and defeat. They are about getting the most land, points, runs, yardage. They are about triumph. They are about victory. They are not, nor have they ever been about equality. They have always been about winning and doing pretty much whatever is necessary to win--building better training equipment, hiring the best coaches, amassing the stronger team, developing the most impressive work-out regimen, creating the best diet, constructing the best strategy.

Sports have been about one-upmanship since they began. And, even in college, sports has become primarily about money, making its philosophical and structural links to capitalism hard to ignore.

There seems to be a myth that in the good ol' days, men were men and fought fair, played honest, and upheld the rules. Nothing could be further from the truth. Evidence abounds that players threw games, clawed for unfair advantages, and played fast and loose with rules. Early pitchers used to drink cocktails of goat semen thinking it made them throw harder.

There are no level playing fields. There is no parity in sports. There are only humans competing. And no two humans arrive in the ring or on the course equal. They only arrive as humans who want to win.

And, winning, at least in the capitalist arena, has never been fair, nor noble.

If we want sports to be honest, then we need to change the discourse of sports. We need to start talking about it for what it is--not what we wish it should be. As long as we expect different behavior from baseball players than stock brokers, sports will always disappoint, and they will always be fake.


  1. Cheating exists, and it permeates our culture. I don't think that's breaking any new ground. But it does make me wonder: what's your take on plagiarism? Would you turn in a student who plagiarized? Or would you pat that student on the back and say, "Well, done. Cheating's part of college, and you'll go far with how you've learned to manipulate the system"?

  2. Just to nitpick at you... there are female sports fans as well, who probably feel just as betrayed to find out their favorite athlete has cheated.

    Oh, and I wouldn't leave women out of the cheating equation either. Marion Jones' admission of her performance-enhancing drug use was a huge disappointment to many people.

  3. I just knocked back a goat semen cocktail and my fastball has jumped from 46 to 49 mph. I am on the right track. I assume the author directs his remarks to the big commercial enterprises of MLB and the NFL. Consumers/fans need to keep in mind that on the pro level, it's an entertainment medium. I go to the stadium to watch athletes do stuff I can't. I'm not so sure, at least in the last 40 years, that people still view Big Sport as this virtuous product. Never has been...

  4. Good points, Sarah.

    As for CHaven, I think you ask a good question but a different one than I address. I'm less interested in those who cheat and more interested in those who feel wounded by the cheating---as though they thought sports was one thing, but turned out to be something else. What I object to is canonizing sports; raising sports to the level of virtue. That makes sports something they are not.

    Most of us think education has different goals than sports. Education, unlike sports, is not about trimph but amelioration, improvement, illumination.

  5. Still The Weekly RaderFebruary 21, 2009 at 2:24 PM

    Dear SpencerPI,

    You are a listener to sports talk radio. Don't you get tired of hearing discussions about doping ruining "the integrity of the game" or "sending the wrong message" to fans?

    Perhaps among big arena sports, this doesn't happen so much, but the Olympics are cloaked in the discourse of sport nobility, purity, and integrity.

  6. As our friend Updike has written, sport can show us "a thing done well." Watching an athlete perform satisfies a fan's aesthetic. Sport can be beautiful. But if an athlete has cheated in some way, then people believe the thing is no longer beautiful. If people want that narrative of beauty and even virtue in their lives, why does that bother you? I also think it's surprising that you think sport is only about triumph. It seems to me sport is also about amelioration, improvement, illumination...