Sports Gods and antiheroes we think we know

“Try as we will to weigh him down with meaning, the athlete remains one step ahead of us.”

— Stephen Amidon, “Something Like the Gods”

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Has the contemporary sports star finally been caught in the grasp of social media mobs who scrutinize, judge and presume guilty with the ridiculous ease and light-speed that digital technology and electronic gadgets provide?

The continuing saga stemming from the Ray Rice case has engulfed the top rung of NFL leadership, the ownership of the Baltimore Ravens and a lucrative, powerful sport seemingly operating with oblivion in a moral vacuum that is turning off many who call themselves fans.

Whether enough people will ever turn away for good is doubtful, but the lasting impact of the league’s inaction over Rice’s brutal, videotaped episode of beating his now-wife Janay Rice has been devastating, and not just as far as the former Ravens running back is concerned.

Something Like the GodsAmidon, a novelist, published his book, subtitled “A Cultural History of the Athlete from Achilles to LeBron,” two years ago, just as the sordid Lance Armstrong story was unfolding.

That seems like child’s play compared to what’s been transpiring in recent weeks, and it goes far beyond a few gruesome seconds caught on tape in an Atlantic City hotel elevator, or harrowing accounts of alleged child abuse by Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.

Commentators predictably piled on to the meme of football’s inherent violence, its “pseudo-military tactics” and thus its apparently anti-female ethos for answers, before also squeezing in the observation that violence against women and children touches every corner of society.

That many more of those piling on are female voices has only furthered the righteous indignation against a sport that embodies what many view as a virulent strain of masculinity, complete with rampaging homophobia and misogyny.

The certitude of the commentariat — that we think we know all we need to know about Rice, based on one incident — is most troubling. Presumptions from anti-domestic violence advocates that Rice had beaten Janay before were based on nothing more than that, presumption. So were suggestions that she suffers from battered-wife syndrome for standing by her man, and for lashing out against the media after the video was released, and his contract was terminated.

“Something Like the Gods” recounts the thousands of years of history of the enduring iconography of the athlete, from the days in which he was treated as a proud shaman in ancient Greece and Rome, to his seeming decline as the age of Puritanism beckoned with the rise of Luther and Calvin.

The athlete regained his pagan power as boxing entered the public consciousness as a spectator event in the 1800s, followed by organized competition in team sports during the Industrial Revolution. Once again, the athlete adapted as Victorian society demanded a gentlemanly, amateur participant, in service to empire above all and in particular to its capitalistic puppeteers, who truly acted with impunity.

From the banished Black Sox to the raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the athlete’s story in the 20th century ranged from powerlessness to political revolution. In his final chapter, “Up Close and Personal,” Amidon fingers what drives the public’s obsession with today’s athlete: the level of intimacy we believe we have with him (and a few hers) through media exposure and product endorsements. Many fans, Amidon writes:

“. . . come to feel as if they have a right to participate in his private life. They are invested in his struggles and redemptions off the field as well as on it.”

Even better put on Twitter:

Here’s more from Amidon:

“It’s not just about gossip.  There is a moral dimension to this presumed intimacy. Athletes are now supposed to inspire us with more than just their play. While the competitor’s performance has been used as a source of uplift since the dying wrestler Arrichion refused to give up the fight, his entire life is now expected to be exemplary.” JeterNewYorker

Those we find exemplary we tend to know even less about. While Rice, Peterson, Greg Hardy, Ray McDonald and Jameis Winston are caught in the glare of football’s sprawling existential crisis, America has been bidding a fond farewell to Derek Jeter, who is playing his final games at Yankee Stadium this week.

Of course there are blowhard detractors, but much of the praise about Jeter for more than two decades has gone beyond his stellar play that surely will land him in Cooperstown. He’s a model of gracefulness and admirably good behavior off the field, a stark contradiction to so many in uniform in so many sports.

But how much do we really know about Jeter? Peyton Manning? Other seemingly stand-up guys?

Do we like the athletes we like because we really don’t know much about them away from the game, because they’ve worked to keep their private lives just that — private? And that they’ve never gotten their names in the press for all the wrong reasons?

Whatever shortcomings they may possess are assiduously kept away from public consumption, and that is to their credit. Here’s Amidon again:

“As spectators come to know the ‘humanized’ athlete better and discover that they do not really like him, there is a growing tendency to dehumanize him in order to maintain his purity.”

. . . . . . . . . . .

“For us to identify with the athlete, to thrill in his performances, he still needs to be like us. We still need a vital connection to him.”

Like characters in a book, play or movie, we want athletes to be likable, even empathetic. It’s human nature to want this, of course, and it’s understandable. But we assign a status in society to athletes that we don’t seem to demand of other public figures.

Is this because sports matter more to many of us than empty celebrity culture? Are the games more redeemable than the throwaway music, films and television programs that denigrate and debase women more than any NFL player and the “football culture” ever could?

I’d like to think so, in spite of all the awful news of the last few weeks.

As I’ve written before, I’m watching less football these days for other reasons, and I understand those who may be boycotting the NFL even though I think the game itself is getting an unfair rap. Many Americans are just uncomfortable with football the way some have become about boxing.

But ditch the sanctimony about football’s failure to deal with persistent social and criminal problems.

Roger Goodell’s leadership leaves an awful lot to be desired, but he shouldn’t be expected to compensate for what police, prosecutors and judges address very unevenly in thousands of local law enforcement jurisdictions across the country.

It’s been far too easy to bash Goodell, the “culture” of the NFL, and “toxic masculinity,” but they’re not the culprits.

Some want the NFL to “send a message” about violence against women, and to lead efforts for a cultural rethinking, when the tangible, lasting change will come about in the broader society.

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