This past NFL pre-season's exhaustive media coverage of Terrell Owens literally doing nothing in particular at Dallas Cowboys training camp is a prime instance of a certain brand of scolding, sky-is-falling reporting which too frequently blights an increasing amount of contemporary sports journalism. I feel that if I am subjected to one more finger-wagging, moralizing account of the innate selfishness of the modern sports star I will surely be driven to a permanent vacation from my senses. Owens, frequent poster boy for those indulging in this kind of rhetoric, is indeed a uniquely graceless figure who has sullied his own reputation over the course of many years owing to his consummate narcissism and persistent disloyalty towards teammates and coaches. But he is also no more emblematic of NFL stars today than Warrick Dunn or Peyton Manning, and his refusal to practice hard on an injured hamstring hardly constitutes the scandalous transgression it was treated as in the press.
For a vast number of sports observers — fans and media alike — a long-standing convention holds that it is always appropriate to decry each succeeding generation of professional athlete as less and less wholesome and more and more self-interested and debased. Contemporary sports figures are always said to be the greediest yet, and the most excessive in their on- and off-field comportment. Frequently they are held up in wistful pale comparison to icons of the past like Vince Lombardi and Joe DiMaggio, as ostensible proof of some precipitous ongoing decline. This type of reasoning is by no means limited to the sports world — a friend points out to me that the same kind of reactionary yearning is often applied to everything from hardware stores to rock stars. But something about the collision of tradition, vigorous regional passions, and the high dollar stakes of modern athletics seems to provoke in legions a particularly exaggerated sense of outraged loss, as though the collective slide of society into a sort of spiritual Gomorrah receives its perfect reflection in the glowering visage of Randy Moss or Barry Bonds.
To put it mildly, I find all of this highly suspect. In fact I don't see really any objective evidence at all to support the view that professional athletics as a whole are in any sort of ethical decline. For one thing, it is easy enough to unearth profoundly unappealing qualities embodied by many of the great heroes of eras past, and it is important to recall that those individuals experienced their greatest fame during periods of relatively uninvasive public scrutiny. Conversely there seems to be no significant shortfall of compelling, principled and dimensional athletes currently competing today — Dwayne Wade, Roger Federer, or Carlos Delgado, to name but a few. I enjoy a great deal of sports reporting, but the enormous volume of “days gone by” nostalgia which seems to so thoroughly permeate the genre often strikes me as knee-jerk and arbitrary. I get very squirrelly when anyone starts talking about a “more innocent time”. That phrase just makes me think of coal mines and poll taxes.
My purpose is not to inveigh against the use of nostalgia generally as literary device — great sportswriters of the past like Roger Kahn and Red Barber employed it to immeasurable, transporting effect in heightening the identification of their readers with certain legendary events and principals. What I find to be both interminably dull and not a little insulting is when I feel it is being employed with a sense of blatant pandering and a reactionary subtext and agenda. In any case, I have only the frame of reference of my own lifetime to draw upon (I'm 32) but a cursory thought experiment about the high-profile sports entities of today relative to those of my childhood yields a significantly different set of findings from the ones propagated by conservative nostalgists. If the current generation of modern athletes are the worst behaved and least admirable to come down the line, then they certainly got a run for their money in the late 70's and 80's. Here are a few examples which come to mind:
The Miscreant Spirit of '86
As the 2006 Mets complete their impressive runaway capture of the NL East pennant, they have garnered endless comparisons to the last Mets team to win a World Series twenty years ago. And it is in many ways a fascinating thing to consider which of the two teams is superior, as both feature a beguiling mixture of Hall Of Fame caliber veteran talent and sensational young superstars. But putting aside for a moment the question of who is better, which team would you rather encounter in a dark alley? To what do we attribute the massive collective criminal rap sheet of the 1986 Mets? Is it unusual that I am from time to time stirred from a fitful slumber by traumatic visions of severe mental injury incurred at the hands of Lenny Dykstra, Howard Johnson and a two-inch lead pipe? Lord knows what physical distress that nihilist Wally Backman might elect to cause me were I unfortunate enough to cross paths with him in the midst of one of his fevered manias. Many have expressed the view that there is not now and never was anything to fear from Kevin Mitchell — I wish I could be so sanguine. For at the simple utterance of his name I can only pause to calibrate the mayhem this 230-pound gravel bag could unleash, whilst a surly Randy Myers looked impassively on throwing soft toss BP to Dave Magadan. When most people conjure an image of the 1986 Championship Mets they think of a triumphant Ray Knight rounding third and heading home with the winning run in Game 6 of the World Series. I think of A Clockwork Orange. This was not a baseball club, it was a Mongol hoard. There are fifth century Huns that would have been terrified of these guys.
You Call This The Steroid Era?
I tuned in recently to the 20/20 special on "Ten Global Catastrophes Likely To Destroy Civilization Soon" and was surprised during this broadcast to see that while much attention was paid to global warming and nuclear proliferation, no mention at all was made of the threat posed by roving gangs comprised by members of the 1983-84 Los Angeles Raiders. I would have thought this peril would have ranked at least in the top five. For me it would have been number one.
Although it must be stated for the record that my perspective on this Raiders team is at least partially prejudiced by a curdling rage linked to their dismantling of my Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII — an event which effectively ruined my childhood — I nevertheless entreat you to make mention of any group of modern athletes more sinister and unlikeable than that of the Raiders defense featuring such roughneck rule-benders as Lester Hayes, Jack Squirek, the late Lyle Alzado. Whenever I experience some columnist or talk radio figure engage in the sort of ponderous hand-wringing that has become a cottage industry in the aftermath of baseball's recent steroid controversy, I wonder where exactly these civic minded do-gooders were back in January of 1984, when that misanthropic mob of steroid-addled jackals was tearing the Redskins' offense limb from limb in Tampa Stadium, leading my nine-year-old self to develop a medically untreatable fear of Howie Long. (It is true that to very this day I cannot watch the footage of the Super Bowl XVIII abomination without developing painful phantom symptoms resembling the mumps. In 1999, after inadvertently coming into contact with a highlight of Marcus Allen's reverse field, 74 yard touchdown run in the 4th quarter of that game, I was unable to be coaxed from a laundry hamper for just over three weeks.) While a withered Alzado's subsequent death at the age of 43 was a sad postscript to the great Raiders teams of the early 80's, it was also a surefire indication that steroid use is not a new phenomenon in sports by any measure, and that the unscrupulous employment of performance enhancing tactics of one sort or another very likely dates back generations.
The New, Less Traumatizing, Face Of Men's Tennis
In the wake of this year's US Open, with the graceful retirement of uniformly beloved Andre Agassi, the tenacious efforts of James Blake and Rafael Nadal, and the reassertion of elegant Swiss superstar Roger Federer's staggering dominance in the finals, men's tennis seems to once again be on the ascent, led by a formidable group of likable, high-character front line stars. Contrast this to three decades back, when a midnight stroll through the men's top ten rankings would have put you face to face with the truculent and verbally abusive likes Ilie Nastase, a man well known for his virtuosic manner with unspeakably vulgar hand gestures. Accompanying him would no doubt be a blustering Jimmy Connors, with high hair and muttonchops, taunting and teasing his opponents and engaging in orgiastic on court celebrations the likes of which would surely move an embarrassed Chad Johnson to mutter: “Oh, that is just revolting.” I love John McEnroe as much as the next guy, but it is manifestly unclear what sort of cultural gains were made during his early 80's on-court pronouncement at the French Open that a certain Roland Garros official was a “f**cking French frog f**got”. One has a difficult time imaging such ugly and off-color utterances emanating from the lips of the composed and polished Federer.
All of the above is in good fun, and of course in no way scientific. In fact, observing what I've written now it appears fairly apparent that I may have misread the dosage on my cold medicine. However the experience of looking back only confirms my original suspicion that matters in the sports world are now very much as they have ever been: by turns mercenary, mendacious and ugly, but also replete with stories of charming athletes achieving well-earned successes on the field, and making significant, positive contributions off of it. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that our children and grandchildren will not be ultimately entertained and diverted by an equal or superior product. Of course, I say this now though with the greatest degree of private assurance, but time and the aging process seem to bring about mysterious and inexplicable intellectual evolutions. Perhaps someday before too long I will be the sanctimonious blowhard writing dyspeptically in his column each week about the good old days with TO.