The first good thing to happen in 2007 is the commencement of the professional football post-season, an arresting melodrama so rife with compelling story lines that one is easily led to understand the high looming hegemony of the NFL over all other competitors in the sports landscape. On wild card weekend alone, there was the ongoing playoff performance enigma of would-be legendary quarterback/pitchman Peyton Manning, the Freudian father-son blood feud between New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and NY Jets coach Eric Mangini, and the boggling, last-minute meltdown of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. No other sport comes close to condensing skill, strategy and mythic personalities into anything resembling the thrill-a-minute spectacle of January football. Having long since put baseball, basketball and hockey in its rearview mirror, the NFL exists on a plain of popularity and excitement all its own. The special status has brought with it special dispensation as well, and reveals something significant about America’s sporting culture.
Around Christmas it was reported that Miami Dolphins star defensive end Jason Taylor took exception to the fact that his main competition for the NFL Defensive MVP award, San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman, had been named to the Pro Bowl despite a four game suspension earlier in the season after testing positive for the use of banned substances.
“You really shouldn’t be able to fail a test like that and play in this league, to begin with,” Taylor remarked. “To make the Pro Bowl and all the other awards, I think you’re walking a fine line of sending the wrong message.”
My first reaction upon reading this was to think ill of Taylor for speaking out publicly against a fellow player. Whatever the reason, the notion of solidarity between professional athletes has always struck me as a deeply important matter of principle, equivalent to the major truth claims of enlightenment philosophers like Locke and Rousseau. My second thought, when the headaches abated, was that the world is now officially more bizarre than I can keep up with.
I mean, of course Taylor is right. Isn’t he? Did we not just spend 36 insufferably dull, hand-wringing months determining that the employment of steroids and other performance-enhancing substances in professional sports was a moral crime somewhere on par with violent nun abuse? It’s very strange. I don’t have any particular use for Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire, but as I ponder their current status amongst the most hated Americans for lying about their chronic steroid use, it strikes me as shockingly queer that Merriman’s punishment for this is a roster bonus, home field advantage throughout the playoffs and a trip to Hawaii. I guess the four-game suspension by the NFL was not an insubstantial penalty, but ultimately it seems to have had the effect of making Merriman a rested and ever more lethal pass-rushing force heading into the postseason.
Whatever peculiar inequities and unintended consequences yielded by the league’s action against Merriman, this is of relatively little interest to me compared with his treatment in the court of public opinion. There are few things in life I find more tiresome than faux media outrage, and so when the story of Merriman’s positive test broke, the lack of this was both notable and refreshing. Similarly, most fans seemed not to care in the slightest, and it wasn’t actually until Taylor made his comments that anyone seemingly remembered that the event had even occurred. There is really only one conclusion that I can derive from the discrepancy between the steroids controversy in baseball and the complete absence of one in the NFL, and that is that the NFL is just too entertaining to take issue with.
Indignation over McGwire, Bonds, et al on the other hand, is a complete charade. I believe that absolutely no one actually cares that these men inflated themselves to the size of Macy’s Day balloons so they could hit 70 home runs. Certain purists might feel affronted by the eclipsing of long-held records, while others may feel that 51 home runs by Brady Anderson is an insult to our collective intelligence. But at the end of the day, I think this was all largely just an excuse to bitch. And the reason people wanted to bitch is because baseball has not kept them sufficiently amused. The Sosa-Bonds-McGwire home run bonanza of the late 90s and early 2000s was a gimmicky sugar rush which temporarily masked profound institutional difficulties with the game of baseball which mirror its decline in public popularity in the last four decades. Baseball’s owners cheerfully embraced the resulting attendance windfall, but when the rush subsided and the novelty wore off, fans and media felt cranky. A certain element of fantasy wish fulfillment had taken place — who didn’t want to see someone hit 70 home runs in a season? — but in the absence of more and greater thrills a kind of buyer’s remorse set in. Ashamed by their own gluttony and largely disinterested in the game itself, the media set upon a course of punitive and self-serving course correction. Never opposed to indulging in an orgy of shameless demagoguery, Congress intervened and held very silly hearings on the matter while young men and women died and were maimed pointlessly in Iraq with next to no comment. Meanwhile, God knows how many people are juiced to the nth degree in the NFL and no one cares at all.
I certainly don’t care, anyway. I want to make this perfectly clear. However these leagues see fit to govern the on- and off-field comportment of their players and employees, whatever rules and penalties are negotiated by unions and ownership, that is absolutely fine with me. If the best player on my favorite team gets suspended for some violation, and the team starts losing games as a result, that is when I am going to get interested. Otherwise, I have absolutely zero moral or ethical province over the behavior of professional athletes. I don’t think it struck me until now how completely deranged the entire idea of this really is.
Jason Taylor, on the other hand, has a right to speak his mind. Not only is he correct to say that it is unfair for his performance to be measured against Merriman’s if he is clean and Merriman is not, he is further faced with the prospect of running headlong into a ‘roid-addled psychopath. Anyone who ever watched Bill Romanowski play knows how concerning a prospect this can be. The interesting thing is that Taylor had to say it at all. I’m sure he is as cognizant as anyone else of the code between pro athletes, which strongly discourages speaking out against one another. Given that there was some eight weeks between the time of Merriman’s suspension and the utterance of Taylor’s remarks, it’s likely he much preferred not to have had to say it at all. Given the full-blown media outrage over performance-enhancing drugs which has stretched through the better part of the last three years, chances are he was waiting for it to be said for him. And waiting, and waiting, and waiting. I’m not complaining about this development — I hope it’s an indication that the media is through crying crocodile tears over steroid use forever. But the next time I hear pontificating about the ways in which Barry Bonds breaking the home run record denotes the decline of civilization, I’m going to think of Pro Bowler Shawne Merriman’s suspension, unlamented and hardly even remarked upon, and shudder at the jaw slackening inanity of this double standard.