Saturday, 15 December 2007

Morituri te salutant

If the popularity of professional wrestling is any guide, the steroid scandal will have little effect on major league baseball, which is not so much a commentary on the sport itself as on the audience for it. The narrative of the ‘home’ team will go forward, and those who enjoy a good story won’t care much if it is based on a pack of lies. It also says a lot about the public disinterest in the mere playing of a good game. If you don’t win, you don’t exist.

I’m not the first person to notice that this phenomenon parallels the one surrounding our ongoing nation-at-war myth in which the reasons for starting it and the benchmarks for ending it all shift like a sand dune, but the meaning of continuing it trumps everything, at least for a sizeable chunk of the public. In both cases the obvious lies fail to overcome the eagerness for believing in a good tale and enjoying the narcotic thrill of triumph.

No doubt after some public breast-beating with downcast eyes and mumbled confessions of ‘poor judgment,’ the sport will get around to the business of pillorying those who dared to spill the beans. I am reminded of the wonderful Robert Redford-produced movie, Quiz Show, based on the true story of the rigged 1950s program ‘Twenty-One’, in which the contestants who finally admitted to the scam were tossed onto the trash heap while the network execs who covered it up for their bosses went on to greater and more glorious spectacles.

It’s ironic in the midst of so much concern about health and fitness that the vast professional sporting apparatus should be built on a system that feeds athletes into its destructive maw like logs into a wood chipper. If the steroid business doesn’t cost baseball plenty, no talented kid will have a chance for a pro career in any sport if he doesn’t sacrifice his body on the pyre of first-place standings. We look back at the Romans with a shudder, but we seem to be headed for a gladiator system of our own with the unforgiving TV viewer as the new emperor. ‘We who are about to juice, salute you.’

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