Idol Chatter

BarryBonds_idol.jpgBaseball is about to annoint a new home run king who has allegedly boosted his late-career stats with the help of steroids. Basketball is coping with a referee accused of betting on the game, including games he worked. Football is figuring out what to do about a star quarterback arrested on federal charges of dogfighting. And two leading Tour de France teams have withdrawn from that competition because of doping suspicions.
That’s four sports mired in scandals. Am I the only one who thinks it’s time to reconsider the central place we give sports fandom in our lives and our culture–not to mention the amount of money we spend on it?
I can’t help thinking of the time I was a rookie reporter covering a middle-class suburban community. The school budget was subject to a public referendum, and one year voters rejected the proposed budget–meaning the district’s schools would function for the year on an “austerity budget” with funding only for essential educational programs. No orchestra, no class trips, no school bus service, and no sports. Unwilling to accept the consequences of their decision, voters went back to the polls and overwhelmingly approved emergency funding for two items: school buses and sports programs.
In arguing for the latter, school officials, parents, and students all offered what have become standard arguments in favor of organized athletics: They teach children values, such as teamwork and preserverance, they build character, they channel energy that would otherwise go to mischief or worse.

I didn’t disagree with a single one of those arguments but couldn’t help wondering how the debate team, orchestra, and any number of other extra curricular activities–all of which were popular in this school district–accomplished these goals any less. Yet they remained unfunded, while a full sports program was reinstated into the otherwise shoe-string budget.
All this is to say that, for reasons I don’t totally understand–despite the fact that I am an avid, life-long baseball fan–sports has a hold on our imagination and our culture unrivaled by virtually anything else. We give our time, energy, money, focus, and hearts to sports teams and hold up athletes, deservedly or not, as exemplars and role models. Yet the behavior of so many of our professional athletes betrays the pedestal on which we’ve put them.
It’s true that plenty of them are exemplary human beings who use their wealth and their platform to better the world. But maybe, just maybe, this confluence of scandals can help us put athletics in perspective and make it a bit less central to our universe. I know it’ll never happen, but right now, this sports fan is disgusted every time I pick up the sports pages.
Tennis, anyone?

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