Lighten up, sports
   by Gene Lyons      December 8, 2004

Like many sports fans, I see games as a refuge. A refuge from what?

Well, what have you got? Republicans, Democrats, the Iraq war, traffic jams, Rush Limbaugh,
Antonin Scalia, Michael Moore, The New York Times, FOXNews, CNN, telemarketers,
televangelists, telephones, e-mail, the Internet, the IRS, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
and the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Do I make myself clear? That said, I have zero
interest in NASCAR, the latest quasi-athletic fad attracting basically the same audience that
gets off on professional wrestling. And I donít feel the least bit guilty about it, either. Making
an infernal racket with internal combustion engines has long been the favorite outdoor pastime
of the influential Moron American community, but why would anybody pay to hear it?

Politicians and pundits who say otherwise are mostly patronizing the NASCAR fans they secretly
consider dopes. Anyway, hereís the deal: If thereís a machine involved, it ainít a sport. Newspapers
should give NASCAR its own page, like comic strips and bridal photos. Then real sports fans
wouldnít have to fool with it.

This NASCAR business strikes me as symptomatic of something even more problematic:
the politicization of almost every aspect of American life. Itís partly an outgrowth of TVís
inherent need for conflict and melodrama.

Anyhow, last weekís big sports crisis was NBA players running amok in Detroit.
This week itís baseball players bulking up on steroids.

Funny, but some of the loudest scolds are the same people who denounce "elitists" for disliking
NASCAR, where participants regularly get killed. Irony aside, however, hereís my question:
How can ball games continue to serve as a refuge if sports journalists turn into crisis junkies
and ideological combatants just like the rest of us? How about if we all just lightened up a bit?

Take the brawl in Detroit, for example. Hereís my view. When somebody like Charles Barkley,
the former NBA star who once heaved a guy who jumped him in a bar through a plate glass window,
kept saying Indiana Pacers forward Ron Artest needed emotional help, maybe somebody should
have listened. After Artest charged into the stands in pursuit of a fan who threw a beer at him,
the league had no choice but to suspend him. Stuff like that can get dangerous.

But Artestís transgression was hardly the first in the annals of professional sport. Baseball "immortal"
Ty Cobb once went into the stands to pummel a cripple. Anything but contrite, he later said something
to the effect that a guy who couldnít defend himself needed to learn to keep his big mouth shut.

Hey, if sports teach nothing else, itís realism. How dumb would you have to be to pick a fight with
Barkley, whoís about 6-5, 320 and much quicker than either you or I? Maybe as dumb as the
drunken stockbroker who charged the mound at Wrigley Field a few years back after relief pitcher
Randy Myers gave up an ill-timed home run. Myers was near the end of his baseball career, but he
also was a professional athlete who dabbled in martial arts. Boom, boom. Out went the lights.

Call me insensitive, but I laughed.

Steroid-enhanced baseball players arenít funny, but, hey, if it worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger,
why not Jason Giambi? Yankees first-baseman Giambi, who spent much of last season on the
disabled list with a pituitary tumor, has admitted taking doses of human growth hormone. Me, I refrain
from taking anything that might grow hair on teeth or cause testicles to drop off, but some of the
outrage is hard to take. After all, we live in a society where itís considered perfectly OK to get
breast implants, liposuction and nose jobs. According to The New York Times, women in California
are having plastic surgery to improve the looks of certain non-public areas of their bodies rarely subject
to esthetic scrutiny. You canít watch a ball game without seeing 20 ads curing erectile dysfunction.

And weíre astonished baseball players are taking muscle-building steroids? Even potentially dangerous,
illegal or quasi-legal drugs? Look, as former Oakland Aís beat reporter Steve Kettman wrote in Salon,
everybody around baseball had to know this was going on for at least 15 years, including former Texas
Rangers "owner" George W. Bush, who traded for Jose Canseco, one of the gameís earliest synthetic
musclemen, back in 1992. Put an asterisk on Barry Bondsí home run totals? Then how about Mark
McGwireís and Sammy Sosaís? And what about all the chemically enhanced, 95-mph flame-throwers
on the mound over the past decade? Baseball needs to get serious about procedures like those already
in effect in the minor leagues to protect these guys from themselves. But a little less hysteria, false piety
and maybe something like a general amnesty would make it much easier to get the job done.

ē Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient
of the National Magazine Award.   URL:

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