Apathy is the problem. Not overzealous fans, not an overdose winning at all cost, just apathy. People really don’t care. Too many other options, too many things on television, too many things competing for our attention. Ray Lewis weasels his way out of a murder charge by lying enough to the police and prosecution to have his charge reduced to a misdemeanor, pleads guilty, testifies for the prosecution and walks out of the courtroom.
There’s no public outcry, no protests, no calling for Lewis’ suspension. Just silence. Well, not even silence, instead the clicking of the remote and the sound of sneakers on the hardwood at the NBA Finals or ice shavings on the rink at the Stanley Cup. We’ve turned to something else. Put Lewis out of our minds and moved on. He’s a lowlife? No problem, just move onto the next game. He’ll disappear in time. And he’s just like the rest of those players anyway, isn’t he?
John Rocker’s an idiot. We all know that, yet there is a public fascination with his self-destruction. What moronic thing will he say next? Will he snap and hit somebody? It’s not that we’re indignant about what he said and think he should be punished. We’re apathetic. Let’s see where and how far he’ll fall into the abyss, laugh, and move on.
And that’s the problem. By accepting these guys back as athletes (which we do every time we buy a ticket) who bask in our adulation, we’re not necessarily giving our approval, but rather saying it doesn’t matter. We don’t care. Our lives are compartmentalized. We can separate the heroes from the thugs, even when they’re the same guy. Ray Lewis in an orange jump suit and in shackles looks like anybody in court. Somehow, when he dons that #56, we’ll think it’s a different guy, and that’s ridiculous.
Sociologists have been saying for years actions like Lewis’ and Rocker’s were on the horizon. We’re asking professional football players to have a violent personality on the field, but be child a care worker off it. We want the closer for our baseball team to be bulldog tough with a ferocious look on the mound, but to be self-effacing after the game.
Our expectations are unrealistic, brought on by a clash of generations and cultures. We want some sort of 1950’s “Father Knows Best” character to emerge off the field with an eye-bulging Arnold Schwarzenegger demeanor on it. To think professional athletes play for the love of the game or for the pursuit of excellence is shortsighted. The number of sportsmen in the game is small. The athletes are entertainers, performers who command large compensation for their services.
Perhaps we’re at a crossroads looking for a solution to the current ills of professional sport. Fans have to decide what is important: winning or the competition itself. I saw the movie Gladiator the other night and got a pretty creepy feeling seeing the ‘performers’ take center stage at the coliseum in Rome. Forty-thousand ‘fans’ cheering for which side? Actually neither, just the killing itself. Is that what we’re reverting to? Just observers, wholly immersed in the action while it’s going on, and apathetic afterward. We are seeing a general detachment between fans and athletes. If that chasm grows larger, the place sports has in society will disappear. And we all will have lost.