At the peak of his career, Michael Jordan was bigger than Jesus (or The Beatles, for that matter). He was the 20th century celebrity-athlete perfected—the last of the greats, really—a man of humble origins who became the best in the world through sheer determination and sweat.
The sheen eventually came off “His Airness,” his role model image tarnished by gambling and infidelity, his invincibility punctured by a quixotic obsession with conquering the baseball diamond the way he conquered the basketball court. But his heyday represented a high-water mark of the cultural sanctity of sports in American life.
As the glow of Jordan’s sixth and final championship faded, the sports world—along with the fans who make its existence possible—entered an extended period of disillusionment. Everything turned out to be rotten. The home run showdown between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa was supposed to revitalize national interest in baseball. It even seemed like it might be working, until Sosa got caught corking his bats, and both of them turned out to be on steroids.
Olympic track star Marion Jones had to give up her medals for the use of performance enhancers. Lance Armstrong was not only doping, but apparently displaying quasi-sociopathic tendencies as he attempted to destroy those who could sink his deception. Manti Te’o seems absolutely pedestrian when compared to his peers in the rogues gallery of elite sports.
Back in Jordan’s era, great athletes were presumed to have a certain wholesomeness. Sports entertainment is very consciously a family-friendly product, and the athletes who are embraced by its marketing apparatus are the ones who themselves embrace their role encouraging kids to stay in school and eat their vegetables.
Elite athletes were allowed to engage in whatever debauchery they desired, as long as it stayed behind closed doors—an arrangement taken full advantage of by Wilt Chamberlain
Now, in an era where even presidential candidates find themselves unable to escape the all-seeing camera phone, dirty little secrets have a way of becoming TMZ headlines, as players from the Minnesota Vikings found out the hard way in 2005, when their not-so-secret sex-and-booze cruise scandalized the hypocrite nation.
It should be acknowledged that sports—like politics—has always enjoyed its fair share of corruption.
Baseball showed everybody what time it was nearly a century ago, when a handful of bitter, disillusioned players sold the outcome of the World Series to some New York gangsters. But the nation simply condemned the corrupting influence of evil men like Arnold Rothstein (the infamous gambler who bankrolled the scheme), sacrificed the legacy of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson to the altar fire, and moved on with our naiveté fully intact.
The same thing happened in the ‘80s when the overly aggressive boosters at Southern Methodist University exposed college football for the business it is. They gave SMU football the “death penalty” and made all the right public statements of outrage, but the college football establishment knew what was going on the entire time. SMU wasn’t punished for breaking the rules. They were punished for letting things get to the point where the NCAA could no longer look the other way and maintain credibility.
It’s only in the past decade that public perception has begun to catch up with the reality of elite sports entertainment. The NFL tried to stave off the inevitable by forcing ESPN to cancel the groundbreaking show Playmakers, presumably because it showed too much skin regarding the three-dimensional humanity of the athletes.
But the only thing they accomplished was to deprive the viewing public of a great show. Between the exposure of the New Orleans Saints’ headhunting scandal and the revelations that the NFL blatantly ignored or suppressed medical data regarding the long-term health effects of concussions on their players, people are all too aware of the moral ambiguity of the organization and its culture.
Similar to the situation with SMU, the true offense in the headhunting scandal was getting caught and damaging the brand, with the punishment assigned to head coach Sean Payton accordingly harsh. The long-term deception concerning the medical data relating to concussions recalls nothing so much as tobacco companies denying the health effects of smoking for years—complete with counter arguments that everybody “knew the risks” when that was clearly not the case.
The truth is that sports is a particularly human institution, with all of the glories and downfalls that come along with that. That’s one of the reasons we love playing, watching, talking, and obsessing about them. And sports entertainment is big money business, even when the athletes are not technically considered professional.
To pretend it’s something it isn’t, that somehow the dark parts of human nature don’t apply, is to rob sports of their deeper meaning. It is to allow evil to flourish, as organizations across the sports entertainment complex seek to preserve the wholesome front at all costs. It is to miss the point.
Because sports really do offer incredible stories of triumph, endurance, heartbreak, and all the rest of it. Kerri Strug really did stick her vault landing with a broken ankle in the 1996 Olympics. Michael Jordan really was the greatest basketball player ever, and seeing him in action really was bearing witness to something unique and beautiful. His shortcomings as an individual don’t detract from his greatness. They complete it.