SPORTS AND THE CULTURE : The Pleasure We Take in Millionaire Thugs

Richard Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service, is the author of "Days of Obligation" (Viking)

The ideal of the athlete-hero is dying in America. Good riddance, I say.

This coming week, a jury will deliberate the guilt or innocence of O.J. Simpson, athlete extraordinaire, accused of a double murder. Throughout the dulling months of the trial, court reporters remarked on the defendant's imposing physical presence, his winning smile. One writer gushed over Simpson, calling him a "beautiful brute."

In their closing arguments last week, even the prosecutors had to stumble past the problem of Simpson's beauty and his athletic achievement. Could a Heisman trophy winner be guilty of murder?

The ancient Greeks believed that the great athlete must inevitably be a hero. Elegance of form, muscularity, graceful strength--these were moral qualities because they reflected the inner life.

In most sports bars, the fans drinking their beers would doubtlessly shy away from such nakedly pagan beliefs. And yet, don't most of us incline to trust the morality of the beautiful person over the ugly person? We would open the door at night to the man who looks like Robert Redford before we ever opened the door to some scarface. We elect politicians who are photogenic. We trust the evening news from an attractive talking head.

But the sports pages, alas, are filled with news of falling stars. The running back at one school is under arrest for attempted murder. At another, the charge against several players is rape. Or drugs. Or guns. The basketball star involved in a hit-and-run, a few weeks later has bailed out of college to sign a multimillion-dollar deal with a team in Texas.

Because of the ancient faith we have in the athlete-hero, there is much gnashing of teeth from fans. Grown spectators sound like children who have finally learned the truth about Santa Claus.

All this summer, for example, many people have boycotted major league baseball. They say they are angry at the players for going on strike; they complain that the players care only about money. On TV, there is a maudlin piece about the near-empty bleachers. The journalist intones that it will take time for baseball "to win back the faith of its fans."

A traditional theory about sports proposes that sports please us for being removed from the everyday. Sports take us away from mundane concerns, entertain us with skills that are exercised within elaborate rules. Adults playing a child's game.

And yet, of course, many of us also want to believe that sports are true to our lives, exemplary. We romanticize the athlete as a moral example because we think that sports reveal some essential greatness in the human. We believe, as the Greeks did centuries before us, that sports express the heroic possibility.

So we are devastated by the news on the sports page. Every day, it seems, we find stories about failed athletes. Criminal athletes. Was it always this way?

Privately, Americans complain about the "new breed" of athletes now in amateur and professional sports. People mean the black ghetto kids, of course. People mean that the kids excelling in sports today are not as nice as the kids of earlier generations. Mike Tyson is not as nice as Rocky Marciano.

My own suspicion is that we tend to know more about an athlete's private life today than we dared to know in earlier years. Generations ago, Americans admired Ty Cobb. Today, we recognize the sociopath beneath the baseball uniform.

In 1995, there is open discussion of Mickey Mantle's alcoholism. Forty years ago, he won America's heart: This year, we begrudge him a liver. Today, it is news when a Nebraska college player is arrested for allegedly assaulting an ex-girlfriend. Six years ago, who bothered to read the tiny item that reported that Simpson had assaulted his wife?

Do not misunderstand: I am not saying that behind every athlete is a sordid life. I do think that there have been remarkable men and women in every sport, in every generation.

Nor do I scorn the notion that athletics can be, in some way, "character-building." Bravery, self-discipline, comaraderie, modesty--such qualities can be learned on a playing field.

What I find worthy of deflation, however, is the Greek, the pagan romance that equates athletic skill with virtue. I do not think that the superb quarterback is necessarily a good husband or father or son. Moreover, I think, the playing field doesn't elevate us as often as it reveals who we really are as a society off the field. Our values are not enhanced by athletics but exposed by them.

The athlete who gets probation from the court and then signs a multimillion-dollar contract as a pro comes from a campus where university executives bestow big-dollar raises and golden parachutes on one another, all the while proclaiming the need for "austerity" to the rest of the school.

A radio talk-show host in San Francisco, a blowhard, was complaining the other day about the "greed" of Deion Sanders. Sanders has abandoned the 49ers for a more lucrative contract with the Dallas Cowboys. The talk-show host grumbled about the lack of team loyalty in today's pro athletes. This same talk-show host had been off the air for several months, earlier in the year, boycotting his radio station in a dispute over money.

We are headed for an Olympic year. Brace yourself for the pagan, Greek pieties and the commercial tie-ins. Atlanta 1996, the eternal flame, Delta, the official carrier of the summer Olympics.

In a tiny item in this morning's sports page, perhaps you noticed that Britain's head swimming coach at the Seoul Olympics has been sentenced to 17 years in jail for raping two women and indecently assaulting 13 others while coaching at high schools and colleges.

It is possible that, as our Greek romanticism wanes and gives way to a healthy skepticism toward athletes, we may turn into cynical Romans. Hollywood has already imagined the future of athletics with dark movies like "Rollerball."

The Romans went in the opposite direction from the Greeks. They grew bloated with cynicism, liked to empty their jails and let the criminals fight it out in the Coliseum. To make the mix interesting, they'd throw in a few Christians.

What are we to make of the moral imbeciles who painted that sign on the San Diego Freeway last year? GO O.J. GO! What are we to make of the pride ghetto kids and lots of middle-class kids derive from wearing Raiders' jackets?

Before the Raiders left Oakland for in Los Angeles, they had become home-town favorites for being bad boys. Who wanted heroes in a tough time? The thug was at least an honest reflection of the gritty climb that real life forced.

Perhaps this is the way we will regard athletes in the future. Our favorite thugs. Already, on pay-for-view cable stations, you can watch "no-holds-barred" caged matches where unpretty combatants go at each other until submission.

Welcome to the new world of professional sports. Welcome to ancient Rome.*

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