No Refuge on the Sports Page

Throughout Monday we did our best to avoid the news. This was a difficult chore for such habitual news consumers as ourselves, but we simply couldn’t bear any exposure to what we knew would be worshipful coverage of the inauguration. Longing for the pleasant diversion of athletic derring-do and old-fashioned sportsmanship we turned instead to the sports section, but alas, it offered no refuge from scandals, bad behavior, and further evidence of America’s sad decline.
There was lingering talk of Lance Armstrong, of course. One needn’t even be a sports fan to know that Armstrong was the gritty American cyclist who whipped testicular cancer and went on to beat those snooty Europeans in a record seven Tour de France competitions, as the feat made him so famous that he starred in sneaker commercials, gave his name to a well-funded cancer charity with its very own colored ribbon, and had a much-publicized marriage to a rock star before getting a much-publicized divorce. Last week he went on a two-part Oprah special, where all properly contrite celebrities go to offer confession, and admitted it was all done with various banned drugs and medical procedures. The story involved blood transfusions, testicle amputations, Oprah, and other subjects that give us the willies, yet we read far enough to see that yet another American hero had proved too good to be true.
Armstrong’s all-too-predictable downfall jostled for space on the sports pages with the quite unpredictable saga of Manti Te’o’s imaginary dead girlfriend. Those who follow college football will recall how Te’o, a soft-spoken yet fearsome linebacker for the University of Notre Dame’s legendary squad, was shaken by the deaths of both his beloved grandmother and his eerily perfect girlfriend on the same day yet somehow found the inner strength to lead his team to an upset victory over Michigan State just moments later. It was a mawkish tale even by the cornball standards of collegiate football, but the sports media played it to its full tear-jerking potential. Then some skeptical internet scoops discovered that the girlfriend never existed, and that the highly-paid sports press had fallen for an appealing myth with the same willing gullibility of their colleagues on the political beat, and now Te’o is the focus of so much ridicule that if you type his name into a search engine “jokes” is one of the automatic suggestions. We have no desire to pile on this thoroughly tackled young man, who is said to be a sensitive soul, and who might even be another victim of the hoax, somehow, but we will note that it’s a sad day when a big time college football star can’t find what Robert Goulet would call “a real, live girl.”
The professional footballers have gone a few weeks without killing anyone, so far as we know, but they remain as obnoxious as ever. One of the Baltimore Ravens’ star players celebrated the team’s hard-fought victory of the New England Patriots by accusing the defeated foe of arrogance, for instance, and described them with a word which is commonly used in locker rooms but prohibited here. The description might very well be apt, but it pains us to see athletes stoop the same sort of disrespectful trash-talking we have come to expect from our politicians.
Politics also intruded onto the sports pages with the latest news about Phil Mickelson, golf’s lovable “Lefty,” who announced that his touring schedule will likely be affected the new soak-the-rich tax code. Numerous professional triumphs and an affable appeal as a pitchman have made him Mickelson one of the rich, and by his accounting he’ll be paying as much as 63 percent of his gross income to various levels of government under the new rules, so it might prove more profitable for him to play less golf. Mickelson is a rich white guy who attained his immense wealth by playing a rich white guy’s game, and even someone with his marketable likeability is making himself an inviting target for the culture’s prevailing class resentments by speaking out about his tax burden, so his statements are as daring as some of his famed trick shots from the rough. Typical of what Mickelson can expect is a report at the all-powerful ESPN sports network, which somehow finds reason to wedge admiring references to the president into the most apolitical sports events, wherein the unabashedly disgusted correspondent seems to believe the government is entitled everything “Lefty” earns and that he should be grateful for whatever he is left with.
We applaud Mickelson’s stand, with the same enthusiasm we cheered his first Master’s victory, and hope that he’ll get people to thinking about how the new tax rates might similarly discourage other people from doing something even more important than golf. This is unlikely, of course, as some new sports scandal will soon divert the public’s attention from such complicated political matters. We’ll soon be back to the political pages, though, as this sports stuff is simply too dispiriting.

— Bud Norman

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