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New cynicism looks just ducky from across the pond

December 24, 2007|Chuck Culpepper | Special to the Times

LONDON -- When you move out of the United States, you begin to feel peculiar sensations.

For instance, after leaving in February 2006, I realized I'd gone months without hearing the haunting American words "Terrell Owens," let alone the excruciatingly faux-hip term T.O. Not a soul around me or on the radio strung together the letters B, then C, then S. Nobody spoke of such brutally hackneyed subjects as Yankees and Red Sox.

I'm sorry.

I didn't mean to trigger an emigration exodus.

It's just that extracting oneself from the throes of American sports can have the same effect as an air-conditioning unit shutting off after a rackety while: It relieves the ear canals from a persistent loudness of which they'd grown unaware.

And now, almost two years since I jetted off on the Virgin Atlantic 767, seat 55-K, window, watching the sappy soccer movie "Goal," I think I'm hearing really strange things emanating from my youngish homeland.

If I'm not mistaken, American sports seem to have budged into an entirely fresh era, one we might call an awakening were that not already taken. It seems as if there is some sort of post-naivete going on.

Cupping my rehabilitated ear into the usual commotion of American sports -- ever louder, ever less avoidable, ever more inundating and swarming upon your day -- I'm hearing an unmistakable new . . . can this be? . . . forgive me . . . American cynicism.

It's not the fringe cynicism always there at the next barstool or from taxi drivers who always did see games as fixed, but a healthy, clear-eyed, right-down-the-middle cynicism, one that could alter how people think as they continue to go to the stadium or arena.

It's a sensible cynicism, given the recent spate of convulsions at the cores of American sports, but it's also surprising, given that it's a country . . . well, it's a country where you still can find a lot of people who perceive college football and basketball as predominantly sinless.

As I flew away, we'd gone partly down the road toward this beautiful cynicism, just not far enough. We'd just spent an autumn obsessed with the whims and follies of one profoundly dull receiver in Philadelphia, for one thing. But before that, we'd weathered one of our cultural nadirs when a row of oily baseball stars appeared before a committee of our spectacularly oily Congress to forge one of the oiliest rooms in history -- players hedging, congressmen fawning ("I've got your baseball card!"), sympathy welling only for the cleanup crews.

It seemed more tedious than momentous, but then came 2007, when from afar American sports seemed to shake so much that the shaking grew normal and by the time the Mitchell Report emerged earlier this month, the fans started talking as if they'd seen it all before.

What happened in 2007? From over here, it appeared that an American Tour de France champion got stripped of his title for doping, and an American Olympic champion got stripped of her five medals for doping, and a baseball home-run chase felt tepid because people suspected the hero of doping, and the allegedly brilliant head coach of the reigning NFL dynasty displayed an outright willingness to cheat, calling into question three previous Super Bowls.

And then the Mitchell Report.

It seemed so much happened that suddenly you forgot all about the first Tour de France winner ever so defrocked.

So suddenly, from afar, it seems a lot of American sports sayings popular when I left there might have croaked altogether whenever I get back.

They've all died of inanity.

Steroids can't help you hit a baseball.

(No, but they can help you hit one farther, which does factor into the game.)

Look at him, he's not muscular, he's not juicing.

(Well, he might be trying to recover from an injury, or train at unnatural levels.)

I don't like that guy, I think he cheated, so I hope this other guy who I just know hasn't cheated breaks his record.

(You just know that you don't know anything.)

Then, above all, the Mitchell Report might've quashed for good the following ludicrous doozy:

But I've/he's/we've been tested 100 times.

(We've finally figured out that the testing lags behind the drugs. Took us only about 20 years.)

Just two months ago, in the New York Times quarterly sports magazine Play, a novelist somehow wrote the following:

"I actually clicked off a pretty good All-Star game this summer because Joe Buck and Tim McCarver . . . simply would not shut up about steroids -- which probably some players used but probably don't anymore."

(The line already seems a naive relic from a bygone era.)

It's curious, viewing this shift from among perhaps the world's greatest collection of realists, the Brits. With England more-or-less 849 years older than the United States, they have a seen-it-all facet. Hanging out with them in pregame pubs, on trains headed to soccer matches, in stadiums, they seem genuinely un-shockable, with no illusions about sleaze in their own games.

Even so, a columnist in the Guardian newspaper just cited the Mitchell Report as a self-policing exemplar English soccer should follow for its alleged corruption, as good an indicator as any that from afar, American sports seem louder than ever, but suddenly carry a different sound.

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