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COMMENTARY

Don't put athletes on too high of a pedestal

December 28, 2007|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

LONDON -- Even after a crummy sports year that exposed sports as so unethical they're pretty much "The Sopranos" with less violence -- except against pit bulls -- we Americans mustn't despair.

We can press on with selective positivism.

As the many doping apologists remind us, athletes will always seek an edge, that it's OK and that the public doesn't really care anyway. And, as the tests always lag behind the drugs, we can proceed to stadiums with adjusted attitudes.

Rather than presuming we're going to see something majestic or exalted or even ingenious -- long often a mirage, anyway -- we can realize we're headed to a seedy side of town, a fishnet district, toward something akin to pornography, only less honest.

We can revel in the competitive drama of two sides that desperately want to beat the intestines out of each other -- always so moving -- and then we can go home blithely without going agog over the athletic feats that may well be synthetic anyway.

As the great sportswriters Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl wrote:

Here we are now, entertain us.

Athletes might even become demystified, which could trickle down and ease the burden on teachers and students who have dared resist the prevailing jock-ocracy.

Pedestals could lower, and, speaking of youth, we could envision the world the apologists excuse and learn to appreciate the frankness that could adorn 21st-century family dinner conversations:

Dad: So you love playing [insert sport]?

Teenage son: Yeah, I think I'd like to at least try to see if there's a chance if I could make the pros.

Dad: OK, then. If that's really your aim, we'll have to find somebody who can teach you how to properly inject human growth hormone and other products into your bum. I know a guy who knows a trainer who . . .

Although ticklish for sure, this kind of acknowledgment would represent a rise in realism and an emergence from the fog of naivete.

No longer could people say the most populous U.S. states are delusion and denial, with California a distant third.

This upcoming and impossibly savvy generation might even see these things already, as usually it does. In an interview in September, Dr. Charles Yesalis, the Penn State epidemiologist who has studied performance enhancement for four decades, said he had noticed something surprising in his recent batches of young students. They regarded sports as phony but didn't much care, viewing it as entertainment rather than virtue.

I think I spotted just a mite of this in the wizened, unshockable English fans. Sure, they adore their football (soccer). They're fervent. They're champion loathers of other clubs. They had a turn as the world's most heinous fans about 20 years ago before anti-hooliganism measures cooled that menace.

But in spending a year following the English Premier League, I got a serial giggle because of the way they leave stadiums.

It's hard to explain, but they just leave stadiums differently than do Americans.

At the whistle, after 93 or 94 minutes, most of them leave with a funny dispatch having nothing to do with dread of traffic.

It looks like a seen-it-all sense of, OK, that's done, on to the next. We didn't come to exalt.

Now that we know how the baseball players sustain excellence and the NFL dynasty cheated, let's not go to exalt.

Surely we still can find virtues even though they've never been as predominant as we've preached. Sports absolutely unite communities and meld disparate citizens in common applause. They inspire with their individual stories of recovery from misfortune. They lift communities; I once visited a Kentucky high school where teachers insisted that academic performance had improved once the football team began to excel.

Sports provide the safest forum on earth for people to express contempt for others, as seen most poignantly with Alabama and Auburn. It's still fun to win, fulfilling the innate human need to (safely) annihilate the people just up the highway. There is still something about witnessing the collaborative nature of extraordinary teams, even if that collaboration can mean one behemoth shooting up another in the bathroom stall, as touchingly related in Jose Canseco's book.

A good comeback can still raise goose bumps and remind everyone about not quitting, and dramatic games can distract the mind from such calamities as outlandish credit-card debt or the Iowa caucuses.

There is virtue to select even if people should cut the bunk about sports as virtuous.

And we'll all slip up, of course -- sports reporters, especially. In the years to come we'll go to some game and get caught up in something and exalt athletes as if we had just seen the heavens. We'll forget that Kipling had it more right than he imagined when he cited both victory and defeat as impostors.

Forgive us in advance. We once thought we covered feat when we always covered sin. It's OK.

"The Sopranos" had entertainment value plus a certain teaching merit and, besides, what else in Hades would we do with our time?

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