Monday, July 13, 2009

When Sports Stars Fall

Wealth, status, and power. The distribution of these three societal goods is one of the key functions of a socio-political regime.

This was the analytical point of departure offered by Professor Charles Umbanhowar in the introductory political science course I took in my first semester at St. Olaf College. He defined the term “regime” broadly as referring to the way the parts of a whole interact to divide what's desirable.

In the American regime, professional athletes have a disproportionate share of two of three social goods of which Umbanhowar spoke. The wealth they enjoy is almost incomprehensible compared with their counterparts of even a generation ago. The reasons for this are numerous − free agency, ubiquitous cable television exposure, savvy marketing, and so on − but the bottom line is bizarre. This year, the average major league baseball salary is $3.26 million.

Athletes also tend to have high social status, and this can be a problem when children look up to them as role models. The ability to perform heroic feats on the playing field does not necessarily imply that the performer has a character worth emulating.

Yet for decades, the marketing of these athletes included an element of hagiography. Sportswriters spun tales of Babe Ruth’s visits to sick children, but ignored the way he flouted Prohibition. Is it any wonder that eventually there was a backlash against this, debunking many of the old myths?

Perhaps American society is finally ready for a more nuanced view of elite athletes. It should be possible to applaud their remarkable playing skills while recognizing that, as human beings, they are generally no better or worse than most other people. Here in Minnesota, we have had a couple of occasions in recent year to apply this perspective.

Few would have suspected, until it all came crashing down, that one of these would be the beloved Kirby Puckett, who led the Twins to their first World Series title in 1987 and another in 1991. In 2003, he stood trial on sexual assault charges for allegedly groping and falsely imprisoning a woman in a restaurant bathroom. Though Puckett was acquitted, the sad story of his abusive treatment of his wife, Tonya, came to light. He moved to Arizona and died of a heart attack in 2006, at the age of only 45. A sad spectacle.

The alcohol-fueled struggles of football Hall of Famer Carol Eller dependency have been difficult to watch as well. In the late 60s and early 70s, he was a member of the Vikings’ famed Purple People Eaters” front four. But in February 2009, at age 67, he found himself serving a 60-day sentence in the Hennepin County workhouse for assaulting two Minneapolis police officers who tried to stop Eller after he ran a red light. Eller was released from the workhouse on April 23, but his sentence also includes two more months on home monitoring. He also received a concurrent sentence for refusing to submit to chemical testing and a $1500 fine on each charge. The county attorney said he hoped Eller would get the treatment he needs.

America will not stop being a celebrity-obsessed culture anytime soon. To use a sports metaphor, however, justice system actors must strive to “call them as they see them,” not letting sports star status sway decisions. Granted, this is easier said than done in a case like Puckett’s (or Kobe Bryant’s in Colorado, for that matter). Yet anything less would be a betrayal of the democratic ideal.

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