Between the National Football League’s motto “Football Is Family” or the National Basketball Association’s assertion “The NBA Cares,” which has the lower truth quotient? Without the finest calibrated of instruments it is, I suspect, impossible to measure. Major League Baseball thus far makes no similar claims to caring, sharing, or dispensing herring, which is just as well. But why the need for this sad public-relations effort on behalf of football and basketball and of professional sports generally?
Part of the answer is that there is something askew about the entire enterprise, at least in its contemporary phase. How else consider a situation in which (mostly) men in their twenties and early thirties are able to earn millions of dollars hitting or throwing or kicking balls or banging pucks or one another around before audiences willing to pay exorbitant sums to watch them do so?
As salaries and ticket prices soar, so do the size of the athletes themselves: The 300-pound NFL lineman is now commonplace, so, too, the seven-foot NBA basketball center; the majority of current-day major-league pitchers appear to be around 6’4″, and the New York Yankees have only one pitcher under six foot and five over 6’7.” Of the top ten ranked male tennis players, five are over 6’5″; six-feet-tall female tennis players are not uncommon. Just about everything about professional sports these days is outsized, out of proportion, swollen.
Two of the three major American professional sports, football and basketball, have a preponderance of African-American players. For football, the percentage is 64 percent, for basketball it is 75 percent. (Of NBA games, a friend of mine noted that they are over not when the fat lady sings but instead when the white guys go in.) Meanwhile the number of black players in Major League Baseball has slipped to 7.7 percent, with the Hispanic players in the game now at a high of 29.8 percent and Asian players coming up slowly on the outside. Baseball, the national pastime, is getting less and less national every day.
Every boy with an interest and prowess in sports harbored—and many as older men may well still harbor—the fantasy of playing his favorite sport for a living, with all the rewards that would flow therefrom in the coin of fame, glory, and now heavy coin itself. Yet the sports fantasy is wearing thin. Football, for example, with its strong possibility of lasting head injuries, is no longer the uncomplicated field of speed, brawn, and physical courage it once seemed. Head injuries resulting in Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), causing early dementia and sometimes death, have clouded both the present and future of football. Some years ago Doug Planck, an old Chicago Bears safety, said, more prophetically than he knew, that the first thing one must give up if one is to play in the NFL is one’s sense of self-preservation.
Another thing one may have to give up to play sports in college is any hope of obtaining even a simulacrum of an education. The son of a friend of mine, who had a baseball scholarship to Northwestern, dropped off the team when it was made clear to him that, along with the official NCAA sanctioned four hours for practice, he would do well to put in still extra hours in the weight room. One of the sad joke phrases of our time is “scholar-athlete” to describe college jocks; even “student-athlete” has come to have a bitter, unreal ring. The proof of this is in those pre- and post-game, barely literate interviews with professional athletes. Years ago it was said of a certain NBA all-star that he led the league in “you knows.”
Yet the pool of admiration for athletes in America never quite empties. While politicians come and go, actors increasingly make dodos of themselves through their politics or going into confession mode on talk shows, a select number of athletes—Sandy Koufax, Derek Jeter, Bill Russell, Joe Montana—remain enshrined in their countrymen’s good graces. The special honor in which athletes have been held is of long standing. Thucydides tells how the people of Scione, after having been rescued by the Spartan general Brasidas, “would come up to him and deck him with garlands, as though he were a famous athlete.”
From a fairly early age, gifted athletes often live in a privileged status. Today, kids with professional athletic ability are spotted as early as 13 or 14 and cultivated by high-school coaches and sometimes college coaches. At 17, LeBron James’s high-school basketball games were shown on national television. For a brief spell, some of the best players in the NBA took a pass altogether on college, and many others took up the option known as “one-and-done,” by which is meant that after a single year of college, which gave the pros a chance to scout them, they departed with a hefty contract for the NBA and all the associated rewards that go with it.
The effects of such early adulation on personality aren’t easily reckoned. A number of years ago, the Chicago Bulls basketball team had a player named Scottie Pippen, whose sobriquet around town was “No Tippin’ Pippen,” owing to his being known for never leaving a tip at restaurants. But then how could he have known about tipping, when all his life long he probably never had to pick up a check?
The real toll on superior athletes may be in the narrowing of perspective, and thereby personality, that great athletic prowess often brings in its train. To become a great athlete calls for endless practice, to the exclusion of much else in life. The rewards for the truly promising are palpable. Imagine you are 20 years old, in top physical shape, playing in the NBA or NFL or MLB and earning, say, $8 million a year, with the promise, barring serious injury, of lots more to come.
How would any of us nonathletes, at that age with that kind of money available to us, have come through? Could we handle it, keep it all in perspective? In 2009, Sports Illustrated published a study that showed that two years after retirement, 78 percent of NFL players were either broke or struggling financially, and after five years of retirement, 60 percent of NBA players were broke. Sad though this is, it doesn’t seem in the least shocking.
I watch an unseemly number of baseball, basketball, football, hockey games, tennis matches, prize fights (in an earlier day), track meets, and more on television, but reading 400-page biographies of athletes is far from my idea of a good time. Especially biographies of golfers. A condominium on a golf course is the notion of Valhalla for many of the boys, now retired men, I grew up with. But I, in one of the sounder decisions of my youth, sedulously steered clear of playing golf, a sport that has been described as a good walk ruined. (Golf on television, for me, has long been a fine nap encouraged.) I mention all this because I have recently read a 485-page biography of Tiger Woods and found it unexpectedly fascinating, not least on the subject of the perils of the life of the highly successful professional athlete.
Before recounting the life of Tiger Woods as set out in Jeffrey Benedict and Armen Keteyian’s full-court-press and iconoclastic biography, it needs to be emphasized that not all professional athletes are selfish, unintelligent, blinkered by their own fame or wealth. The Chicago Cubs’ current first-baseman, Anthony Rizzo, himself the survivor of cancer, spends a fair amount of time visiting child cancer victims at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Little Children’s Hospital in Chicago and has committed $3.5 million from his personal foundation to the hospital. Tim Anderson, the White Sox shortstop, at the opening of the current school year, bought a hundred ghetto kids haircuts and backpacks filled with school supplies. Other athletes have set up charitable foundations. Not a few retired NFL players have devoted funds to research into the effects of CTE. Some former athletes, baseball players especially, working as announcers, are sharp, amusing, subtle.
Perhaps the essential sadness at the heart of the professional athletic life is that such lives are essentially over by the age of 40, when everyone else is beginning to attain mastery over his or her own work. If they have managed to save their money, other possibilities are of course open to the former professional athlete. Or, if they prefer, they can hit golf balls for the remainder of their days as they watch their fame slowly diminish. Several years ago, at the Standard Club in Chicago, I was introduced to Marshall Goldberg, once an All-American at Pitt and then an All-Pro running back for the Chicago Cardinals, and his pleasure in my recognizing him was nearly boundless, for there are not many people left who do.
Tiger Woods, who is now 42 and still on the PGA Tour, need not soon worry about his own fame diminishing. He falls in that select inner circle of first-name fame, along with Oprah, Michael (Jordan and Jackson), Frank (Sinatra), Serena (Williams), and a few rarified others. “Tiger Woods was the kind of transcendent star that comes around about as often as Halley’s Comet,” write Benedict and Keteyian. “He was something no one had ever seen or will ever see again.” Here since 1996, his first year as a professional golfer, is a partial account of what he has accomplished:
He won 79 PGA tournaments, including 14 so-called Majors, and more than 100 tournaments world-wide. Player of the Year 11 times, he has earned more than $110 million in tournament prize money. When he appeared in a tournament, attendance records shot up, as did television ratings; when he played on a Sunday, the PGA usually beat the ratings of the NFL and the NBA. His popularity allowed the amount of tour prize money awarded to players to jump from $67 million in 1996 to $363 million today, thereby making millionaires of more than 400 PGA tour golfers. In the words of Benedict and Keteyian, Tiger Woods “changed the face of golf—athletically, socially [as a bi-racial golfer in a formerly country-club sport not known for its generous integration policies], culturally, and financially.”
Even in our day, when the word “millionaire” has lost much of its punch, Woods’s earnings are impressive. His agent at the International Management Group brought in roughly $120 million in endorsements for him: from Nike, American Express, Disney, Gillette, General Motors, Rolex, Accenture, Gatorade, General Mills, and the video-game company called EA Sports. He was paid $1 million merely to appear in a golf tournament in Germany, $3 million to appear in another in Australia. His instructional book How I Play Golf sold a million copies in hardcover. By 2010, he is said to have earned more than $1 billion through golf and investment deals. His caddy, for God’s sake, earned $12 million dollars over 11 seasons with him. Woods had enough money to be able to pay one of his 14 mistresses $10 million in hush money (making our president’s alleged payment of $130,000 to Stormy Daniels seem chump change) in the hope of keeping his marriage intact.
As his biographers note, “one of the perks of being a celebrated athlete is that tact and personality are not prerequisites for securing female companionship.” Woods took sufficient advantage of this perk so that for the better part of four years, the National Enquirer, the scandal-sheet, had him under nearly full-time surveillance. The Enquirer did eventually run a story about his extramarital affairs, but everything really fell apart when Elin, his wife and the mother of his two young children, discovered texts on his phone from one of his mistresses.
Things get a bit blurry here. What is known is that at 2 a.m. on November 27, 2009, Woods rushed from his house, got into his Cadillac Esplanade SUV, lost control peeling out of his own driveway, ran over a fire hydrant, and wound up crashing into a tree in his neighbor’s yard. His biographers write: “When the police arrived after responding to a 911 call from Tiger’s neighbor, they found that both sides of the back seat of his vehicle had been smashed out with a golf club that had been swung by Elin.”
This provided a splendid feast for the gutter press, and a lengthy Schadenfreudeian holiday for the media generally. From the New York Times to Us Weekly, everyone had a shot at Tiger, golf great and cheating husband. His biographers report that he appeared on the front page of the New York Post 21 days in a row, surpassing the previous record of 20 consecutive covers devoted to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “God, the media is pounding me,” Tiger said to a friend, a former golf instructor named Hank Haney. “They’re such vultures.”
Tiger Woods claimed not simple abysmal irresponsibility for his errant sexual rompings but the latest psychological excuse, sex addiction. (W.H. Auden claimed that the motto of psychology ought to be “Have you heard this one?”). And, not long after crashing his car, he went into a facility for sex addiction in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Although he publicly apologized for his adulteries, his wife divorced him. Perhaps more important, his golf game went into a deep hole. He failed to win a tournament for a full five-year stretch; his PGA ranking dropped from his perennial first to 13th.
Tyger, tyger, burning bright, / In the Forst of the Night; / What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” William Blake’s question, in regard to the Tiger of our time, is easily enough answered—two sets of hands, both mortal, each belonging to his parents. They decided from the outset that Eldrick (Tiger’s name at birth) would be among the favorites of the gods, would himself be a god. His father, Earl, an African-American and retired U. S. Army lieutenant colonel, referred to his son as “the Chosen One,” and, early in Tiger’s professional career claimed that, because of his son’s half-black, half-Thai ethnicity, “he’ll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations.” Earl Woods also believed that, as he told a journalist, “the first black man who is a really good golfer is going to make a hell of a lot of money.” (He got that right.) Tiger’s mother, Kultida, an immigrant from Thailand, was both his protector and cheering section, instructing him that only victory mattered and victory was meant exclusively for him.
Tiger was raised one stage beyond pampered. His biographers tell us that as a boy he was never asked to do household chores, never held a job, mowed lawns, delivered newspapers, or did anything else. Golf was his only job. Beginning at age two, the baby Tiger practiced swinging a golf club two hours a day. As he grew older, his sole mission was mastering control over a small hard white ball, smashing it vast distances off the tee, down the fairway, out of the rough or sand traps, onto the green, and in a putt or two, plonk, into the hole. On a normal day he would hit at least 600 practice balls. He later came to view his golf swing as his most precious gift. Golf was all he did, pretty much all he knew, his life.
This narrowing of Tiger Woods’s interests produced a less than impressive, one might even say a less than full, human being. As a boy, apart from golf (and his father did not permit him to play other sports, lest he injure himself), he spent long hours at video games. He had few friends. Gratitude seems not to have been in his quiver of emotions. Later in life, once his fame had set in, according to his biographers, “for Tiger even the most basic of civilities—a simple hello or thank you—went missing from his vocabulary.” A Vegas night-club owner said, “He got mean.” A sports journalist named Jimmy Roberts remarked that “there’s more ‘f— you’ in Tiger Woods than in any athlete I’ve ever seen.” Perhaps all major athletes have to be self-centered, but, as his biographers write, “the secret to Tiger’s dominance [in golf] was that he was the most one-dimensional human being on the PGA Tour.”
Tiger Woods is doubtless in many ways an exceptional case—more protected by his family and agents, more famous, more narrow in his interests, more stunted in his general development. But aren’t most professional athletes almost of necessity self-centered, one-dimensional, stunted, because of the nature of their work? They are adulated from boyhood on, later lavishly rewarded, catered to in every way. I think here of Joe DiMaggio, one of the greatest of all baseball players, who played before the big money kicked in. During his years on the New York Yankees, when he came in each half-inning from his position in center field, he found on the edge of the dugout a hot cup of coffee and a lit cigarette awaiting him. I think of the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, who in 2003 was charged with rape by a hotel employee in Colorado. The charges were eventually dropped, though sexual intercourse was admitted, but my guess is that Bryant, who had probably not before then ever been said no to, must have been confounded when what he construed merely as droit du seigneur was taken for rape.
The morning Michael Jordan announced his retirement from professional basketball at a heavily attended press conference in Chicago, I watched on television his stepping up to the microphone in what looked to be an $8,000 suit and his noting that a policemen had been shot the night before and the press that was here for him should really be covering that much more important event. If for a moment you believe he really meant it, there are some O. J. Simpson souvenirs I should like to sell you.
As a young man, Tiger Woods claimed he wanted to be “the Michael Jordan of golf.” He later became close to Jordan, thought of himself as his younger brother, the same Michael Jordan of whom Benedict and Keteyian claim one “didn’t have to travel far to find stories of [his] barely tipping, or stiffing caddies, locker-room attendants, card dealers, bartenders, or of his driving his tricked-out North Carolina blue golf cart down the middle of a fairway . . . music blaring as he blew by one foursome or another while yelling, ‘Hurry the f— up. You guys are slow as f—’ . . . ”
In our professional athletes we have created a gladiator class. Not, to be sure, an enslaved class, like the gladiators in Rome, but a highly paid and privileged one. Yet gladiators in function our contemporary athletes remain, a function much the same as their Roman precursors: to provide circuses (hold the bread) for a large portion of the male citizenry of the American republic.
This gladiatorial status is true across the spectrum of professional sports. Even tennis, once a vaguely aristocratic game, has felt the deadening hand of professionalization through the infusion of huge sums of money. (First-prize money, for men and women, in the U.S. Open this past year was $3.8 million.) When tennis players win tournaments, they now customarily thank their “team.” By team they mean coach or coaches, trainers, physicians, and psychologists. As for graceful play on the court, turn on a tennis match, close your eyes, and from the grunting, often on the part of both players, men as well as women, you are more likely to think it coming from a Masters & Johnson laboratory than from, say, the green courts of Wimbledon. Watching Rafael Nadal in his muscle shirt, twitching, groaning, and grunting away, feels more like watching a wrestling than a tennis match. In tennis, elegance, even sportsmanship, is out. Winning is all.
Please understand, I make these strictures with no moral authority whatsoever, since I have watched, and continue to watch, my share of professional sports on television. Would I, I have sometimes asked myself, have been one of those besheeted and benighted Romans seated in the Coliseum 2,000 years ago, turning my thumbs down and screaming for the death of a defeated gladiator? In fact, I have begun to feel a touch queasy about watching college and professional football now that I know that the men who participate in it are risking their health and mental balance for their profit and my entertainment. I may need to see a sport-spectator therapist, but, apart from baseball, which continues to seem a game of great subtlety, with only a minimum of barbarity, basketball, tennis, hockey, and other sports are beginning to bore me.
Think of it: We have been paying a select group of overly trained men, and a few women, grand sums, at the expense of their not leading normal lives, to perfect and perform for our pleasure what are in effect games devised for children. Then there is the obvious yet still disturbing fact that we fans of many of these games are more loyal to the teams we follow than are the men who play for these teams. (I still run into the occasional older man who has never forgiven the Dodgers for moving from Brooklyn to Los Angeles.) In an earlier day, great professional athletes—DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Bob Cousy, Johnny Unitas, Gordie Howe—stayed their entire careers with the same teams in the same cities. Now, with free agency, arbitration, sports agents, a player is offered more money, and it’s yo, dude, catch you later.
The contradictions inherent in professional sports—in playing them, watching them, paying for them—are too glaring to overlook. Yet most of those among us who spend a disproportionate amount of our time engaged with them overlook these contradictions easily enough. Has the time come to cease to do so? I suspect it has. If you feel as I do and wish to discuss this further, don’t hesitate to be in touch, but, please, don’t call before the playoffs and World Series are over. Sundays after that, I shall be busy watching Chicago Bears games. In October, the NBA season begins; so, too, that of the NHL. The first of the tennis majors is played in Australia in January. April, the new baseball season gets under way, with a promising young Chicago Cubs team. On second thought, if you wish to be in touch, maybe you would do best to make an appointment.