The Continuance of Athletic Exceptionalism

We have a big problem on our hands, folks.  A lot bigger than the problem currently sitting in the lap of Brett Favre, the seemingly untouchable paragon of All That Is Good In Sports, currently mired in a scandal that directly involves his (alleged) groin centric self-portraits.  A problem with higher stakes than the one that is saddling the Jets organization and their mistreatment of women, stemming from the Ines Sainz situation a few weeks ago and a further Deadspin report of Favre’s mishandling (literally) of two Jets message therapists.  Much bigger, really.  We have a problem with our sense or reality, and our sense of morality.

One of my long-standing social theories is that everything in life is a middle school dance.  When we’re in large swaths of people, the natural instinct is to divvy up into smaller, separate groups of men and women.  It’s just in our nature.  Women like to talk amongst themselves about things they feel are important, and men do the same.  There’s nothing wrong with it; just merely an observation that has lasted way into my twenties and, by looking around, doesn’t seem to be going anywhere if I reach way into my sixties.  The real problem lies in how this mentality does not stop in how we group at parties, but how it expands to how we view our heroes, our stars, and how we string this child-like wonder across the nation, creating a blanket of unimpeachable immaturity.

We adore athletes as adults the way we adored superheroes as children.  Athletes are the superhuman giants of our time.  A tiny percentage of the entirety of humanity, these special few are singled out for their feats, which go beyond the capacity of normal humans.  Vince Carter  can leap tall buildings and dunk over full-grown men (literally).  Usain Bolt can run faster than any person who has ever been recorded in the history of time.  Brett Favre can win 3 consecutive MVP trophies, throw over 500 touchdowns, hold records in career passing yards (and interceptions thrown), but, most importantly, has played in every game possible since becoming a starter in 1992.

And how we marvel at Favre.  He is superman in shoulder pads, a pillar who has survived a string of professional football games, a brutal sport, which is more than could be said about 95% of our entire population.  Now in his 40s, the age where teenage sons have already beaten their dads handily in basketball, we see someone who not only still plays, who not only still excels, but does it with the enthusiasm of a middle schooler.  He’s no different than the star player in your high school – he walks among you, but he’s set aside.  He’s an exception.  He’s better.

That mentality has never left us and never will.  After the initial report was put up on Deadspin some months ago, no one in the media touched it.  Why?  Because it wouldn’t sell.  No one could damage the impeccable Favre, not even himself.  He spent two summers of insipid, tiring “will-he-or-won’t-he” retirement sagas and the TV ratings stayed the same:  impressively high.  He cannot even be overturned by facts.  He has not come through in the clutch in various instances towards the end of his career, yet people still consider him to be some sort of great closer, the guy you want to have the ball in the last two minutes of the game.  This opinion is made into fact by all football commentators, as they’re the “experts” overall.  We’re reached the point where the collective conscious cannot be overturned by anything.  In the words of the great film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

We more than bought into the legend, we helped erect build it in the first place.  Now we’re at a point where the legend has come into question, and that means that we have to question ourselves.  We’ve built this mythic figure up beyond all human failings and now that he has erred it seemingly breaks that view that we have created.  And if he is wrong, then we’re wrong.  We are not a culture built on grey areas; you’re red or blue, you’re right or left, you’re straight or gay, you’re a hero or you’re a villain.  But if we invest too much energy into one idea, can we really go back against it?  Can we blame ourselves or the saintly number 4?

No.  We blame Deadspin, because they’re dabbling in tabloid journalism, because they want to tear someone down, because they want to ruin someone who has done all the right things in life and the writers and editors are jealous, making themselves “scum” and “below human.”  Now we blame Sterger for being a “slut,” who just wants money in some sort of extortion deal, who just couldn’t let the boys go out and play some ball.  But we go unscathed.

Our collective internal thought process goes like this:  It’s not our fault that we make humans infallible because we can’t own up to our own failings.  It’s not our fault that we repress Favre’s public battle with pill addiction under blankets of records because it’s more comforting to remember how magnificently he played well after his father died.  It’s not our fault that we give people like Jenn Sterger a job because we make sex sell and create those jobs in the first place.  How could we be wrong with so many scapegoats?   How could we be expected to act rationally and differentiate fantasy from reality, storybooks from court documents, what we want from what simply is?

Or, more specifically:  how can we see the errors in others when we choose so hard to not see those same errors in ourselves?

*          *         *

For breast cancer awareness month, the NFL has gone out of their way to bathe their games with pink.  There are pink banners, pink accents on hats, pink arm bands, everything short of the football and the team logos are pink.  It’s all in an effort to show women (and potential female viewers, naturally) how much the NFL cares about them, their issues, their problems, and that this isn’t a league full of brutes who savage each other.  The NFL cares.

If these allegations against the Jets and Favre are true–specifically that Favre received Jenn’s number through someone who worked in the Jets organization–and nothing is done about it by the NFL, then it is one of the most shameless, horrible misappropriations of “care” as a commercial that has ever been conceived in our country.  It would be a deplorable dog-and-pony show, trotting out breast cancer survivors to gain the viewership and dollars of women while turning their heads on issues of equality in the workplace and the right of a woman to not feel like a piece of meat.  This goes beyond a simple game:  this is about what is right and what is wrong and where we decide to make a stand.

And sadly, we will make no such stand.  The biggest crime will be our collective action, or, in this case, complete lack there of.  We will sit idly by and do nothing about it.  Like when Star Quarterback doesn’t get suspended for “the big game this week,” and we sit in homeroom talking about how great it is that we can beat Team X.  We will not say a word, and with that, we will essentially condone this sort of behavior of giving any athlete “special” enough carte blanche to do whatever they so want.  It’s a systematic response that will continue to mask what’s more important:  a game or human dignity.  And that is a far more disgusting and lewd act than anything you can do with a cell phone.

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