Buzz Bissinger has a post up over at The Daily Beast today, lamenting the absence of colorful heroes, rakes and rogues in sports today:
Sports are bigger than ever. It occupies us more than ever. It is ever exploding. There are still routinely great performances. But behind those performances there is less and less human dimension, either colorful or heroic … Are there any athletes in the modern-day era of sports either truly heroic or just truly colorful?
He comes up with a few examples. In the hero category he rightfully cites Pat Tillman, although his heroism had little to do with sports as such. He also names a couple of people who fit the “colorful” bill well enough by virtue of their lack of self-censorship, like Rex Ryan, but notes that, for the most part, sports figures are programmed to be dull and non-responsive and private.
And he’s right. It’s just that I just don’t know that this is a problem for anyone besides sports writers looking for juicy quotes. While I love the stories about players of yore, the ones I love the most aren’t really about heroism as we tend to define it within the context of sports. They’re the things written by or about people on the margins (think Jim Bouton), not the stuff written about the big names as they’re making their big marks. The Mickey Mantle book that came out last year was way more insightful and interesting than anything anyone got from him when he was the king of the world.
Moreover, I don’t know that, insight aside, it’s all that healthy for our society to celebrate athletes as heroes. How many of those would-be heroes pan out as true heroes over time? How many role models turn out to be anything but? Bissinger correctly notes that the relatively bloodless content of the game — the live action and recaps and box scores and all of that — has taken precedence, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. If anything, it helps us to remember that sports are just that — sports — and not some substitute for real life. As always, XKCD got it right when it comes to identifying what we’re really doing when we try to make sporting events into something greater than what they are.
I get what Bissinger is saying. And as someone who grew up on the sort of sports coverage in which heroes and rogues meant everything, I too sort of miss the lack of color we see today and like it when someone breaks from the “I’m just trying to help the ballclub” script.
But I don’t know that it’s a bad thing in an absolute sense. It’s just where sports and society is heading. And it may very well us to bring some different perspectives into the sporting world that could, just maybe, make our society’s relationship with sports a bit more healthy than it was in an age where narratives were applied and dramatic roles were assigned to people playing what are, in effect, random games.