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Hero Worship
The Real Dopes

In the space of seven days -- long enough, if you're a god -- the greatest swimmer of all times and one of the best baseball players of the day were discovered to have a thing for dope: marijuana for Michael Phelps, steroids, or whatever spin-enhancing euphemisms he's on now, for Alex Rodriguez. As always, when athletes are hounded off their pedestals by the same fantasists who put them there, the gale-force judgments that followed spoke less to the athletes' character than to their critics' duplicity -- and to the country's delight in turning, on a dime, hero-worship into inquisitions.

But if companies can increasingly police the private behavior of their employees (behavior that, by definition, has nothing to do with work), it's inevitable that fans and marketers will presume themselves entitled to police the private behavior of celebrities. One blurred line begets another.

 

Defending Rodriguez is an undiscovered country, I know. There isn't much there to defend other than his astounding talent as a baseball player, with or without idiotic enhancements. And his nearly $300 million contract can buy him his own country with its own military-industrial complex, if he needs defending that badly. That's why publicists are more powerful than some African dictators. But it's not as if he begged the world to turn him into a "role model," whatever that devalued currency means anymore. He's a business, primarily his own. The rest is projection -- mostly of a society so impoverished of heroes in the true sense of the term that it seeks them out in soldiers or celebrities as inspiring in their field as they are obnoxious beyond it. You wouldn't expect a neuroscientist to be a pipe fitter in her spare time. Why expect a star baseball player to be a surrogate father to millions of unimaginative 10-year-olds in his? A plane captain who saves 155 people from death in a crash landing is a hero. A single mother raising and educating her children on slave wages is a hero.

Millionaire athletes are corporations on legs, their allegiance primarily to themselves and their sponsors. There's nothing wrong with that. There's nothing heroic about it -- either. It didn't help that Phelps and Rodriguez played their penitent roles like the professional actors that they are -- Rodriguez much better than Phelps, whose dense, raw originality hasn't yet been completely demolished by marketing connivance.

Phelps was caught on camera smoking dope. Strictly speaking, he broke the law. But smoking marijuana is illegal the way jaywalking is illegal. And jaywalking is more dangerous. Still, Phelps did his bit, admitting he inhaled. Then USA Swimming, an organization that would be somewhere in the asteroid belt without Phelps putting it on an earthly map -- local Lochtes aside, did anybody really give a flipper about swimming at the Beijing Olympics outside of Phelps' races? -- proceeded to suspend Phelps for three months. Kellogg announced it would not renew its contract with Phelps because, in the soggy words of a company spokeswoman, his "most recent behavior is not consistent with the image of Kellogg." This from a company that distributed mercury-laden toys in its Cocoa Krispies five years ago until a state attorney general forced it to recall the boxes. (OK, so it was Eliot Spitzer, but doesn't that square the duplicity angle even more?)

Rodriguez (and it pains me to say this) was the bigger victim. He took steroids. In other words, he did what Major League Baseball expected him to do: Bulk up its myths to bulk up bottom lines. Rodriguez's mistake, besides befouling the sanctity of statistics, was stupidity. He thought he had immunity.

In business, no one does. And baseball is nothing but. It's is a wonderful sport. It lends itself to blissful afternoons, forgives muggy evenings and periodically rejuvenates American literature, like when Don DeLillo reinvents in "Underworld," better than the original, Bobby Thomson's 1951 home-run game that won the Giants the pennant. Or when the Yankees do what they've done so well since 2001 -- slow-dance with ritual suicide for six months, then tip into the abyss for a cradle (to paraphrase that other rookie tenant of the abyss, John Updike).

But baseball is a business. It's not about national identity. It's not a sacred trust. It's not, as ex-baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti had it, "a dream of ourselves as better than we are." (Are you kidding me? For starters, the Red Sox in any scenario but a losing one are a nightmare of everything that's wrong with America). And baseball is not a metaphor for American life, otherwise Venezuelans, Cubans and Canadians, who cherish baseball as much as Americans do, would be singing the "Star-Spangled Banner" before every game. They prefer not to.

Alex Rodriguez and Michael Phelps would probably rather not pretend to act like mirrors to the nation's moral sense. Especially when that moral sense is more distorted than the mirrors it fabricates.

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