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Fair-Weathered Aristocracy
Of Beefcakes and Role Models

Falsetto gods

There may have been a time when the words role model had a connotation more innocent than creepy—when the words reflected more of an individual aspiration than an imposition on the way other individuals ought to be. The distinction is lost the moment role models are narrowed down to the limited class of athletes and actors (and maybe in rare, scary instances, CEOs), and when those people’s personal lives and usually crude-oiled character are confused with their achievements in the field or on screen. It’s like confusing a great fiction writer with his characters, or assuming that because, say, Rousseau was a terrific stylist and extraordinary thinker, he was also a terrific human being (as opposed to the scummy smarmy hypocritical lying pathetic lout that he was). Our role models these days are, of course, not nearly of that enlightened a caliber. They’re the more pedestrian kind whose entire history of personal achievement can and does fit on a palm-sized baseball card. A few days ago when those two college (American) football teams met on the pitch for the national championship—the Florida Gators and that other team from Ohio—members of Congress literally used some of their special-order speeches to make asses of themselves and stake their fandom on one team of another. And Congress, unbelievably, took the day off for the occasion. This isn’t the World Cup final, mind you. This isn’t a global event. It’s an ordinary, annual, unremarkable and somewhat rigged ritual that pits two arbitrarily chosen teams made up of the given colleges’ stupidest and most coddled drones on a field of lucre in the preposterous name of college athletics. But it’s an “American championship,” which gives it its pre-Copernican center-of-the-universe feel, at least for that day. And from such events, we get role models. “There is,” Bertrand Russell wrote, “a strange envy of any kind of excellence which cannot be universal, except, of course, in the sphere of athletics and sport, where aristocracy is enthusiastically acclaimed. It seems that the average American is more capable of humility in regard to his muscles than in regards to his brains; perhaps this is because his admiration for muscle is more profound and genuine than his admiration of brains.” Is it any wonder then that when the beefcakes graduate college and a nation’s role-modeling impositions chases them into the professional arena, these athletes self-destruct as often as they soar?

I have little sympathy for Mark McGwire, the pinkishly tank-like baseball player whose name means absolutely nothing to six billion people even as it was invoked more than God’s by 290 million Americans, during the hot months of 1998, as McGwire provided seemingly heroic relief from the Summer of Lewinsky — that other ballsey affair — by racing for a new homerun record with Sammy Sosa, the player George W. Bush once thought inconsequential and got rid of when Bush was pretending to be an executive with the Texas Rangers baseball organization. McGwire’s entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame should have been a cinch. He did break Roger Maris’s home run record with 70 in 1998. But he got just 23.5 percent of the vote from baseball writers who decide Hall of Fame inductions. The vote was essentially an insult. It was deserved. McGwire milked the role-model foolery for all it was worh while his going (and his dollar winnings) were good. Then he turned. He insulted Congress and baseball when, in a hearing on steroids on March 17, 2005, he was asked whether he used performance-enhancing drugs and answered instead, “I’m not here to discuss the past. I’m here to be positive about this subject.” He did not, needless to say, catch the indicting pun about “the subject,” so it was just a flat-out duck, a calculated way to lie without lying after having spent his baseball career reaping millions off the game and the fans whose adulation he was now showering with contempt. It’s that lie to the congressional committee that must have weighed heaviest against him in the Hall of Fame voting.

And yet. I can’t help but have even less sympathy for the hypocrisy of it all. It’s not that the likes of Pete Rose (the gambling baseball star) or Jose Canseco (drugs) or so many others whose athletic careers blossom to the rhythms of drugs, crime and wife-beating have much to redeem them. Not even their field prowess, which has always seemed to me a great entertainment but not necessarily something deserving more celebration than, say, a single mom’s ability to raise three children and keep them from joining the ranks of the Oliver Twists in their bad phases. But then, who are we to demand that the athletes be redeemed? They’re not made into role models. They’re forced into it. The distasteful pair of words hooks into public figures whether they want it or not. They have a right to refuse to be role models. They’re athletes playing sports that are nothing more than businesses, run and exploited with the rapacity of business. In 1998, everyone knew, everyone, that Sosa and McGwire hadn’t bulked up on rice and beans and yoga. Everyone knew they were jacked up on various drugs, just as everyone knew that the other lout who has since overtaken McGwire’s record, Barry Bonds, was no more an actual human being than Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s. He was a construction, a concoction, a cocktail of substances that made a zombie out of him and his alleged achievements. But who really questioned him, considering the entertainment value he was providing?

That’s what it all comes down to. As long as those things are performing, the questions aren’t asked. Members of Congress parade their adulation and everyone else cheers on. Past curtain-time, when the men’s foibles and flabbiness begins to crook through, the love affair turns as rapidly as the curdling of spilled blood. The quicker they rise, the harder they fall. The role-model culture would be better served if its role models were given the chance to be more human. But how to do that without also defining the notion of role models as more human—which means including the likes of that single mom in the class of role models (she very much is, to her children, or ought to be), of teachers, or garbage men for that matter, of people who, day in and day out, provide the kind of grinding, unsung accomplishments that have as much of the heroic to it, precisely because of its quiet desperation, as the more conventional sort beamed and magnified on national tv. Short of that, the adulation showered on the culture’s beefcake models will always be proportionate to the poverty at the core of the culture: when athletes and movie stars are the best we can do by way of an admirable aristocracy, we deserve every disappointment we get when these shells of schlock prove as empty as our fair-weathered admiration.

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