Fallen Warriors: Steve ‘Air’ McNair & Arturo ‘Thunder’ Gatti

With the rise of guns and Predator drones, the social emphasis on hand-to-hand combat has all but disappeared, leaving a cultural void that is filled, in part, by sports.

"But that's who I am. I'm a fighter. I'm a gladiator. I was definitely born for this." -- Arturo Gatti

The sports world is filled with flukes. Lucky bounces, mis-hits, and chance shots are an inevitable, enjoyable part of the games we watch, often collected into highlight reels and played back against a choir of wacky kazoos. This past month, though, a far grimmer oddity gripped American sports in the form of parallel murders.

Steve "Air" McNair, former quarterback for the Houston Oilers, Tennessee Titans, and Baltimore Ravens, was found shot to death in his rented condo on 4 July in Nashville, Tennessee. One week later and hundreds of miles away, former boxing champion Arturo "Thunder" Gatti was found dead in his resort hotel room in Ipojuca, Brazil. In both cases, the victims were asleep at the time of their murders; both were found to have had alcohol in their systems. And, in both cases, the suspect was a younger woman.

Sahel Kazemi, a 20-year-old waitress, was found dead alongside McNair in what police have determined to be a murder-suicide. Speculation is that Kazemi was going through financial trouble and was distraught over McNair's infidelity. (He was also married at the time of his murder.) The Brazilian investigation into Gatti's death concluded that his was a suicide, but few of his friends and family believe it.

Theories have been offered that Gatti was strangled to death by his wife's purse strap while he slept. His wife, 23-year-old Amanda Rodrigues, was placed into, then released from custody, but a second autopsy performed by chief pathologist to the stars Michael Baden has not ruled out homicide.

It's yet another similarity of these tragedies that a full account is unlikely to emerge. What is evident, however, is the manner in which both McNair and Gatti have been mourned by their public. More often than not, the men have been described as "warriors" -- McNair for his ability to withstand vicious hits from lineman during his playing days, Gatti for his ability to absorb his opponents' punches and continue fighting.

George Willis' New York Post article title reminds us that "Gatti really was a warrior", a sentiment confirmed by HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg, who has called Gatti, "one of the legendary warriors in boxing." ("Gatti Really was a Warrior" 12 July 2009) For McNair's part, the warrior moniker has been thrown around with such abandon that it's prompted an "outraged cataloguing" on the sports blog, Deadspin.

The popularity of both Gatti and McNair, and their "warrior" status, stems in large part from their ability to "play with pain", as the cliché goes. In both football and boxing, sports where hyper-masculinity remains an unabashed virtue, these athletes attracted praise, from both male and female fans, because the two indeed resemble warriors in the most traditional sense: they were skilled in arenas of physical competition and able to shrug off injury. In that way, McNair, Gatti, and others belong to a kind of warrior class, by which physical prowess, endurance, and violence are values that we reward with fame and financial success.

That's not to say that football or boxing lack skill or sophistication, but neither is it to deny that the brute struggle of martial warfare has its own place for precision and strategy. With the rise of guns and Predator drones, though, the social emphasis on hand-to-hand combat has all but disappeared, leaving a cultural void that is filled, in part, by sports. The collisions and concussions of Western sports in some way allow fans to exorcise a kind of cultural bloodlust, whose primitive roots also take modern expression as violent spectacle in film, television, video games, and elsewhere.

Of course in these two cases, bloodlust has given way to bloodletting. The spectacle of violent conflict (though naturally very real for the athletes) is not meant to manifest itself as actual violence beyond the arena of sports. Still, can the separation between sports violence and lived violence be made so neatly?

Murder, obviously, is not a part of sports. It may come to affect athletes, but probably not in any disproportionate ratio. And it would be too simple to say that, because McNair and Gatti were paid to absorb violence for entertainment, their murders were unavoidable. There are likely a number of factors, unique to each case, which resulted in their tragic deaths. Among these, it should be noted, is the cliché of the hysterical "woman scorned". Writer John Fennelly's article,

"Steve McNair and Arturo Gatti: Two Scorned Women and Two Lost Warriors" perhaps manages to encapsulate both sets of stereotypes before warning ominously that "society is setting itself up for more incidents like the ones above." (Bleacher Report, 13 July 2009)

Still, it is at the very least ironic that McNair's ability to complete a pass in the face of a blitzing safety, or Gatti's endurance in his brutal slugfests with "Irish" Mickey Ward, occasioned the considerable popularity which led, in turn, to their troubled, now allegedly deadly, relationships. As professional practitioners of socially-sanctioned violence, both McNair and Gatti became victims of an extreme exaggeration of what they were paid to endure.

Again, the shift from willingly absorbing violence for the sake of spectacle to losing one's life to it is not a neat progression of A to B. But the similarities of the McNair and Gatti cases should give us pause to consider the relationship between the social value placed on violence in the form of sports and the ways in which that violence might cross sports' often blurred and ill-defined barriers. If, to quote a t-shirt slogan, "Life is sports", and (in many cases) "sports" means (organized, ritualized) violence, then can we take anything away from this dual tragedy beyond cliché?

If so, it may be just an encouragement for deeper thinking. It's far too simplistic to say that athletes who play violent sports are destined to meet violent ends. Such a claim, by itself, ignores the underreported cases of athletes being involved in violent acts themselves. (Gatti, for example, had been earlier issued a restraining order to keep away from his wife after allegedly assaulting her.) Instead, we might do better to examine the ways in which sports -- often understood an escape from "the real world" -- are indeed part of the real world, subject to its influence, even as it influences real lives.

The game does not simply end with the final whistle or last bell, and its complex realities and corresponding values can't neatly be packaged into ready-made clichés. Rather, sports leads us invariably back to life, and all the complicated uncertainties that attend it.

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