Jay Mariotti and the Moral Role

“All the rest of us have families with various different issues,” said Christopher Booth into the array of expectant microphones thrust under his chin. Booth, the attorney for New York Mets pitcher Francisco Rodriguez, was busily spinning his client’s arrest for domestic assault into the realm of the vague and mundane. What he didn’t mention to reporters was the specifics of his client’s arrest for third-degree assault and second-degree harassment. More specifically, Rodriguez was arrested after reportedly punching his girlfriend’s father in the face and slamming his head into a wall.

Booth didn’t really need to get into detail, though, as the sports media had the particulars already well in hand. Those microphones were simply aimed in his direction to provide a contextual counterpart to the popular damnation that was sure to come in the wake of yet another professional athlete’s transgressive violence. Among those voices was AOL Fanhouse lead columnist Jay Mariotti, who lamented Rodriguez’s resulting two-game suspension as woefully insufficient. He placed the blame for a lack of more serious discipline on league commissioner Bud Selig: “The commissioner’s office continues to slap wrists and pedal softly, issuing the kind of mushy, disproportionate penalties that remind us why Selig’s nickname is Bud Light.”

The criticism is typical of Mariotti’s writing, and of the work of American sports columnists generally. The formula for popular sports commentary seems to be equal parts pithiness and outrage, decorated liberally with ready-made clichés. This is not to say that Rodriguez’s behavior, by any objective measure, did not merit condemnation. As a professional athlete, Rodriguez suffering a more serious punishment would serve (on the surface anyway) as a public statement of the league’s position against violence.

Yet even a lengthier suspension would fail to address the bigger issues of family (or near-family) violence in this country. It would similarly not address the paradoxical effects of a cultural premium on explosive physicality within sports (or war, or film, or television, etc.), yet a morally-infused stricture against violence outside of the games themselves. Investigating the broader social context, however, is beyond the purview of Mariotti’s column, as it seems necessarily to be in the case of most sports columnists. While there are undoubtedly exceptions (Dave Zirin springs most quickly to mind), the work of most is merely a litany of ready-made outrage at sports figures which too often misses an opportunity to think beyond the game.

Complicating Mariotti’s one-dimensional indignation is the fact that, less than a week after his column was published, he himself was arrested for suspicion of felony domestic assault. While a verdict has not been rendered in the case, the alleged details involve Mariotti shoving his girlfriend and pulling her hair, causing “cuts and bruises”. We are led to believe that she likely suffered similar “bruising, swelling, abrasions and redness to the head area and pain to [the] neck” that Mariotti himself ascribes in his column to Francisco Rodriguez’s victim.

To simply call Mariotti’s arrest ironic is to further dabble in throwaways, the likes of which are perhaps best left to Alanis Morissette. As well, the Schadenfreude occasioned by this turn of events is better left to the players, coaches, and commissioners who have been targets of Mariotti’s previous columns. What his arrest is most notable for, as usual, is what is not being talked about – namely, what kind of moral social role do we allow columnists like Mariotti to assume for the rest of us?

As expected, AOL suspended Mariotti shortly after details of his arrest were made public. On the surface, it seems like an appropriate response. What’s implied with Mariotti’s own suspension, however, is that people who are paid to opine about sports must be of a certain moral standing in order to do so. It would seem that columnists serve as a kind of second-level regulation, ready to identify any manner of turpitude that should slip past the leagues’ own regulatory bodies. In order to fulfill this role, they must accordingly be themselves above reproach.

Once vetted, such regulation is carried out in print, over radio waves, and, increasingly, on television. In addition to his written work, Mariotti was a staple on ESPN’s show Around the Horn, a 30-minute round table in which Mariotti and three other guests declaim opinions on a variety of topics and are subsequently graded by the host. As the show’s website explains: “Host Tony Reali and four reporters from across the country debate sports’ hottest stories live via satellite. Tony gives points to the panelists when their points are well-made, but he’ll also deduct points every time he has to use the mute button.

The debate starts with each reporter getting in ‘The First Word’ on the day’s headlines. Then all four are asked to explain why they would ‘Buy or Sell’ a number of concepts, also clipped from the headlines. Only the top three scorers move on to the ‘Out of Bounds’ round and focus the debate on one off-the-field controversy.” I include the full description only to emphasize how neatly the show encapsulates everything that is wrong with sports media coverage today. For the grand finale, viewers are invited to “See which two reporters whine and wit their way to the three-topic, speed-round, ‘The Showdown.’ The winner gets 20 or 30 uninterrupted seconds to opine on sweet victory.”

In a world of 24-hour programming, then, Around the Horn does for ESPN what Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly does for Fox News: fill in large gulfs of empty space between actual news or events by making a fetish of opinion. In the final accounting, these networks are encouraging viewers to consume subjective pronouncements as worthwhile entertainment. But why should anyone care what Jay Mariotti and his ilk think, anyway? (Let it be noted that the same question could be asked of this columnist with equal justification. If I I’ve given the impression that I in some way embody an exception to the work I decry here, I would only say that it is in the attempt and not the execution.)

Readers of columnists like Mariotti are subscribing to the thoughts of individuals who they know no better than the athletes who constitute their frequent targets. As Mariotti’s arrest points out, though, the most outraged among us are no more immune from transgression than anyone else. In that way, Rodriguez’s lawyer had it right when he vaguely noted that we all have “issues”. What this episode points out is that any columnist’s outrage — disguised as opinion, packaged as entertainment — should carry no greater weight of authority than anyone else.

Perhaps with that in mind, sports audiences will turn instead to opinions of a far more satisfying kind: their own.