The Pop Culture Death Trap Part 1: The Athlete as Hieroglyph

Graeme Abernethy

In a money- and youth-driven culture that seems to understand nearly all human activity as part of a contest, death, like poverty, has come to be associated, however imprecisely, with losing.

In life, our greatest preoccupation is death; is it not then, curious to study the different ways by which the soul and body can part; and how, according to their different characters, temperaments, and even the different customs of their countries, different persons bear the transition from life to death, from existence to annihilation?

-- Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

The words above are spoken, in Dumas’ outrageous, endless, mesmerizing 1844 novel, in response to an expression of squeamishness in advance of what once passed for a kind of spectator sport: the public execution of an “infamous scoundrel” convicted of killing a churchman with a log. The bloody event, during which the murderer is clubbed to death “like an ox” before being stomped on, takes place in a festive atmosphere, quite literally kicking off the Carnival in Rome. In setting the gruesome scene, Dumas describes the children scrambling onto their mothers’ shoulders to secure the clearest views.

Despite the temptations of professing a superior civility, we might observe that such morbid pageantry has not vanished from our culture. It has become submerged or encoded in more seemingly respectable, if still plainly violent, forms. Once these traces were most visible in boxing’s partisan brutality, with national and race heroes (and villains) presented as embodiments of absolute good or evil. Now, this half-repressed blood thirst is observable, at least in my country, in the cult of hockey, with its parade of infractions, minor and major, or in football, not least in those brief, hushed pauses that descend on stadiums for the carting-off of the injured – the symbolic dead. (At the age of 13, after perhaps two hours of off-ice training and orientation, I spent one of the most miserable afternoons of my life attempting to referee a novice hockey game. The difficulty was not only in commanding the encyclopedia of rules and hand signals and applying them to the disorder of young children learning to play a sport, but in withstanding the audible criticisms of the assembled hockey parents in the stands as I attempted to do so while wearing a zebra-striped shirt. I never put on the black helmet again.)

Death is also the subtext of our fixation upon the trials, triumphs, and comebacks of aging athletes, from Peyton Manning and Brett Favre to Roger Clemens and Chipper Jones. Such figures are typically only heralded as among the greatest in their respective fields when they willingly, publicly, and convincingly defy death for precisely as long as is (rather arbitrarily) deemed humanly possible. Athletes whose bodies break down through accident or attrition are diminished in those debates about the all-time greats that rely upon the logic of “longevity”. According to such thinking, Sandy Koufax, Bobby Orr, and Bill Walton are lesser greats than Walter Johnson, Wayne Gretzky, and Moses Malone, and 2011 MVP Derrick Rose must not retire or lick his wounds. He must (again) prove his worth by staging a rousing comeback from his ACL tear last April.

Our favorite athletes are certainly well paid for such exemplary defiance. Without ever quite saying so, however, we reserve as our share of this contract the right to demand of them little less than perfection. In other words, we choose to subject professional athletes to a clear double standard, weighing their performance as people against our notions of heroic perfection with a curious mixture of reason and unreason. According to the terms of this pact, the modern athlete is deemed worthy of suspicion when he wallows in injury; the harshest sort of criticism is set aside for those perceived to loaf while continuing to cash highly enviable checks. As their slumps, arrests, and surgeries show, they do remain stubbornly if inevitably human.

It can be argued that we get the athletes we deserve or, rather, that we pay for. Occupy Wall Street, whatever it may have been or will become, appears to drag on rather lamely when compared with the almost religious consumerist zeal with which sports fans willingly consign significant portions of their wages to augment the fanciful lifestyles of the mythical 1%, a figure presumably including not only Mayweather, Bryant, Mickelson, and Woods, but Paul Allen and Roman Abramovich. The cost of our largely unrequited desire for the perfect athlete is surely exponentially greater than the career earnings of Vince Carter and the roster of the New York Knicks circa 2006 combined.

A condition of our worship, as fans, is that athletes be seen to give their utmost until they no longer can, ideally without much more than a little wobble from their best form along the way. Each sport, and each generation, has its own favored exemplars, from Babe Ruth to Ray Robinson to Jim Brown. It's in this generational aspect that we, however reluctantly, acknowledge through sports the inevitability of death, even for our heroes, though we defer acceptance of their departure from their sport by insisting on their occasional resurrection for a Hall of Fame speech, a Finals game appearance, and so on.

Just as sports fans enforce a convoluted code of conduct for an athlete’s career, we expect them to retire (or symbolically die) gracefully, as well: to take their place in the pantheon, to be remembered mostly by way of old video clips, to not be scandalous, broke, resentful, or unhappy. To be Hank Aaron or Bill Russell, in other words – a prospect more and more unlikely in today’s relentless media circus. A case in point is a more recent sporting icon raised to unprecedented heights by a trio of crucial factors: his undeniable excellence by any statistical measure; his domination of an era with no shortage of other major stars in sporting and celebrity terms; and his occupation of a privileged place in vivid memory, a fact driven home by the sheer capitalist force to which he was allied.

While this may appear hyperbolic to those too young to have witnessed it, I will say what others have written before me: that watching Michael Jordan play basketball in the '90s was easily among the most satisfying aesthetic pleasures of the period. And, while those of us alive and conscious at the time experienced his successes as decidedly modern media events, though filtered now seemingly rather quaintly through television and print media rather than the internet, his career unfolded with a unique symmetry that combined style with substance, adversity with triumph, and conformed to a more classical kind of heroic model. Jordan – part Superman, part Achilles, part Jesus – appeared on my bedroom wall, and the walls of many others, even grown men, in that ridiculous/amazing “Wings” poster that appeared to my childish eye to be a mile wide.

No stroke of Jordan’s athletic or marketing genius exceeded the artistic flourish of his second retirement, following his second three-peat, in 1998. He displayed a highly developed showman’s impulse in recognizing that retirement, like death, is received as a form of abrupt disappearance from public life. (Jay-Z quite successfully employed, and it can be argued too soon abandoned, a similarly theatrical impulse with his The Black Album [2003] and Fade to Black [2004] film. He wouldn’t spend a year in retirement before collaborating on regrettable albums with R. Kelly and Linkin Park.)

Hence, naturally, our horror at Jordan’s comeback with the Washington Wizards and his subsequent purchase and mismanagement of the Charlotte Bobcats: It's almost as if we wished Jordan had died in 1998, or, at the very least, that he had much more resolutely hidden himself from the scope of our obsessive evaluation. We don’t like to hold any of this against Jordan, honestly we don’t, but as scrupulous men and women and assessors of sporting imperfection, we simply have to make an honest accounting of his basically wasting our time and his own. In this, as in everything else, we are motivated by self-interest. You were perfect, Michael Jordan, and you ruined it, if only just a little. How could you?

While Jordan’s very nearly perfectly stage-managed playing career served as an attractive extended metaphor both for killing (winning all the damn time) and dying heroically (his second retirement), most athletes must be content with lesser parts. Not unlike the more or less undifferentiated corpses of generic “enemies” piled up beside Jeeps or water towers in whichever version of Call of Duty you happen to be most familiar with, athletes enter at least the casual spectator’s range of vision ultimately as kind of sacrificial figures relative to the Michael Jordans or Mike Tysons of the world: inferiors, has-beens, wash-ups, and also-rans cast beneath the wheels of the juggernaut. This inverse relation between elevation and loathing may be attributable to the celebrity culture with which sports have become indissolubly linked. As ESPN’s First Take reliably shows, there is simply less cultural space allotted to Bismack Biyombo than to LeBron James. Our diminishment of the achievements of more ordinary athletes relates to a natural alliance with winning – the exception being when we choose to “live or die,” like good self-sacrificing soldiers, with the fortunes of the long-suffering home team.

It’s difficult to extricate our judgments of these performers, and our notions of losing as a cipher for death, from our perversely tangled beliefs about money and its role in professional sports. Conventional wisdom (or cruelty) tells us that poverty in America is as warranted as riches – that either becomes our lot in proportion to our effort or inherent worth. But, like rogue traders getting paid despite gambling away billions, “unsuccessful” athletes are paid out of proportion to the clearly negative use value of their losing. And, despite what Lakers’ fans will say about Kobe Bryant warranting his $27-million salary, the pay structure of the NBA is as baffling as it is fascinating.

Winning alone does not account for increased pay – such fluid terms as marketability and likeability also play important roles – and for many players (and observers) money appears to be an object equal with winning. For his part, Kobe – as ever, like Jordan – seems almost pathologically aware of the importance of leaving the game in a position of dominance, reminding us he’ll retire before exposing anyone to the uncomfortable spectacle of a $30-million player averaging a sickly 18 points-per-game.

In spite of Kobe’s best efforts to approximate or surpass his idol, there will be no perfect heroes in sports. There is no pure relation between victory and reward. Still, we flatter ourselves, as casual spectators and even as fanatics, that objective analysis is possible, grasping fitfully at athletes and statistics as we would the timbers of a foundered ship in a storm. Through this obsessive gazing and the pleasure we evidently take in these numbers games – the hitting streaks, the wins and losses, the eight-figure signing bonuses, the fines, suspensions, and cancelled contracts – we allow ourselves to escape, if only fleetingly, our own susceptibility to chaos and failure.

In a money- and youth-driven culture that seems to understand nearly all human activity as part of a contest, death, like poverty, has come to be associated, however imprecisely, with losing. The sporting superstars remind us, or rather we remind ourselves, that they are living well, largely, it seems, in an effort to reinforce the security derived from the perimeter fence erected to preserve not the athletes’ privacy but the possibility of their iconic separation from us, the mere spectators. The language of winning is, I suppose, more than just another discarded meme; more generally, it refers to living or living well – to using the system to one’s social, sexual, and material advantage.

The rapper Raekwon has made explicit this linking of poverty with death in “Gorgeous”, stating that, “If you can’t live, you’re dying/ You give or buy in.” The song, a collaboration with current supreme “winner” Kanye West, is presented as a kind of advice manual for modern youth, railing against the indignity of being poor. If the most familiar of today’s professional athletes exist, like Kanye (however disingenuously), among the so-called 1%, they do so, despite their visibility, with more immunity than the investment bankers, who we may resent as much for their comparative anonymity as for their wealth.

The above-quoted Count of Monte Cristo, himself inhumanly rich, defends his taste for the practice of watching people die in the following terms: “As for myself, I can assure you of one thing – the more men you see die, the easier it becomes to die yourself.” Is this the unconscious utility of the accumulated losses – the ritualized deaths – week after week, season after season, observed so intently by the sports fan? Does sports watching harden us against the agonies of compromising, of losing at least most of the time, in our own less celebrated lives? Or is the spectacle somehow a confirmation of our own modest triumph in that, for once, we are unlikely to envy the verifiable losers in the visible finality of their defeat?

Beyond sports, we are frequent spectators of plainly morbid depictions. Whether watching Bane gargle his last in The Dark Knight Rises or scanning bloody YouTube montages for a pre-season-3-refresher, we participate in a longstanding tradition of vicariousness and voyeurism, while further extending contemporary popular culture’s – especially visual culture’s – association of killing with entertainment.

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