The Play's the Thing: Public Shaming of Pro Athletes

What no one in Congress will admit: morality in sports is pure theater.

"…the play's the thing/ Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king." -- Hamlet

Drama, in all its forms, propels the sports world. Whether it's a heated match-up of rivals, a close game with time running out, or off-field intrigue, what makes for compelling story lines in professional athletics is the same stuff that makes for good theater. In fact, it's not a stretch to say that sports is theater -- simply held in the round and with the outcome (usually) undecided.

The latest example of athletic theatrics has unfolded with the tale of Roger Clemens, one of baseball's most successful, most revered pitchers. He's also the most recent to fall under suspicion for using performance-enhancing drugs. Clemens was among a number of players whose names surfaced in the infamous Mitchell report, which details the findings of a congressional investigation into steroid use in professional baseball. In part, the report reveals that one Brian McNamee, a personal trainer and strength coach to several pro baseballers, admitted to giving human growth hormone supplements to his clients. Chief among these is Clemens.

For his part, the pitcher -- known by his explosive nickname, "the Rocket" -- has long denied his involvement with performance-enhancing drugs. Even as his performance level surges while other pitchers his age have long since retired, Clemens has put his success down to "hard work". In light of the Mitchell report's release, Clemens has grown even more vehement in his protestations of innocence. Most visibly, his case was made in the form of congressional testimony.

Clemens, flanked by his lawyers, sat before a committee to refute McNamee's version of events. The ex-trainer was there too, seated across an aisle in a separate table and relating his side of the story. Before both of them was a clutch of eager photographers, jostling for position in their bid to capture images of these former friends turned antagonists. Above it all, the members of Congress sat on raised platforms, looking down their noses as the conflicting testimony unfolded before them.

The whole scene (and I use the term advisedly here) was reminiscent of earlier testimony on the same subject, in which former baseball players, including Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and Sammy Sosa, were called to Congress to give evidence in a previous investigation into performance-enhancing drug use in professional baseball. And much like the probably result of the Clemens hearing, little came of the proceedings. No sentences were handed down, no suspensions given, and no confessions were drawn out. At the end of considerable pomp and at a cost of untold dollars, the only tangible effect of either hearing was the damage wrought upon the accused's reputations, all of whom have since been relegated to the murky margins of their sport -- not quite officially condemned for their actions, yet inextricably cast in a guilty gloom.

For all the rhetoric about "getting to the bottom" of the steroid mess, however, this tainting of character is the precise and only function of events like the congressional hearings. Rather than a criminal hearing, which is designed to assign guilt or innocence, congressional hearings in these instances perform a very different job. Namely, these shows are a kind of public theater, put on as a way to give institutional weight and sanction to the shaming of the athletes.

The very physical orientation of the event space accomplishes this, lofting the congress members above the athletes, while placing at their feet a herd of photographers to thrust lenses upward, into their faces. The arrangement alone reminds viewers that these rule-breakers (whether guilty or not) are subject to both the power of institutional authority (the committee), as well as the gaze of public perception (the photographers).

Whether or not such an investigation yields actual, legally-biding results is quite beside the point. In an institution known for its division and dysfunction, it should come as no surprise to find that the committee members in Clemens case seemed to divide on the question of guilt along party lines. Republicans were primed to offer the benefit of the doubt (one calling him "a titan in baseball") while Democrats voiced outrage (one decrying Clemens behavior as "disgusting"). A less objective, less qualified judiciary body could hardly be found.

Still, such hearings are not held for legal purposes, but moral ones. By repositioning Clemens in front of an array of governance (however ineffective), the ethos of sports, with its emphasis on fair play, sportsmanship, and good character, is underscored for the audience. Harmony is reinforced here through ritual action, not through the more conventional means of verdicts and "closure".

Nor does one need a congressional committee to produce the same effect. Sports transgressions are more commonly normalized through the press conference. Though not as elaborate in setting or tone, press conferences reproduce the same drama, for the same effect. Marion Jones tearfully apologizes for her own steroid use, for example. Martina Hingis wearily retires from tennis after testing positive for cocaine. For every wrongdoing in professional sports, it seems, there is a press conference to frame the event. Athletes are brought before the cameras and sat (or stood) in front of microphones.

This has the ostensible effect of broadcasting the event for viewers, but it more accurately subjects the misbehaving athlete in question to the eyes and ears of public scrutiny. It also effectively shames them by re-enacting the public dimension of their misdeed.

Though Jones and Hingis are two of the latest to be thrust upon the press conference stage, one athlete who seems to spend as much time in that position as on the court is NBA star Allen Iverson. While he has enjoyed tremendous individual success, Iverson has been dogged by accusations of egotism and of being a bad teammate -- particularly in the beginning of his career. Famously, Iverson railed about the absurdity of having to attend "practice" (spitting the word out with disgust dozens of times in a two minute period) during a press conference in Philadelphia.

Since then, however, Iverson's familiarity with the theatrics of the press conference has grown, and his appearances have come to reflect a heightened awareness of the cultural dynamics at work in such an event. These days, when he does come to conferences, Iverson is usually accompanied by one or more of his young children, who tend to squirm distractedly on his lap as he fields questions. The effect is remarkable. Not only do the children deflect focus from Iverson himself, but they also reframe his position in the press conference drama as a father, not just an athlete. He's no longer someone to hold up and shame, or, if he is, his image now complicates the equation and deflects potential censure.

Iverson recognizes what no one in Congress will admit: morality in sports relies on purposed theatrics. By holding up the offender to public scrutiny, shame is assigned and order is generally restored. (It should be noted that Michael Vick's press conference did little to correct his infraction. Actual legal proceedings were called for.) Whether or not charges are proven, though, it is the act of these events that takes precedence, not the outcome.

The same idea must have been in Prince Hamlet's mind when he orchestrated the play about a king's murder to be performed for his own fratricidal uncle. Did he expect Claudius to confess and abdicate upon seeing the drama before him? Unlikely. Instead -- Hamlet, like the press, like Congress -- uses public theater to shame bad behavior and restore a sense of justice. Tellingly, it's not the king he's after, it's his "conscience". Though many misbehaving pro athletes are seen as "caught" when they appear at these conferences and hearings, it's really our own collective conscience that's been captured.

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