A CYNICAL BRAND OF AMERICAN MATERIALISM

(from “The Ugly Truth about Sportsmanship” by David Heilbroner)

Violence, greed, and gross immorality are crowding the playing fields of the world – all in the name of winning the game at any cost!

It’s a world of bodyguards, assumed names, and multimillion- dollars ego. It’s a subculture where adolescent hopefuls are thrown into high-stakes, publicity-mad pressure cookers and grow up to face stalkers, crazed fans, and corruption. Welcome to the rich and violent arena of the new star athlete!

Quite a change from the sixties, when players exemplified the ideal of sportsmanship. When competition taught the ethic of being a good loser. When parents pressed their kids into athletics as a form of character building. All that, however, has long since been swept away. Sports is now a business in the megabillion-bucks realm, and its stars dwell as icons at the center of jet-setting entourages. Even the young sign deals that will make them independently wealthy well before they’re out of their teens. But as their fortunes mount, they almost invariably find themselves at the mercy of the darkest elements of our culture. And greed and violence head the list.

Those were the forces that intersected when paid thugs tried to cripple ice queen Nancy Kerrigan, hoping to leave the way clear for Tonya Harding. Suddenly, the public saw that the taint had spread to even the most gentle of noncontact sports.

Witness Mary Pierce, a finalist in the French Open. Back in 1986, having turned eleven and already swinging a tennis racket with the power of a small locomotive, Pierce was pulled out of school to train full-time by her father, Jim, a man filled with ambition for his daughter’s career and blinded by dollar signs. But as Mary Pierce’s star rose, she became expert in some of the unlikely arts that every athlete learns are now as much a part of the sporting life as locker rooms. She kept a rotating staff of bodyguards. She checked into hotels under assumed names. And she had her attorneys return regularly to court for restraining orders.

Jim Pierce had been the typical tennis dad. He pushed his daughter through grueling eight-hour practice sessions, had her watch tennis matches in her hours off the court, threw fits whenever she lost. “I would like to have stayed in school,” Mary told one reporter wistfully, expressing a common complaint heard on the tennis circuit. But her father kept the whole family – Mary, her mother and brother – traveling from tournament to tournament. And as money started rolling in and re-porters gathered to interview his daughter, Jim Pierce – who had taken on the job of Mary’s full-time coach - became obsessed with success. As one family acquaintance said, “When Jim looked out at the court, he saw himself.”

During one match, Pierce slapped the father of another young player, knocking the man to the ground. At an Orange Bowl junior championship match, he screamed to his daughter, “Mary, kill her!” In 1985, officials at the Harry Hopman Tennis academy ejected Jim be-cause of his tirades from the sidelines. At the 1992 French Open, he punched out two fans. At the Barcelona Olympics, he yelled at Mary un-til she was in tears. Still another time, he swore viciously and obscenely at a twelve-year-old opponent of Mary’s who had beaten her.

Mary separated from her father-coach. Today, his picture is passed out to ticket takers with orders to turn him away. Bodyguards remain on full-time alert. And Mary, who regularly paid her father five hundred dollars a week, says life has changed for the better: “It’s like a weight is off me. When I miss a shot, it’s not the end of the world anymore.”

Violence, greed, and corruption are clearly the antitheses of the athletic ideal. On the field – unlike in life – players know the rules in advance, and a ref or a panel of judges watches for infractions. The Olympic gold, the Stanley Cup, the Wimbledon trophy, the Super Bowl and World Series rings – all take their luster from the idealism that underlines the very premise of sportsmanship.

Yet the new wave of brutality and venality reflects some unsetting truths not just about gamesmanship but also about our culture. Violence is a national problem, one that involves crumbling inner cities, failing values, and entertainment media that feed us doses of horror and cruelty so gut-wrenching. TV cameras zoom in every mass murder – whether real-life or fictional. And we don’t even wince. Sports figures are entertainers, after all, and violence is part of the entertainment game. As is money. Athletes now dream of nailing fat endorsement deals – along with gold medals. If bludgeoning your opponent or taking steroids will get them for you, so be it.



These new values of the playing field all seem part of a widespread and cynical brand of American materialism. Young hopefuls look at this country’s rich and powerful – from politicians to trial lawyers to Wall Street traders – and learn the same lesson that landed Tonya Harding in criminal court: It’s winning that counts, not how you play the game.

(People, June 13, 2000)

Notes

1. adolescent hopefuls – молодежь, подающая большие надежды;

2. the taint had spread to even the most gentle of noncontact sports – грязь (коррупция) распространилась даже в самом изящном из неконтактных видов спорта (зд. фигурное катание).


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