Sanctification of Sports Stars is Silly

By Becky O'Malley
Friday January 18, 2013 - 01:27:00 PM

The endless brouhaha over whether or not various athletic performers have used external substances to enhance their performance is ridiculous. It makes about as much sense as being shocked to discover that screen stars from Marilyn Monroe to Madonna have peroxided their hair.

Yes, sports fans, that body you see on your huge screen is very likely altered to improve the viewing experience. Lance Armstrong now admits he used testosterone.

That’s showbiz, kids. Get over it already.

Contrary to what many seem to believe, contemporary sporting events are not religious ceremonies, as the ancient Olympics sometimes were. They are entertainment, pure and simple, and, like other entertainers, athletes like Lance make many adjustments to their genetic endowment. 

All athletes, pro and amateur, exercise their bodies vigorously to optimize their abilities, just as both actors and housewives spend hours at the gym to perfect their figures, and no one complains about any of these groups trying to alter their bodies by physical effort. Arnold Schwarzenegger even parlayed body-building into the stardom which launched him on a successful political career. 

But when some athletes, professional performers on the most lucrative of stages, use natural or synthetic chemicals, whether rubbed on the body, injected or swallowed, to achieve the same goals, the press goes ballistic and public opinion follows. Presumably this opprobrium does not yet extend to consuming Ultra SlimFast or smoothies with added protein powder, but maybe it should. 

It has been said that using chemistry to build athletes’ bodies is bad because it has dangerous long-term health effects. How hypocritical is that, in the context of a sports industry which continues to subject football players and boxers to proven brain damage?  

In today’s godless culture, some say our sanctified sports stars should be held to a higher standard because they’re ‘role models’. Why should kids model themselves unrealistically on nature’s outliers? 

Checking Google News for the latest on the Armstrong soap opera, I clicked on a CNN piece about a Victoria’s Secret model who has taken on the task of telling other young women that her success is 99% good genes, that virtue and hard work had little to do with it. She worries, quite rightly, that teenaged girls are comparing themselves unfavorably to models that, through no fault of their own, they have no hope of imitating. Even though models diet and exercise and often take drugs and have surgery to make themselves into what sells in the marketplace, no amount of similar self improvement will turn most of their admirers into stars, she points out. 

Young aspiring athletes need the same kind of advice. The supposed “role models” in sports are naturally gifted, though they might improve on what Mother Nature provided through training and even, god forbid, chemistry. 

College sports, just like overtly commercial sports, are entertainment, not education. And the vast majority in the legions of boys who star on their high school teams will never be able to make a living even in the quasi-professional arena of college football, let alone in the big leagues.  

A not-very-beefy young man of my acquaintance, a valued player on the varsity football team in a local high school, is now struggling with junior college, for which he is ill-prepared academically, because he was led by his coach to believe that football was his future—but even steroids can’t make him big enough for the bigtime. There are endless dreary stories in circulation now about bad things that happen to some kids who do make those college teams, at Penn State and Notre Dame and even U.C. Berkeley. 

The most pathetic recent instance is the sad case of Notre Dame’s Manti T’eo. Sports writers desperate for copy fawned over his fabricated tale of a dying girlfriend without checking whether or not it was true. And why should they? Heroes don’t lie—or do they? 

And now young women are chasing the same chimeras. This week’s Science Times had a feature on athletes who believe that they have strategically improved themselves in a variety of ways. One woman has quit her job to spend all her time on triathlons—luckily she seems to have a partner who supports her financially. Another changed from figure skating to rowing in order to get a scholarship to Brown University—and what good will rowing do for either her or Brown by the time she’s 50? At least some figure skating is kind of artistic…. 

A quick study of recent published statistics from one high-status formerly-all-boys university seems to show that close to a third of those offered early admission this year were recruited as athletes for significant sports, which at this school are still the big male sports, though it’s now co-ed. Similar numbers coming from Yale were reported in U.S. News in 2010. But the girls get these breaks too—one female volleyball player of my acquaintance was offered early admission to an Ivy before she’d even applied there.  

Yes, exercise does improve overall health, and competition makes exercise more fun, but the way exercise as entertainment is viewed in our culture is much too sanctimonious. The recent spectacle of uptight sports writers refusing to “enshrine” a few professional baseball players in their Hall of Fame because they might or might not have used performance-enhancing substances just looks silly to those who don’t worship at that shrine. Existing enshrinees were guilty of many more transgressions, and worse ones, like tolerating exclusion of African-Americans from the big leagues for a half-century. 

For many readers ( the same people who are annoyed that their cable systems include obligatory sports channels which they must pay for but never watch) the heavy breathing about athletes using drugs which dominates the front page of their daily paper is just desperately boring. Who cares, really, if Lance Armstrong or Barry Bonds used steroids, or for that matter how many nose jobs Michael Jackson had?  

At the end of the day, as they say in the trade, That’s Entertainment, isn’t it?