Tuesday, February 10, 2009

And Bruce Begat A-Rod

I blame Steven Spielberg.

I don't think he did it intentionally, mind you. But when he cobbled together Jaws, hiding a defective mechanical shark behind isn't-or-isn't-it there cinematography, he ushered in the age of the blockbuster, the mindset that says that everything's got to be the biggest, the best, the most important or the most catastrophic. And, like it or not, we haven't been the same since.

It's what brings us the Super Bowl in its current incarnation, the NFL recast as Roman gladiators fighting to the death for the noblest of causes. It's what brings us local news reports that breathlessly ask "Is Your Child's Favorite Popsicle A Killer?", to be followed by "This Common Household Cleaner Could Kill You!" and "Killer Secrets Of Your Lawn Care!", day by day by day. It means that movies that stick around more than two weeks are huge, and ones that don't are flops, and there is no middle ground. It means that every pretty young thing who got fifteen minutes in CW teen show is suddenly the hottest thing ever, until next week and she's in the "Where are they now?" file. It's all or nothing, do or die, and every breaking story has to be bigger and more important and fraught with more significance than the one before.

Seriously. How many "games of the century" have we had in college football so far this millennium? Six? Seven? And yet when the next one comes along, we line up for it like suckers, because THIS one is EVEN BIGGER.

Or so they would have us believe.

Part and parcel of all this, of course, is the fact that when you're in blockbuster land, nuance goes out the window. There's no room for the subtleties, the idea that there's more to anything than a simple hero/villain narrative. There's no place for context or a framing narrative, no examination of what the supposedly villainous or heroic act means. It's just the punchline, howled over and over into the echo chamber of a culture where we the mob howls to itself and thinks it's getting its voice heard.

Which brings us to the unfortunate case of Alex Rodriguez. In short, he did steroids, which are a no-no. He did them in a time when there were no penalties attached and he apparently stopped, none of which matters, as the only part of the narrative that has made it to the mainstream is "A-ROD IS A CHEATER".

Well, yeah. But there's more, there's always more. There's the fact that the test results that got leaked should have been destroyed years ago. And the fact that they're evidence in a trial, and leaking them is in fact a federal crime. And the fact that they were leaked right as the Barry Bonds trial - itself looking more and more like an out-of-control boondoggle - is heating up. And the reporter who broke the story has a history with Rodriguez, and has a book on him coming out soon. And there's no real evidence that PEDs as a class actually do enhance performance. And why are PEDs bad when LASIK surgery isn't, and why is it no big deal that the 1970s Steelers were all 'roided out of their minds when they were winning Super Bowls but 5-year old test results on A-Rod are news now, and why do we loathe A-Rod and not give a damn about Paul Byrd or Guillermo Mota, and...

You get the idea. It's the blockbuster concept, the thing that gets the normally levelheaded Jayson Stark to view this as the final torching of baseball's bridge to its past. At best, it's emotional thinking; at worst it's lazy and malicious, a cheapshot for the sake of seizing unstable moral high ground. I'm sorry, but I don't need an admitted steroid user like Mike Golic telling me how bad this is for baseball. I don't need the same reporters who lionized Roger Clemens until they feasted on his flesh to moan about the betrayal of the game's ideals. I don't need Vinnie from Saugus to write obscenity-filled "comments" on the end of overblown ESPN.com op-eds proclaiming Rodriguez' entire career - a career in which even his sandbagging former manager has admitted that he worked harder than anyone - the worst thing ever to happen to baseball. All it does is distract from the real problem, and allow for false band-aid solutions that can conveniently be ripped off whenever we need a new blood sacrifice on the front page.

In a sane and just world, we'd be worrying about other problems than this right now. Economic panic, war, genocide, disease, looming environmental changes and more - these are the things we should be getting upset about. In a slightly saner and more just world, we'd at least look at all the aspects of the story before rushing online with our imaginary pitchforks and torches. But we're in the world we're in, which means that A-Rod will be tried, convicted and tried again in the star chamber of semi-public opinion because it makes good copy, and because we like to see the mighty fall. All the rest - all the things we'd want taken into consideration if it were us in the spotlight - is details, chaff in the wind. Eventually, it will all blow away, roughly around the time the outrage well is running dry. There'll be a new greatest scandal ever, and another one after that, and another one after that.

And the stuff that matters, the stuff that's important - whether it's the context around the blockbuster accusation, or the truly horrifying stuff like the Rae Carruths and Ugie Urbinas and Ambiorix Burgoses and so forth - gets ignored because it doesn't fit the blockbuster story mode. A scrub wide receiver or middle reliever isn't a big enough villain, after all. Contradictory evidence doesn't make for a good enough story. Time and again, we'll go for the big target and the easy shot.

Maybe, honestly, it's because PEDs aren't really a big deal. We can turn on Bonds and Clemens and Palmiero and McGwire, can pretend they've let us down horribly because there's nothing too terrible about having rooted for a guy who may have cheated. Look too closely at an Urbina, though, and we have to confess that we actively cheered on a guy who went after another human being with gasoline and a machete. Demand blood with Carruth, and you admit that once upon a time, we rooted for a cowardly, despicable murderer. That makes us feel bad, makes us question the blind loyalty we give our sports teams and heroes. And we can't have that sort of thing, so we turn on the big names who've committed the minor infractions to make ourselves feel superior, and to give our fandom easy absolution.

It makes sense, as unpleasant a thought as it may be. Blockbuster movies are ones with lots of explosions, lots of inhuman feats of derring-do, and not a lot of nuance. In the end, they make you feel good. No wonder we demand the same from our scandals, again and again and again.
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