Monday, August 10

The Steel Trap Of The Internet Age

I would much prefer to begin the week here at ASD talking about the great action from UFC 101 over the weekend particularly Anderson Silva treating Forrest Griffin like a kid brother or the races heating up in baseball (except in the AL East). However, since the story was broken by Deadspin about Rangers outfielder and apparent poster boy for born-again redemption Josh Hamilton falling out of sobriety in January, something that has been in my mind since starting the blog and has grown ever since needs to be said. Forgive the meandering of thoughts and length but I am writing this without notes and off the top of my head so the end result may be different than intended but the point will hopefully remain clear and you will take time to read this and reflect on it in your own mind.

Let me begin by saying this is not a personal attack on Hamilton. If anything I am supportive of his situation. Like many in the sports world I watched with admiration and hope when seeing Hamilton's story of coming back from the depths of depression and drug addiction to make the majors. It was hard not to pull for the guy after hearing from his loved ones, himself, and his wife. If people who follow sports had not heard the Hamilton story in full years ago, they certainly became familiar after last year's home run derby. Everyone knew his story, used it as inspiration, and even used it to make some profit (hey this is America after all). It was a story everyone could get behind; the religiously devout pointed to Hamilton's faith as the cornerstone to his successful turnaround, his "Special Assignment coach" with the Rangers Johnny Narron was the guiding light as Josh traversed the mire of temptation on the road in MLB, Josh's wife has stood by him no matter what, and overall we love the underdog/redemption story in this country do we not (unless it involves killing a lot of dogs)?

The bad taste left in my mouth from this story is not that Hamilton made a mistake at a bar in Tempe, it is how things have changed and what makes my feel even more ill is that I cannot completely take the moral high ground and argue it is all for the worse. If anything, Hamilton should be commended for not denying that he made a mistake and immediately releasing a statement and later holding a press conference addressing the situation. This issue is not really about Josh, who has something inherently dangerous within him in the form of addiction and being a now famous athlete is constantly surrounded by pitfalls. The issue is us, and how do we handle what we are, what we've become and reconcile where we have been.

Hamilton's exposed night of debauchery was at first brushed off by the mainstream media, but after the photos were confirmed, they picked up the story. TWWL at first refused to give Deadspin credit for the photos (I don't know if they have now) but other media outlets have. Once again sports blogs take the heat for reporting on true events and Deadspin has definitely heard from detractors. The same issue arose when the Erin Andrews story came about. While Catfish and I both believe Deadspin was irresponsible about posting the website the video originated from and then giving wafer-thin apologies afterward, the same question came into AJ Daulerio's head that would have come into any of ours about these issues: this is the reality of professional sports in the 21st century and if I do not post this somebody will won't they?

While the main goal of the huge sites like Deadspin are to generate hits the question becomes much easier to answer and crusty old sportswriters who write for internet sites but ironically criticize it constantly felt it was there obligation to waddle onto the soapbox and rail against the grammatically-challenged and inherently "evil" blogs which are leading society into a pit of moral degradation and corruption. I find the old nay-saying writers more objectionable because of their two-faced nature. The new age of sports coverage has either bolstered the careers of these talking heads or wiped them off the news presses and moved them online, yet they still cannot accept the truth.

Excuse the digression, back to the task at hand. I do not believe the internet has given birth to this desire within sports fans to know every detail about an athlete's infidelities, drunken escapades, and legal issues. The desire was always there, we just never had a medium like the internet (thanks Al Gore!) that could give us the instant information and seedy details. Let's take a look at Mickey Mantle, one of the most, if not the most, beloved athletes of his time. For the baby boomers, Mantle was a world-class hero, a god among men and rightfully so. Here he was, the leader of the Yankees, a man who played the game with a boy's passion and could belt one over the wall at anytime. However, Mickey struggled early on from alcohol addiction and many believe it contributed to health problems he suffered in his career. Many of the fans knew this or had heard rumors during his playing days or in the years following his retirement. However, Mantle is still to this day seen as a role-model and hero to thousands if not millions of people.

In Mantle's time the media access was quite different. The press could be as unrelenting as they are today but there were no twitter updates, internet blogs, or camera phones. In fact, most of the writers traveled with the team and became friendly with the ballplayers if not good friends. Maybe it was these limitations that allowed Mickey to rise in stardom while his demons surrounded him and the public cheered on. Years later in an amazing Sports Illustrated story which you can read here thanks to greatness that is the SI Vault, Mantle's alcoholism was brought to the center of attention. In the movie 61* which chronicled the home run chase of 1961 of Roger Maris and Mantle, Mickey's off the field problems were addressed in sometimes strong detail. The film also gives a good idea of the pressure the press put on Maris which were no different from today's standards but again with different technology.

This begs the question and issue that runs through my mind: Would Mantle have been able to achieve the greatness and inspiration to others he had in his era if he played the game today? The simple answer seems to be no. These issues used to be kept confidential or swept under the rug but now they are a matter of public record. People like to say that sports are "more than just a game" and the coverage lately has certainly held true to that statement. Besides the baseball races into August and football starting up, we are inundated by stories about athletes shooting themselves in their leg, getting sued by hotel employees for sexual assault, and a myriad of other issues which have nothing to do with the "game".

One thing that no rational person can deny is that we cannot go back to the way things were. For better or worse, sports is big business which has led to the media coverage being big business. We will have to live without heroes as we knew them. I do not think there will ever be another Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, or even Michael Jordan now that we are privy to the lives of athletes as we are now. The popularity will continue to be there, but the mythic quality of their feats will become common knowledge, even if that knowledge is based on a murky vision of the person and rumors of their escapades. Now that David Ortiz has been lumped into a positive test, people will never look at his historic 2004 post-season performance the same. Albert Pujols is loosely seen as the one shining beacon of hope for not using PEDs but there will never be absolute trust. MJ was king while he played but since he has been become merely a brand of himself and it is not above the internet to post a picture of him enjoying himself in Cabo. LeBron would be most people's choice but the microscope is simply magnified too high; look no further than the ridiculous clamor that arose from him getting "dunked on".

Now we are now facing the closing of a gap of humanization of our athletes while the profits they generate for themselves and others continue to widen. I admire most athletes we have in our sports, but I doubt I can ever trust one again to be something above what we all are as people. Perhaps this is the best case scenario for us all because it is the truth or maybe the realm of sports was better off in the days when athletes were a symbol of the virtues we aspired to. It is certainly a problem that will persist in my head as we move forward through this century of sports.

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