I’m really grateful for excellent bloggers like JR Atwood at Playthink. JR has again prompted me to write an entry that is essentially a response/reflection on one of his recent posts. JR’s post has a highlight section of the discussion between Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell about sport celebrity…that, to me, goes nowhere. The topic of the part of the discussion posted in JR’s blog is about the public reaction to sports-celebrities’ behaviors, and how “random” those reactions appear to be.
While a fascinating topic in itself, that conversation really goes nowhere. There are no answers in the end. Why?
That’s the reason for this post.
I’m confused by the Gladwell/Simmons conversation. They only talk around their subject-matter, describing it, but not uncovering anything.
What’s strange to me is that neither of them points out that expectations of (or reactions-to) professional athletes and their behavior are entirely fabricated. They’re created by the media, the consensus-view of the commentators, and the consensus-view of the viewers. Granted, that’s a vague statement, but stick with me for a second.
What I’m saying is that there is no “strict moral ground” by which to judge the behavior of celebrity athletes (or any celebrity, for that matter). Instead, the reaction is more a conflagration of the “public image” of that athlete, the media’s reaction/billing of the behavior, and the public’s buy-in to that billing.
I don’t think the reaction has anything to do with the “volatility of statistics.” Stats are meaningless if a game is “infinite” (played for its own sake, to continue playing, as opposed to played to win). Therefore, the value of stats is agreed-upon before the sport is begun. The rules are laid out. “This is a finite game. It is played to win. Therefore, we keep track of everything.”
This is also a cultural creation. What are the meaning of statistics? The meaning, like the meaning of celebrity athletes’ behavior, is culturally created. What is the meaning of one or several players taking performance-enhancing drugs (PED’s) and thereby skewing those stats? How can one really know?
At this point, I’d like to turn to the PED discussion. Because it does highlight what’s happening underneath this discussion of celebrity-athlete behavior and public reaction.
Here’s the deal, and here’s what fascinates me the most – This “debate” itself is a game.
It’s similar to the “healthcare debate” entry I posted. Till cultural change occurs that supports all of the talk about healthcare change/promotion, any talk about healthcare is mere lip-service. No true change can occur until the culture will support that change.
Similarly, until a systematized, reliable, regular, and transparent method of testing athletes for PED’s is put into place, there’s no real telling what the “true” stats are.
Along with any other specifics about the subject matter they propound on, Gladwell and Simmons don’t discuss the testing policies/procedures in place now, or the history behind those policies.
While they were “banned” in 1991, “random” drug testing was only started in MLB in 2001. Steroids were only banned in the NBA in 1999. And, though steroids were “banned” in the NFL in 1990, loopholes were found in 2005 that allowed Carolina Panthers players to be prescribed banned substances two weeks prior to the 2004 Superbowl. (go here for the USA Today article outlining the last two references).
I put “random,” and “banned’ in quotes above, because, to the best of my knowledge, testing is far from random, and (as in the case of the Panthers), performance-enhancing substances are far from truly banned. Instead, players are tested who will test positive. Occasionally, a scapegoat may be needed, or someone out of which to make an example, and they’ll be tested. Or, someone from outside the organization will report unfavorable news and the whole thing will blow up.
My point about testing, above, is to say that the stats are already skewed. It’s impossible to know what the true stats are for sports until everyone is tested. If that’s your goal.
But I don’t think that it is.
This site has a nice “news-based” overview of drugs in sports, that shows clearly that athletes have always used “performance-enhancing drugs” of some sort or other. So the question I come to is not whether or not PED’s should be banned, or whether or not they’re skewing sporting outcomes, but what the game is behind this discussion.
What is the purpose of organized sports? “Bread and circus?” – that is, a distraction for the masses?
For those who believe that organized sports are simply there because so many people enjoy watching them, I strongly disagree. At the point at which a thing becomes a multi-billion dollar industry, people’s enjoyment, as being free from coercion, diminishes exponentially.
So if it doesn’t really matter…that is, if there’s no way to know what the “real” stats are, and there’s no “real” ground by which to judge a (any) celebrity’s behavior, what are we talking about here?
I don’t think we’re really talking about anything. Certainly nothing of importance. Just surface characteristics of a much larger dynamic.
It’s like talking about the weather. How is it? The city-slicker hates the rain, the farmer loves it. Same rain.
But hate it or love it, there it is.
Why do we talk about the weather? It’s easier than doing something. It’s easier than admitting that we have no control over it. Comfort? I don’t know…you tell me.