Sports

07.06.11

Pro Sports’ Hero Deficit

Today’s athletes are dutiful and dull compared with the iconic and inimitable superstars of yesteryear. Buzz Bissinger on why there are no more outsize characters in pro sports.

I picked up the most recent copy of Sports Illustrated a couple of days ago. I rarely pay much attention to the cover, but this particular one enticed and would not let go. It was a picture of Yogi Berra taken in his prime as a New York Yankee catcher, highlighted with the singular American beauty of a Rockwell portrait. One knee scraped the ground, the other one upright. The chest protector was paper-thin with the faded mark of “Spalding” in the top left hand corner. The leg guards were equally humble. So was the face mask.

I don’t know why the picture got to me. Maybe I was just in a mood of syrup-stricken nostalgia, but what I saw was the portrait of a hero who not only played the game with relentless competitiveness but was also one of sport’s greatest characters with the witticisms that floated out of his mouth.

It was Sports Illustrated’s “Where Are They Now?” issue, so some nostalgia was permissible. But the athletes they chose all stood for something. They were characters—maybe naughty such as Joe Namath and Sonny Jurgensen, maybe fiercely proud such as Jim Brown, maybe tough as nails such as Jim Taylor and Sam Huff. Beyond their capacity to play the game, they went beyond the game. They weren’t afraid to show their personalities, what made them more than flesh and bone.

Each of the athletes in the issue was featured in two pictures, one taken during their playing days, the other one in the modern day taken by Walter Iooss Jr. In a short interview in the magazine, he mentioned that he went to the players directly for the project as opposed to the method that is pretty much universal today, endless negotiation with the agent. Bypassing the agent, said Iooss, now “seems like a novel approach.”

He is right. Getting to sports figures is like cutting through cords of prison barbed wire. And given the wishy-washy personality mush of gray pudding that is the athlete today, all of them sounding the same with those soporific, somnolent sound bites, I am not sure the effort of getting their cooperation is even worth it.

“I loved football the most when you could see the players’ faces when there was mud on them,” Iooss went on to say. “Now they wear plastic masks and play on artificial turf. But that’s the way it works when you get older—you lament what’s taking place and miss the past.”

I think his words are more than just lament.

Sports are bigger than ever. It occupies us more than ever. It is ever exploding. There are still routinely great performances. But behind those performances there is less and less human dimension, either colorful or heroic.

No Yogi. No Ali. No Namath. No Brown. No Huff. No Billie Jean. No Nastase. No Bill Spaceman Lee. No men and women who speak with conviction, or are willing to take a stand regardless of risk, or are just delightfully funky and insane. Athletes do occasionally post interesting and provocative tweets on Twitter, only to immediately retract them by claiming post-traumatic Twitter syndrome once there is the slightest whiff of controversy.

Behind sports performances there is less and less human dimension, either colorful or heroic.

The landscape of today’s Sportsworld is drab, choking on too many televised events and enough SportsCenters in one night to last a fortnight. On MLB.com you can see highlights of any baseball game you want almost instantly after they have occurred, not to mention watching your favorite team in stunning clarity on your iPhone. On ESPN.com there are animated simulcasts of professional baseball, football, and basketball. And those examples are a molecule in the atom bomb of the Internet.

Sports are not color and character today. Sports are content, endless reams and reels of it. Athletes are also carefully trained in the Zen of nothingness. Regardless of the sport they all espouse the same verse:

I was just lucky today.

I just came out feeling good today.

My opponent put up a heck of a fight today.

It’s all because of The Man Upstairs today.

I took time off from this column for a few weeks to finish the first draft of a book. What took place in Sportsworld in my writing absence?

The lockout of the players in the National Basketball Association, the continuing lockout in the National Football League, an absolute snore of a Major League Baseball season in which the only excitement has been the soap opera of Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt versus baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, and somebody whose name nobody in America can honestly pronounce winning Wimbledon.

Nothing.

Are there any athletes in the modern-day era of sports either truly heroic or just truly colorful? I can think of Pat Tillman, who left a budding pro football career to join the military and so tragically died in the mountains of Afghanistan from friendly fire. I can think of New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter on the basis of how he has played the game with the quiet intensity and class reminiscent of DiMaggio. I can think of New York Jets football coach Rex Ryan, who has one of those brains missing the section that deals with self-censorship. But that’s about it. And in the same league with Yogi or Namath or Ali? Not even close.

Maybe the lack of zest and spontaneity and heroism in sports doesn’t really matter. The recent NBA playoffs were marvelous. Ratings were sky-high (yes, I was wrong in a previous column about the dwindling popularity of pro basketball), much of it driven by the savage hatred for the Miami Heat’s LeBron James.

We all know LeBron is loathed for the graceless way in which he left the Cleveland Cavaliers. But LeBron is also hated because he did not turn out to be the throwback hero we wanted him to be. We loved the fact that he was a hometown kid playing for his hometown team. We loved the thought of him staying there forever and winning the championship.

It didn’t go down that way, of course. LeBron left out of self-interest like every other entitled person in America. He has also left us searching for another hero, someone out there unique, someone out there refusing to follow the same lemming flow, someone out there willing to stay true to his roots.

It is going to be a long search, most likely a fruitless one. You will be far better off buying the new Sports Illustrated and staring into the cover, looking for every crevice of detail in that picture of Yogi Berra, drinking in the nobility and the toughness and the eyes of lurking mischief.

“It ain’t over till it’s over,” Yogi once said so famously.

If an athlete today were quoted as using the word “ain’t,” he would have his agent announce through Twitter that he was suing for libel.