We thought we’d take advantage of this being a snow day for many readers and feature a post that looks off topic but actually relates to Naked Capitalism themes.
Sports, particularly professional sports, evokes Pavlovian responses in most people. Former top-level athletes, if they haven’t been mired in scandal, can usually find a good second career if nothing else in sales (as a retail broker or a car dealer) because they the status of local or national celebrities and are seen as hardworking, disciplined, and that is generally assumed to mean trustworthy as well. This is a classic example of a cognitive bias called “halo effect” in which people who are seen as good on one attribute are seen similarly accomplished on others. The classic example is that pretty individuals are assumed to be smarter than the ordinary-looking. That’s why the reactions to personal scandals by sports figures seem to evoke even more consternation than among other public figures, like actors and politicians. Neither of them are seen as role models.
And of course, there is also the belief that sporting events are fair and the best side or performer really does win.
But we all know that behind the veneer, the reality is often different. Games are sometimes fixed. Doping, both illegal, and the legal search for advantage via dietary supplements, are pervasive. My trainer, with roughly half his clientele being pro athletes and Olympic contenders, tells me it is rampant in some events, like track and field. And most people take at face value the notion that robust-looking contenders are healthy. In some endeavors, like ballet and gymnastics, top performers push their bodies to the verge of injury on a routine basis, and typically pay a huge cost later in life, in terms of compromised backs and other joints, for the achievements of their youth. And I’m waiting for college football programs to be shut down as head-injury-related litigation hits in a few years. It is now well known that three concussions or more results in later life cognitive impairment. How many programs keep tabs on how many concussions a performer has had and require someone who has had two to stop playing?
In other words, taking elite sports at face value requires a suspension of disbelief, and even ignoring cheating and the cost imposed on the performers themselves. And even though you can argue that the top players are well compensated for the toll on their bodies, sports, like the entertainment industry, has a steep payoff curve. There are many with just a hair less talent or luck who don’t make the cut. Yet they often wreck their bodies in the same way as the top players in their effort to break into those ranks.
Bob Goodwin uses the New England Patriots deflated footballs scandal to look at sports as a microcosm of American culture.
By Bob Goodwin, an investor and medical device entrepreneur who lives in Mercer Island, Washington
If you have been living under a rock, you might not know that there is a national crisis underway that could threaten the future of our nation. You see, during the first half of a football team, it appears that (horrors) the most winning team in recent memory was caught using footballs that were 10% under-inflated for half a game! That team won, and is about to be playing in the Super Bowl, which is the most-watched television broadcast in the US. As a disclaimer I live in Seattle, and so am rooting for the other team playing in the Super Bowl, so maybe I am taking a bit of pleasure in the event, in the spirit of great entertainment, where I am personally invested in a character in a play, and the drama that leads up to a critical conflict, and where the outcome is truly unknowable.
If I were the NFL, the director of such a story, I would want simultaneously to amplify the intrigue, while not pulling back the veil, and destroying the necessary suspension of disbelief required for all entertainment. If we think these entertainers were cheating, and we felt that, like professional wrestling in years past, that the battle was actually scripted, and much of the violence was faked, then maybe we would not be able to imagine ourselves engaged on this battlefield. (Or our brothers, sons, fathers, or lovers). Without this conceit we could no longer be entertained.
Perhaps if we imagined that it was good clean fun to remove air from balls, or pretend to smash chairs onto peoples head, then we could root for the villain, and laugh – or cry yourself to sleep after the highs and lows of the unfolding drama. But when we cease to relate to the offender, it becomes hard to be entertained by the carnage of large, athletic and well trained men throwing their bodies at each other with as much force as they can manage.
It turns out that professional wrestlers, and I mean the obviously phony ones, have a surprisingly short life span. 25% of the participants of Wrestle-mania 7 are dead 20 years later. All but one of them died in their 30s or 40s. And the rest are likely living with significant pain. Football is actually significantly safer than pretend wrestling, but that does not really mean it is safe. Each NFL team has an injury or two in every game they play. And it is an open secret that NFL players often age with both chronic pain, and cognitive and emotional decline.
But yet I am glued to my TV, and I reserve certain hours of my life during football season, and these scheduled events take precedence over almost any other priority. I never played football growing up. I never played sports at all. I don’t understand the plays very well, I am not aware of the significant strategy that goes into winning a football game. But I am absolutely certain that they are men. Do you remember the old word “men”? It was such an important word once, like chastity and honor. These men are the same type of men who would be doing war in a big way if our society were under duress. They would be killing their enemies, and pushing back opposing armies, and opening supply lines, and they would be putting their lives on the line, with the romantic compulsion to prefer death to defeat.
Success at any cost is the game. And the cost – and the reason we watch – is the assault on the bodies of men. Success at any cost is not believable without a cost. For me to suspend disbelief I must believe in the willingness of the protagonists to pay a high cost. And they do.
Sports, I would argue, are susceptible to scandal. But cheating scandals always were the most corrosive. We don’t like our imaginary warrior heroes punching their wives in casino elevators, but it does nothing to break suspension of disbelief. Football players are thugs, no?
Even steroid scandals do not break the trance. I can imagine myself wanting a large body if I aspired to be a warrior, isn’t taking steroids to be a serious athlete kind of like taking amphetamines to be a serious student, or cocaine to be a serious model?
But filming your opponent’s secret codes, and tampering with equipment is along the spectrum of betting against your own team. Sure there are spies and traitors in real wars, but I don’t imagine my father, brother, son, or lover being one of them.
The use of dangerous sport as entertainment is not an American invention. The Super Bowl is the largest mass human event that occurs in America. The top cable network is not Fox News, it is ESPN – the sports network. Rome had the Coliseum. What an extravagance it was! The more insecure Roman history was, the more active the Coliseum was. Suspension of disbelief is critical to those in power.
Do you believe that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction? Do you believe terrorists are a threat to your safety? Or that it was necessary to bail out big banks to save the world from another depression? Hadn’t you better confess your sins, so that you will have an eternal life in heaven?
The worst thing that can happen in politics is when voters start paying attention. Before a trillion tax dollars was spent to save the economy in 2007, an unprecedented flood of letters were written to Congressman in opposition to bank bailouts. Unlike orchestrated outrage, these letters were not garden variety form letters and petitions. These were thousands of personally crafted arguments by former sheep from the electorate. It all went ahead anyway, with power committed to its course, and the ramifications to be managed later. Most of the time, you see, scandals subside, and people return to watching sports.
The NFL too, thinks that scandals subside, and people will return. The Catholic Church treated child abuse and corrupt money laundering at the Vatican bank as a public relations problem. The first rule of having power is to protect your power. The NFL does not mind the drama of a team or player being a villain character in a play, but it cannot allow the drama to go on for weeks, when the story starts to turn on the NFL. No compassionate church can remain credible if they are colluding with pedophiles and drug dealers. The more people see of the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain in the name of Roger Goodell palling up with the owner of the Evil Cheating Football Team… The more the NFL stalls and denies in the hope this will pass, the more foundational expectations of football fans will be disrupted. If the NFL puts on a show trial of the Popes butler, then you will know that we are at peak NFL.
But can you image back just one week ago? How ridiculous this whole thing must have felt? The evil team had just won their last game by a zillion to nothing. The balls were 2 pounds softer, whatever that means, for 30 minutes of football. There are advocates flooding the internet with the physics of air pressure, and the trail of possession of the balls from manufacturer to the playfield. If I were to have to convict a man for murder based on the evidence presented, I would take pause. But this is not a jury trial, this is all pretend. It is entertainment. So I allow myself to use common sense.
Trusted people in this make-believe world of football (like Madden and Aiken) say that the quarterback takes complete control of the management of footballs, not the NFL. These same priests tell us that cheating occurred, and that it no more possible for the quarterback to be unaware of the deceit, than it is for a rapist to be unaware of penetration.
So what should the NFL do? If the Catholic Church is any guide, expect the NFL to wait and hope that nobody is paying attention. This is what I expect any Wizard behind the curtain to do. But there are powerful people that are undoubtedly pressuring the NFL – hoping against hope – that the spectacle of sport will rise to the occasion and slay the evil team and keep the dream alive. But they won’t.