Superhero-dom is something for the silver screen. From the moment we walk into the theater, we know what to expect: We’re about to see another bigger-than-life caped character doing what we know they’ve done and will always do — fighting crime, with a calculated misstep or two before they find their way again and ascend to new heights. I love the mythos of that, and there’s a really cool article by Todd VanDerWerff called “Why it’s impossible not to love Superman,” which offers an interesting run-down as to how, over the decades, Superman has been tweaked to be the hero that people at that moment in time needed him to be.
Superheroes give us something to aspire to. But how much can we really follow in their footsteps, when we know we probably won’t ever gain the ability to fly and we know there are writers behind the scenes, pulling all the strings? That’s what makes real athletes so incredible: their ability to fall. Every time we watch a game or meet or match, we’re watching an unwritten future play out before us, in real time. We get to share those moments of glory with these heroic beings. And just before we start to get jealous of their inherent greatness, we see them fall, to someone greater, to someone stronger. We see them get knocked down a peg, to real person status. The game isn’t rigged in their favor, like it is for those golden gods and goddesses on the big screen. They will win, and they will lose, but they will continue to try.
My biggest struggle with loving sports has always been the wall I’ve felt between the radiant, ruthless team on the field and me, the rather oblivious spectator — the peripheral character, booing or yaying, confusedly. from the sidelines. I don’t usually know the players, and they don’t ever know me. And to try to know them any more than they know me seems a little stalker-ish, though I guess we do that with celebrities all the time.
The husband and I started watching ESPN’s 30 for 30 a few weeks ago, and as we’ve gotten the real down and dirty behind each sports-related triumph or fall, emblematic of a larger cultural moment, I’ve fallen head over heels into the intensity of the experience — when hearts stopped and breaths were held and prayers were said in the name of a player, a team, a dream. Yes, sports can be seen as silly, and trivial, and something people get too worked up over, but games can also, like Superman (except in real life) gives us real life heroes and cultural figures to look up to and, perhaps more importantly, to tie us together as a team, a city, a nation.
Sports remind us not to fixate so much on what society is trying to tell us we should be, but rather, to set goals and focus on what we have the potential to become. Athletes inspire us to pick ourselves up, when we’re down, and to do what we can and trust that the confidence we have in ourselves is enough to get us where we need/want to be. I’m still struggling with fighting the urge to ignore my stupid toe and have a glass of wine, or a piece of freshly baked office pie, every once in awhile. But if they can endure a grueling eight-hour workout day after day, I can manage to run in the mornings, walk at lunch and not stuff too much free cake into my mouth.
Sometimes, the real heroes of sports are better than fiction can account for. But would who rip off real life without writing a check with residuals to the rightful real-life icon like, say, Rocky? Sylvester Stallone, that’s who. In ESPN’s the “Real Rocky,” we meet Chuck Wepner, the guy who did the stairs without scene cuts, got his face beaten in by Muhammad Ali for real, and, well, I think that’s enough said, right? Anyone who gets beaten in the ring by Muhammad Ali deserves more than to have his life stolen and franchised into a multi-million dollar business.
Did that little tidbit whet your palate to learn more about the great wide world of sports? See? These real life guys and gals can be really interesting, when you get outside the stadium seats and into their lives. Thanks to these docs, we can come to understand who they are from their friends, their neighbors, their families. We see old footage of the figure skater doing her first figure eight at 3, and come to understand the drive they’ve cultivated and the challenges they’ve overcome. Each athlete has a unique story, with a unique set of challenges and opportunities to get into the public’s eye. Once they got in, whoo boy. They became a celebrity by default.
For some, that rise to overnight stardom is too much of a cross to bear. In ESPN’s “Run, Ricky, Run”, we see into the reclusive life of Ricky Williams — the famed football player who allegedly abandoned his success to smoke a lot of drugs. He seems much less crazy when you come to realize the the timid, thoughtful Ricky was made painfully aware, early in his career, that his livelihood depended on his body — a body which could (and did) fail him. It’s easier to understand how the pressure to perform could drive a man like Ricky mad, when you get to know the man behind the helmet mask.
For others who are pigeon-holed into a certain kind of greatness, the biggest challenge comes with trying to get away with reinventing yourself. After Michael Jordan‘s father was killed, he decided to retire from basketball and pursue baseball, angering millions of fans across the globe. One could see why a fan would be mad, because they felt like they were losing a great asset to the team, but to think your hero has somehow betrayed you by choosing to go down his own path? Well that’s just not fair, and it’s disrespectful of all that athlete has given to the game, to the fans, to the sport. In “Jordan Rides the Bus,” we come to see that we may have prematurely passed judgment on instances from the past. And where we were left bewildered and baffled with Big Mike’s move, in retrospect, we probably should have been more excited and supportive of his ambition to push forward. Why wouldn’t we want our kids to follow Michael Jordan’s lead and try their best at learning a new sport, or trying a new skill? Talk about a good role model. What are we, goofy?
Sports teach us much about our culture and our values, as larger society. On “June 17, 1994,” there were about a million things going on in the sports world, from Arnold Palmer’s touching last round at the U.S. Open to the FIFA World Cup in Chicago, to the Rangers winning the Stanley Cup, to the Knicks’ lead in the NBA Finals. But what was America fixated on? The O.J. Simpson car chase. Of course, right? In revisiting this dynamic moment in time, we can see our fascination with reality TV. In re-watching the insane amount of media coverage, which interrupted other news and events, we see the burgeoning of tabloid journalism, and cringe. Why didn’t we stop this horrible, brain-numbing phenomenon earlier? Because 95 million people tuned into the chase, that’s why. Let’s face it — live action sells. Guess our inherent curiosity isn’t really something we can change, but I suppose it’s always good for us to know our vices.
In “Without Baez,” we’re reminded that the powers that be giveth and those powers taketh away. Unlike superheroes, athletes are fallible. And sometimes, they can’t pick themselves back up again. Len Baez has a heart-breaking story. With one careless act — that is, snorting coke for the first time after signing on to the NBA, his hopes, dreams and general existence, were dashed. Even the greatest of athletes can lose everything. I was too young to remember Baez’ death, but the repercussions of his coke overdose have been long-withstanding — shortly after he died, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was passed — sending thousands of blacks to jail, with more severe sentences for smaller amounts of crack cocaine found on the streets than for its more expensive and more potent powder counterpart. Three generations later, we’re still seeing the law’s effects, with one in 10 Americans in jail and many frequent offenders who’ve become unfamiliar with a life outside of jail.
Athletics inspires us to see the best in ourselves, and in each other. But sometimes, even as passive participants, we wind up catching ourselves at our worst. The emotional vibe of a crowd can turn ugly at a moment’s notice.. “Catching Hell” is a brilliant but disturbing depiction of how, depending on circumstances, anyone can be branded as a victim or a villain. Steve Bartman’s wimpy look made him the perfect scapegoat for the reason the Chicago Cubs lost the sixth World Series game. And watching the announcers, the players and the crowd turn on this poor, innocent kid at once makes you wonder what it is we’re all such judgmental jerks. We think we know what’s going on, and we justify our actions by presuming we’re freed from responsibility when the decision to act was made by the masses. Let’s try to keep the peace, shall we?
All in all, sports are extremely fascinating, and I can see how so many people get lose in them. The mythos of the team, the tradition, the players, and coach, the city — are all rolled into a masterful embodiment of hometown pride and camaraderie. Sports provide us with a lens with which to see who we were, as well as who we are, at different points in time. A well-oiled team is quite the sight to behold — a group of proud men and women who, with heads held high, approach the field as one. They’ve taken on a dogmatic passion for perfecting this one particular thing that they’re really good at. If only we were all so driven to seek out our full potential. In watching a sports player, and I mean, in really watching them, you come to understand that sports may just be a game, but for this one person, this one dream, at this place and this point in time,means everything. With that kind of focus and determination, that incessant energy and sense of purpose, we could all move mountains. And that’s not something to brush off. Now that we’ve gone and laid down a heavy dose of do-it-to-it/get-going-ism, where’d I put my yoga mat again?