Honor Among Thieves (2)

Mark McGwire testifies before Congress

This week’s hearings by the House Committee on Government Reform into steroid use in baseball are only the latest sign of the extent to which the win-at-any-cost ethos dominates Washington. Oh, and professional sports, too.

The official reason for the hearings is to call attention to the fact that younger athletes are learning from their professional-sports heroes how to use steroids and in some cases wrecking their lives as a result. The real reason, of course, is to allow politicians to grandstand and show their “concern” — very late into this long-simmering scandal, even after Major League Baseball itself has changed its look-the-other-way policies. So yesterday the committee’s members began lecturing and bullying celebrity athletes, as if the drug-addled pros were to blame only for setting a bad example.

But the blame is bigger than bad “role models,” and it has less to do with drugs than with honor.

There is a reason why all the major team sports enjoyed by Americans — as well as the modern Olympics — date from the 19th century. During that century, especially in Britain and America, traditional ideas of honor were undergoing a process of evolution that culminated in the distinctly Western, distinctly Victorian, idea of gentlemanly sportsmanship.

Soccer, known to the rest of the world as “football,” goes much further back in time than the other sports — so far, indeed, that in some legends of its origins the ball is said to have been a human head. In medieval and Renaissance times, village football matches were often indistinguishable from riots. When Kent in Shakespeare’s King Lear calls the loathsome Oswald a “base foot-ball player,” he means to say that he is a low-life and an unscrupulous thug, someone who could not be expected to act with decency or decorum.

But in Victorian times, even soccer underwent a process of gentrification, and under Dr. Thomas Arnold, at Rugby School, the modern game of rugby football evolved out of it. (American football evolved out of rugby.) At Dr. Arnold’s and other British public — i.e., private — schools, sports were seen as a way of teaching boys the ways of manliness and sportsmanship. Catering to upwardly mobile middle-class boys, these schools — which were imitated in America — were both cause and consequence of honor’s democratization. The formerly aristocratic standard of honor was adapting itself to new social realities, with the help of Romantic ideas of chivalry learned from Sir Walter Scott.

In the early years of American football, deaths on the field were also not unusual — it was common to regard the endurance of pain and injury without flinching as character-building. The “injuries incurred on the playing field,” said Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge in a speech at Harvard, “are part of the price which the English-speaking race has paid for being world conquerors.” President Theodore Roosevelt didn’t like the idea of “college men who shrink from physical effort or from a little physical pain,” but he urged colleges to get together in 1906 to change the rules of football and outlaw punching, kicking, elbowing and kneeing, among other standard features of the game at the time.

As for baseball, its origins are murkier. A form of it was a popular pastime for Union soldiers during the Civil War, but less so among Confederates. The honor-obsessed South clung to an older standard that thought it shameful to play a game that involved running away from the ball.

As the first and, for a long time, only professional sport in America, baseball had more in common with British soccer than with the gentlemanly game of (college) football. Both were mainly working-class pastimes that did not place a particularly high valuation on gentlemanly behavior. Nevertheless, they too were influenced by the standards of sportsmanship that rubbed off on them from the dominant culture. Without up-to-date notions of Victorian honor, they probably would not have survived.

Central to the New Honor was the never-quite-successful attempt to take away the stigma from losing. Old Honor, with its emphasis on avenging any insult, could never allow a game to end, since the losers would always be bound in honor to strike back at the winners. New Honor invented the notion of losing graciously. Also winning graciously. The way to honorable manhood, wrote Kipling, was clear: “if you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same.” This attitude marked an epoch in human consciousness and was what made modern amateur and professional sports possible.

Well, the New Honor has taken a beating of late, losing so graciously that almost no one seems to have noticed or cared. Vince Lombardi’s famous dictum that “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” has become the primary ethical standard of all sports. The desire to make money is now the raison d’etre — not only of professional but increasingly of college sports as well.

The steroid scandal captures this quality perfectly. Steroid use, although illegal for such purposes, became rampant in the 1990s because it conferred an unfair advantage on those who were prepared to flout the rules of fair play. And it persisted in a state of collusion and secrecy. A primitive standard of honor took hold: baseball’s own version of the code of omertà, according to which players kept their secret and owners allowed them to, all the while reaping profits from the juiced-up game.

Now it’s all come undone, but only because of public exposure — mainly in Jose Canseco’s recent book, Juiced, in which he ratted on some of his former teammates while admitting to steroid-use himself — not because of any sense of what is owed to fair play. Canseco now stands to enrich himself as a whistle-blower, as he once did as a steroid-user, and can hardly be counted an honorable example.

Why has the New Honor lost the day? The reasons are complicated — if you say the word “chivalry” to a feminist you’ll get an idea. Yet somewhere out of sight New Honor remains the foundation of the big-money spectator sports, and its lingering memory is the reason for the hypocrisy that has produced this week’s congressional hearings. Officially, baseball has had to continue to pretend to be founded on the principles of sportsmanship and fair play even though for years it has abandoned them.

Oddly, in the pretense lies a hope: that the ghost of New Honor — the honor of Dr. Arnold and Rudyard Kipling and Teddy Roosevelt — might still retain just enough power to make some of our new-old sports heroes feel ashamed.

Discover more from James Bowman

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Similar Posts