The merciless fame machine claims two more heroes   

Updated: February 3, 2009

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The cautionary tale of Mr. Michael Phelps -- lately overtaken by the anabolic misadventures of Mr. Alex Rodriguez -- brings a few words today on hypocrisy, lunacy and the fun-house mirror of American fame.

It has been a shrill and busy week indeed for big-market hand wringers, professional scolds and hysterical moralizers everywhere. This because a few days after America settled up the $10 billion it had illegally wagered on the Super Bowl -- a phenomenon that passes annually without serious comment from anyone anywhere -- a photograph of a famous young athlete with his lips to a bong knocked the known world sideways, bringing comment from everyone everywhere. It then turned out that another famous young athlete might have tried to advance himself by breaking a rule, a rule that might or might not have been a rule at the time he did or did not break it, and for which there might or might not have been a specified punishment, which in any case was or was not to have been kept secret.

Alex Rodriguez

AP Photo/Bill Janscha

Once Alex proved he was human his fate was no longer in his control.

At a moment in our history when, thank goodness, this country has nothing more important to worry about, clearly such outrages were serious blows to our national rectitude and had to be talked and written about very seriously. And at very great length. So the ensuing ethical panic, and the institutional sanctimony it brought along for the ride, with all that high dudgeon coming from all those low soapboxes, has saddened, or at least exhausted, us all. Happily for everyone concerned, no introspection was required or delivered, so at least no one was forced to learn anything.

Sow discord these days, and you shall reap mostly windbags.

The good news is that America's primary contribution to the swooning global economy -- celebrity -- continues to generate extensive profits worldwide. In the growth industry of fame, our star-making apparatus remains state of the art, second to none, and we can create or undo our new American heroes with a speed and efficiency only dreamed of in other cultures. That the heroes themselves don't bear close scrutiny -- the raw stock is human, after all, and therefore flawed from the drawing board forward -- is less important than the rapidity and repeatability with which they can be manufactured. Like an $8 sweatshirt, say, or a $12 MP3 player, their inherent inferiority is built right into the design. They can never be anything but what they are, no matter how hard we wish otherwise.

And this has been our recent trouble with American "heroes," at least the ones arriving still warm off the humming assembly lines of popular culture. The problem lies not in their manufacture, but in our perception of the final product. Once we've been sold their heroic stories by the media and the for-profit institutions in charge of such things, we refuse to see our heroes for what they really are: complex, fallible human beings just like us who rise briefly out of the mire to do something extraordinary, then return to join us in the hog wallow of moral confusion and squalid appetite that is everyday life.

Heroes never were meant to be an accurate reflection of daily human enterprise. They were meant to be examples of the rare capacity to exceed ourselves. Go back to ancient mythology, and you'll see what I mean. The Greeks understood that becoming a hero didn't absolve anyone of being human. In fact, that was usually the point of the story. Cautionary. Many of those "heroes" were lucky to get out of those stories alive. Most traded a single act of glory for a lifetime of punishing regret or a grisly death.

Here in 21st century America, however, we prefer the Candyland version of heroic myth, in which no one is doomed to die or drown or wander forever in a wasteland of pain, but instead sets a record, scores a contract with William Morris, makes a million and marries a swimsuit model, and everything winds up hunky-dory at the end. Nobody has to sleep with his own mother and then claw his eyes out with a brooch.

The somewhat less classically tragic Phelps story is well known by now: pong, bong, wrong, then the deluge of righteous indignation. That marijuana is America's No. 1 cash crop by some accountings was never mentioned.

What came around again and again instead was the question of the swimmer's "judgment." This baffled me. In what way does any one of us rely on Phelps' "judgment"? Apparent in the judgments of his "judgment" was a seething resentment on the part of the media that we'd spent so much time deifying this 23-year-old American, and then he'd ruined everything by behaving like a 23-year-old American.

Equally absurd was the loud concern over the future of his corporate endorsements. Who among us cares whether a credit card company earns back the money it spent on him?

The hypocrisy in all this was never clearer than when a cereal miller said late last week that "Michael's most recent behavior is not consistent with the image of Kellogg. His contract expires at the end of February and we have made a decision not to extend his contract."

Left unmentioned was the fact that the company had awarded him the deal right after he'd won eight gold medals but four years after he'd been popped for an underage DUI, arguably a much greater offense to "judgment" and "image." And that the company already had chosen not to renew its contract with the other swimmers on the U.S. team. Or that its stock price had dropped nearly 30 percent this past fall, and the company might be looking to save a few bucks however it could.

And who better to judge the American character than a breakfast food company that tangled two years ago with the Federal Trade Commission over how best to sell sugared corn (the No. 2 cash crop in America, by the way) to kids during an epidemic of childhood obesity and diabetes?

A nation of tax cheats, drunks and adulterers wonders.

All that remains to come in this seriocomic story is whether or not the county sheriff down there in South Carolina, a cartoon character by all accounts, decides to file charges based on a cell phone snapshot and the likelihood of snagging a booking for himself on "The Today Show."

Thus one can only imagine that Phelps was the happiest man in America when the Rodriguez story piggybacked his in the Saturday news cycle and then eclipsed it entirely by Sunday night.

The New York Post and the New York Daily News both missed a good bet with their Sunday morning fronts, though, going with the already well-worn "A-Fraud" and "A-Roid." A subtler choice might have been "Panic in Needle Park" -- a movie classic just now ending a revival at Film Forum down on Houston Street -- across a photo of the new Yankee Stadium. Too hip for the room? Look for it later in the week, maybe.

Pundit hysteria aside, "performance enhancement" has been around a long, long time. The Berserkers of ninth-century Scandinavia were all jacked up on bog myrtle whenever they went into battle, and no Peruvian of a thousand years ago punched the clock for his workday without a cheekload of coca leaves. Attila's Huns all were drunk, and six-day bicycle racers at the turn of the 20th century were jacked up on cocaine or furiously pedaling off the effects of an injection of strychnine in weak solution.

So the only thing worthy of remark in the current debate is that capital-B Baseball -- Baseball, the American Institution -- managed to ignore the problem of doping for so long. Had no one ever heard of Ben Johnson? Or East Germany? What were the rules? What were the penalties? Who was in charge? Who cared, as long as there were people in the seats?

From the owners to the commissioner to the union to the players to the media to the fans, no one wanted to know anything. Baseball still is so loath to clean its own house that it continues to subcontract the dirty work to anyone willing to pick up the broom: overzealous feds, Congress, George Mitchell, the media. Anyone.

Michael Phelps

AP Photo/Rob Carr

Michael Phelps you are guilty of the horrible crime of acting like the rest of us.

Mr. Rodriguez, no matter what you think of him and no matter how he answers the charge, is caught now in the gears of a machine not of his making and far beyond his ability to control. It is the perpetual motion machine of American stardom, and it runs so well because we're all so desperate to believe in something that we'll all believe in just about anything.

And lo, having learned nothing from history, here we are again. The build-'em-up-to-knock-'em-down zombies of the popular world media cobble up a pair of heroes, a couple of graven images, a couple of pot-metal idols, ship them out to every point on the map, fan the flames of their adoration until things get a little too hot, then harsh everyone's buzz by ratting them out for being only human. Huh. That we turn a profit coming and going on stories like these just means that the great circle of public life remains unbroken.

And what about you the reader? The credulous citizen-consumer, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public? Well, having done our sad work, now it's up to you to continue doing yours: to keep confusing celebrity with heroism, to keep bathing those celebrities and heroes in the blinding light of your love, to keep embracing them with every beat of your fevered heart, keep fantasizing about them, dreaming about them, imagining your happily-ever-after with them, writing their name inside the cover of your notebook again and again and again, keep obsessing over what they eat and what they drive and whom they sleep with, keep subscribing by the scores of millions to the magazines with their pictures on the cover, keep wearing what they wear, keep stalking them from the shadows, keep rejoicing in the perfections of their slugging percentage, of their marriages and their beautiful, lively children or wallowing in the sadness of their August slump, of their failed engagements and their well-upholstered loneliness, keep buying their shoes and posters and jerseys and commemorative dinner plates, lining your shelves with the products they endorse, reading their books and watching their talk shows and seeing their movies and playing their video games and downloading their ringtones ...

... and to keep doing all these things right up until the moment you don't, right up until the very moment they bore you or disappoint you or can't turn on the inside fastball, until the moment they test positive for doing only that which you begged them to do, until the moment they grow fat, grow old, grow dull, until the day they get too much plastic surgery or too little, until the moment you turn on them for being just like you or not like you at all, until the moment you resent their talent and their success and their beauty and their money, until you take back the fame you made for them, until you punish them, take them down a peg by selling an incriminating photo, until the moment you decide to hate them -- not because their lives are so very, very big, but because your own are so very, very small.

On second thought, better never to look in that particular mirror. The American fun house is a dark and scary place, after all, and we're apt to be frightened by what we see.

Better instead to avoid reflection altogether, to simply love our heroes completely and perfectly, and to worship them absolutely until the very moment we tear them limb from limb.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him here.


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