Commentary

This Sporting Life: Strange bedfellows

Originally Published: October 9, 2009
By Jeff MacGregor | Page 2

Congratulations go out this morning to President Barack Obama, two-time Grammy winner and now a recipient of the equally prestigious Nobel Peace Prize.

This latest award will surely inflame the usual precincts of our national commentariat, inasmuch as it has the feel of a league MVP trophy awarded halfway through spring training. But then all awards of this kind are subjective, even Rookie of the Year, compromised by human error and hidden agenda and wishful thinking, reflecting the long-shot hopes and jackpot dreams of those handing them out. Which still doesn't explain Mira Sorvino's Oscar®, or why the Emmys stiffed "The Wire," or that Pulitzer Prize for "Gone With The Wind." But what can you do? The world is a strange and wonderful and terrifying place.

Jeff MacGregor

Confusion also reigns today among the very well-heeled, as one bored millionaire tries to buy her way out of the toy department while another tries to buy his way in.

Linda McMahon, former CEO of the WWF/WWE and wife of inflatable wrestling impresario Vince McMahon, has announced her candidacy for the U.S. Senate. She'll be running as a Republican challenger to longtime Connecticut Democrat Christopher Dodd. Political analysts suggest he'll be vulnerable to a savvy, motivated adversary for the first time in years. Mrs. McMahon, savvy and motivated indeed, and running on a platform of "change," claims a willingness to spend $30 million in pursuit of that seat, and who are we to doubt her? When has anyone affiliated with professional wrestling ever exaggerated or stretched the truth?

And while it's always reassuring to see any American exercising his or her right, duty and privilege to become a citizen politician, I wonder why it is that the poor these days never seem to run for anything.

Still, do-gooder or dilettante, there are at least two things Mrs. McMahon will need to consider as she moves from the forthright sunshine and uplifting narrative of prime-time "sports entertainment" into the mephitic underworld of American politics.

The first is that she now opens herself to the kind of scrutiny the WWE has deftly avoided in the past. Part of her campaign strategy so far has been to emphasize her role in the company's astonishing success, and the hands-on nature of her management over its last several decades. While this certainly positions her as a tough, smart cookie, it also means she can and should be called upon to answer long-standing questions about steroids and substance abuse in professional wrestling; about past investigations into those and other, darker, issues; and about what she knew and when she knew it.

(As always, however, it remains to be seen whether anyone in the go-along-to-get-along mainstream media will have the interest, the background or the fortitude to press her on those questions.)

Her second concern is the thing that bedevils every successful businessperson entering politics, even if he or she wins the election: You aren't the boss anymore. No one has to do what you say. No one has to listen to you. No one cares what you think. The one thing you need to be able to do as a politician is the one thing you never had to bother with in business: build consensus.

(New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Absolutely incorruptible thanks to his personal fortune, sure, but also completely unable to broker compromise with his opponents on behalf of his own major programs. "Largely harmless" doesn't seem like much of a memorial to have carved into the base of your statue.)

So why Mrs. McMahon wants to give up the power, money and prestige of professional wrestling to join a sideshow like the U.S. Senate remains a mystery to me.

Why Rush Limbaugh wants to buy a share of the St. Louis Rams, however, is no puzzle at all.

He will do so simply because he can.

A Missouri boy and lifetime football fan, Mr. Limbaugh is now part of a small syndicate with a bid in to buy all or part of that woeful franchise. And whatever one thinks of his politics, sports writers everywhere wish him well, because colorful owners of high self-regard prone to putting their feet in their mouths are a near guarantee of continued employment.

Just this week Mr. Limbaugh seemed incapable of expressing himself on the topic of sports without stumbling, as he has in the past, over matters of race and class.

And while this may be an acceptable line of patter in the vacuum-packed safety of his own radio studio, it's apt to have a consequence out in the wider world. Beyond the range of his devoted listeners, it remains to be seen whether Mr. Limbaugh will make any effort to soften, adjust or modulate his public pronouncements if he succeeds in buying an NFL team.

Mr. Limbaugh is part of a long and storied tradition in American political theater. From the founding, there has been a boom market in this country for populist anger, on the left and on the right, and for directing the undirected frustrations of the electorate; for keeping folks preoccupied with their hurts and resentments while the captains of industry empty the till.

So there is always a market for blame without remedy.

And Mr. Limbaugh has made his career and his fortune peddling that blame. By finding, branding and selling fault, by pinning the state of the world on anyone playing the position to his left, he's made himself the quarterback of white middle class bitterness; a diagnostician with no medicine; a millionaire finger-pointer in a nation of angry critics.

And as this and every opinion column so often demonstrate, it is supremely easy to be a critic. Especially if you're never held to account for anything.

All of which is fair and fine in the hog wallow of American politics. But a very big part of what American football sells is accountability. That's going to be Mr. Limbaugh's biggest problem. Football sells personal responsibility and teamwork. It sells selflessness and unity. Even today, shot through as it is with superstar egos and cheap showmanship, selfishness and greed, football still retails "team" and "sacrifice," "family" and "community."

And in that culture, no matter who blew the assignment, no matter who screwed up or how, pointing to the guy on your left and assigning blame and making excuses gets you nothing but another afternoon of gassers or a visit from the Turk. In football, you live or die together. Visit any BCS weight room, or any locker room in the NFL, and you'll be up to your aching trapezius in slogans and bromides about teamwork and sacrifice.

These things may or may not actually be true, of course. But they're the foundation of the mythology on which football rests. Teamwork and sacrifice constitute the core convictions of the game. Blame without remedy is a nonstarter.

So walking through an NFL locker room smoking a Partagas Lusitania, looking for scapegoats, handing out demerits and cracking wise about who should have done what to whom, will only get your ass kicked, owner or no.

Just a word to the wise.

A strange week all the way 'round, then, for the selling of heroes and bad guys, faces and heels, good and evil.

The selfless call to service, or the shameless appeal to self? Which of these is true? Which of these is false? Which the better? Which the worse? Or are they all the same?

Such is the endless restlessness of the wealthy, such is their vanity, such is their pride, and such is the empty morality of their heavenly boredom that it is impossible to say.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question: "What Are Sports For?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.