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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

January 29, 2013: Football in America, Part Two

[In this week leading up to Super Bowl 47—that’s XLVII if you prefer how long-dead Romans would have referred to it—I’ll be highlighting some AmericanStudies issues and questions related to football in our past and present. Your Super responses, thoughts, and perspectives very welcome for a weekend post that’s sure to be a touchdown!]
On cheating, winning and losing, and the American way.
If one narrative has dominated the last decade in American (and international) sports, it’s been our righteous indignation about performance-enhancing drugs. From the outrage over McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, Clemens, and the Mitchell Report in baseball to the numerous suspensions in football (for everything from steroids and HGH to the current spate of Adderall suspensions), from the many stages of the Lance Armstrong saga to the seemingly constant announcements of Olympians suspended for PEDs, very few of our signature sporting events or prominent figures have been exempted from our suspicions. Given the apparently rampant PED use among college and high school athletes, I certainly understand why we’re so collectively worried about the problem, and concerned with catching and punishing professional athletes who contribute to it.
As is so often the case, however, when you start to historicize the problem things get a good bit more complicated. The most common such comparison is to baseball in the 1970s, when it seems a sizeable percentage of players were on “greenies” (amphetamines) and neither the sport nor the fanbase apparently cared for many years. But beyond such specific and certainly complicating comparisons, I would also argue that the culture of American sports has long (if not always) been defined by the mentality of doing whatever it takes to win. Outraged 21st century fans like to nostalgically contrast the PED era with a golden age of sportsmanship and fair play and the like, but I’m not sure there’s ever been a moment when winning wasn’t everything, just the only thing. Pitchers, including some of the most prominent and successful in every era, have been doctoring the baseball for as long as there’s been baseball. College football’s history of cheating—from recruiting to eligibility, and of course on the field as well—has long been a part of the sport’s dominant narratives. As this article notes, the concept of basketball plays evolved directly alongside ways to get away with cheating. And the list goes on and on.
Even more broadly and historically, I think it’s far from a coincidence that American professional and organized sports mostly began during and just after the late 19th century era known as the Gilded Age. After all, the self-made men and/or robber barons (depending on your perspective) who came to define that era’s successes and/or excesses (ditto) did so by taking advantage of every opportunity and/or cheating the system (likewise). As reflected in the recent debate over whether multi-millionaires like Mitt Romney who maximize their income tax deductions and loopholes embody or undermine the American Way, we haven’t moved too far away from those Gilded Age models. So is cheating to win a defining American choice, in and outside of our sports worlds? It would seem to be—but debates over and outraged responses to such choices also go way back. The more things change…
Next gridiron-inspired topic tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on PEDs or these other issues? Other football and America stories or themes you’d highlight?

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