"Sports has entered the fabric and structure of our whole way of life. Sport is a constant, a model, a value system. It is our strength and our weakness, our redeemer and destroyer. Intellectually and philosophically, emotionally and psychologically, sexually and physically, sport governs our lives."
So writes Neil D. Isaac in Jack Culture U.S.A, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 221 pages.
Isaac's jack-Culture U.S.A. is a statement of recognition of this complex phenomenon. Following is the first of three excerpts from his book. Today: Of Finner Stuff.
An official fiction, or myth, that has had great currency for about two centuries goes like this: all men are created equal. Yet mankind's universal perception is that some are more equal than others. Some persons are born with or destined to special power - generally defined as wealth, beauty and strength, or knowledge. In another context, these can become gifts to be resisted, temptations: the world, the flesh, and the devil. But the gifted ones, the power-persons, are everywhere and in all times celebrated as heroes.
The hero may be the cultural invention of his society; that is, his identity or special nature may itself be an official fiction. He may, of course, have earned that identity by his genuine nature or by his accomplishments. The universal presence of such figures in all societies, however, suggests that if we didn't have heroes we'd invent them, that when we don't have heroes we do invent them.
Our society in general finds its heros only in sports. It may be objected that the names of athletes rarely appear on "most admired" lists compiled by public opinion polls. But to extrapolate from the roster of most admired to a popular conception of hero would be to stumble into the kind of semantic boobytraps for which pollsters are famous.Only the most abandoned boobies or the most eccentric savants would not respond to the keyword "admired" by searching their frames of reference for people who have been of great service to mankind, either by making real contributions or by enacting symbolic roles of nobility, or people who have won Nobel Prizes, usually for Peace or for Medicine. Admired are the Albert Schweitzers, the Eleanor Roosevelts, the Golda Meirs, the Ralph Bunches, the Jonas Salks. But these are not names that would occur in response to the questions, "Who are your heroes?"
If the statistics and exploits are compiled and exploited to fashion heroic feats, then how is the element of qualities in traditional heroic myth accommodated? The answer to this question is really the demonstration of contemporary myth-making processes at work. It is a matter of imagination, having little if any thing to do with the true nature of the people involved.
All that is necessary for the myth to begin is a name and numbers. Imagination accomplishes the rest. Let a jock set a record, compile impressive figures of wins or percentages or prize money, and he is fair game for a legend. Perhaps the media take over and, drawing attention to the feats, imply or consciously create the qualities. Perhaps the PR game begins to be played, an image projected upon the screen of a hero hungry, here-consuming public. Or perhaps the creative imagination of the public itself, having inherited the myth-forming process, grants the statistically fashionities they need for their apotheosis. [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] heroes in potentia whatever qualities they need for their apothesis.
Many athletes have a quality that makes it easy for creative imaginations to enrich their hero image. It is a palpable but idenfinable quality called charisma. Ordinarily some personal contact is necessary for the charismatic quality to be projected, but a few have the ability to project it on film or TV or even on tape or radio or photograph, especially when they get the kind of overexposure that flatters and enriches our outstanding athletes.
The public reacts strongly against invasions of the scared world of sports, particularly when the media expose heroic idols to be petty, foolish, flawed, and corrupt. "Say it ain't so, Joe" is a cry of universal anguish.But much of the exposure seems to come when athletic heroes range beyond the confines of sports into more mundane, profane activities. Yet these activities are perceived as the corrupting agents by the hero-worshipping world, rather than having the athletes seem as normally, naturally corrupt individuals who happen to be proficient, at some game or event.At times, however, the activities in the profane world may give greater stature to the athlete hero in his sacred world.
The outstanding athlete is consequently a natural culture hero, whose sporting prowess is automatically accompanied by the embodiment of honored qualities. Financial rewards are not influential and with rare exceptions (Pele, for example) ar relatively slight, so that the role of the hero is in itself a motivation for athletic aspirations.
Any attempt to cut these figures (heroes) down to human size is offensive and intolerable. While political and entertainment figures are fair game for debunkers, and the public rejoices in the public airing of their dirty laundry and clay feet, the only acceptable "human interest" material about jocks concerns quirks or foibles or oddities that enhance their legendary nature. The marriages of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, Lance Rentzel and Joey Heatherton. Bo Belinsky and Mamie van Doren, and Terry Bradshaw and JoJo Starbuck were made in the scared heavens of sports mythmaking. But let there be nothing kinky about them. In Heatherton, Rentzel had a fine trophy, a "perfect sleeper" of an image for a jock myth. But when his psychosexual problems are exposed, we don't want to hear about it on the sports pages and we don't want him playing in our big league any more.
The stories of athletic heroes do not often end in triumph. They may die young in their prime or broken in age, but heroes they remain in the stories left behind, resurrected or re-created in the clear vision of hindsight. The All-American boy might end up the dirty old man, but as long as he doesn't befoul the sacred terrain - or as long as the mythologizers of that realm keep the lid on his peccadilloes or make light of his flaws - his legend maintains the luster of his eminence.
More shimmering than most because more ephemeral and insubstantial are the legendary images of the heroes that could have been the stars manques, tragically aborted in their athletic careers by the hard realities of the profane world. And so are celebrated in song and story the wondrous exploits of a Bernard Levi, whose moves were so marvelous that Dave Bing couldn't carry his jock when they were back in Spingarn High School, or an Earl Manigault, whose playground performances promised that he would have put the Hawk and Dr. J in the shade if he ever won his place in the sun. But only their legendary promise lives in the sacred world, because the street, they system, and the drugs never let them pass beyond the profane.