clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Alex Rodriguez, Ray Lewis, And Imaginary Sports

Why does A-Rod get blasted for alleged PED use and Ray Lewis can shrug it off? Because football is defined by images, but baseball is defined by symbols.

Tell me what you see in this picture.
Tell me what you see in this picture.
Alex Trautwig

On Tuesday, the Miami New Times broke a story about a Florida-based anti-aging clinic providing banned substances to baseball players, most notable among them Alex Rodriguez. The same day, Pro Football Talk broke a story about Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis being caught on tape ordering a banned substance. One story was met with widespread condemnation, the other largely with yawns. You can probably guess which is which.

Despite the fact that the Pro Football Talk story coincided with Super Bowl media day, there was virtually no buzz about the Ray Lewis news. Lewis was able to address the charges third-hand, through team officials, and it doesn't seem likely that this accusation will have any impact whatsoever on The Big Game. Perhaps because, as Deadpsin pointed out, this "news" broke almost two years ago (and no one felt like rushing to cover it then, either).

If there was any outrage about Lewis, it came from baseball fans wondering why no one in the media seems to care about steroids and HGH use in football but can't jump on a baseball PED story fast enough. All things being equal, it's not fair that baseball is tarred with the label of being filled with "cheaters" while football isn't. This is especially true since all evidence suggests PED use is just as widespread in football, if not more so. Take, for example, the fact that MLB has managed to implement a system for in-season HGH and testosterone testing, while the NFL and its players' union can't agree to any kind of HGH testing.

Of course, all things are not equal between the two sports. The media — and to a large extent the fans as well — will never treat transgressions like PED use the same in both sports, because two sports also rose to popularity in radically different media environments. We've created a world in which football is enjoyed, but baseball is believed.

So much of baseball history happened out of sight. Professional baseball existed for almost 60 years before radio, and almost 100 before most people had a TV in their homes. And so the game was sold to the public largely through newspapers, in two ways: the box score and the recap. The box score is the fount of the game's obsession with numbers. A box score could tell you exactly who did what, when, and where.

The recap fleshed the box score out, sprinkled with fanciful adjectives and purple prose. In the olden days, writing about a baseball game was less reporting than storytelling. Because of this, most accounts of the first 100 years or so of professional baseball almost read like tall tales. The actual game would be nothing more than a notion to millions of fans, and so the primary goal of early sportswriters was not to reproduce what happened in prose, but to create new myths.

Baseball remains a game of abstractions. It is the only spectator sport that is said to be enhanced by listening to it on the radio. To this day, what actually happens in any given baseball game takes a backseat to ephemeral notions of the importance, purity, respect for the sport, and so on. Foremost of these notions is the "sanctity" of numbers, which again speaks to the game's abstract beginnings. Those numbers in the box score were transformed from data into avatars, fraught with symbolic overtones. Only a few people could go see Babe Ruth hit a home run, but everyone could know he hit 714 of them, and look upon that number as having a greater meaning than the sum of its parts.

When the sport's numbers are given such weight, things perceived to threaten these numbers — say, someone trying to gain an edge in besting them — must be denounced. If not, then the whole semiotic world of baseball would crash down upon itself. If the myths die, the media subconsciously assumes, so too does the game.

Football, on the other hand, grew up with television. It existed before TV, of course, but in a paleolithic form, the athletic equivalent of cave paintings. The sport didn't explode nationally until people could see it, until it became an event where viewers made an appointment to sit down and watch it every Sunday along with millions of other Americans. The watershed event in the NFL's history was the agreement that all teams would share TV revenue equally — not simply because it created a level playing field among different media markets, but because it was a formal recognition that television would be the sport's lifeblood.

The history of professional football was able to be viewed in real time, and preserved forever. Nearly every minute of NFL action of the last 50+ years was filmed and is still available to watch in one form or another. We don't have to weave fantastic tales of football legends; we can just go back and view them. When everyone can see an event unfold before their eyes, and watch it again and again and again, it becomes much harder to ascribe magical properties to it.

That's why there is little mythologizing or sentimentalizing in the world of football, because it is unnecessary. This isn't to say that football fans don't heap meaning and symbolism on the game and its athletes the way fans of every sport do. What it does mean is that abstractions don't hold the same sway they do in baseball. Short of taking out your opponents with heavy artillery, you can't "cheat" numbers in football. Numbers never meant anything in the sport. Only results do, and the permanent documents thereof are not the stats, but footage of the games themselves.

When a winning football coach wants you to know how hard he worked to defeat an opponent, he will tell you how much tape he watched. A baseball manager might look at splits to see how Player X fares against Pitcher Y, but more than likely when pressed, he will tell you he played his gut instinct. If he succeeds, even after looking at data that helped him succeed, he will profess to not understand the magical impulses that led him down the road to victory.

Putting aside the legal implications of Ray Lewis's alleged misdeed, even if it's proved beyond a shadow of a doubt he took an illegal substance, this is not something that will invalidate his accomplishments on the field. If anything, it may enhance them. He did what he had to do to get back on the field, people will say. There is no notion in football that there are wrong or improper ways to do this. If you want ample evidence of this reality, examine the relative public indifference to the NFL's concussion problem, or the horrifying Jason Taylor story that broke earlier this month. The NFL even cross-posted the Jason Taylor story on its own site. Why? Because it falls in line with what fans and the media expect from its athletes. Do whatever you have to do, but make sure you are on TV this Sunday.

Alex Rodriguez will not be praised for doing what he felt was necessary to play at the top of his game or recover from injury. He will be denounced as a two-time fraud, and will find a far longer, rougher road to get to Cooperstown than Lewis will to Canton. If he finds this unfair, he should have picked a less imaginary sport.