Why do I follow sports? This is a question I am often forced to ask myself, and one I find hard to answer. At the heart of the matter, I’m simply watching physically superior men master a game to the level that it barely resembles my bumbling attempts to play it. A couple months ago before my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers played host to their first playoff game (I’m not a bandwagon fan, my dad started following them before their first Super Bowl. The Steelers were the only team on TV in Montreal at the time, or so he says.) I wore my Ben Roethlisberger jersey to school. All was well, until my third period teacher looked at the jersey and made an overly moralistic statement that for some reason truly bad teachers often make. I’m not talking about a teacher who mails it in and collects the pay cheque. I’m talking about teachers who believe they’re making the world a better place, and try to connect with their students, but who are just awful at what they do. Anyways, he turns to me, inspects the jersey and says, “How can you root for this man, after all he’s done to women?” I had no answer to the judgemental man’s question. I root for him simply because he’s on my team is the superficial answer to the question. The deeper answer shows just how weird I am. I consider myself a decent human being, someone who looks out for family and friends and in general tries to do the right thing. The more I think about it the more I realize Ben Roethlisberger is a huge jerk, and I root for him not in spite of that, but because of it.
Old sportswriters tell me things didn’t always used to be this way. They say athletes used to be real people, just like us, who stayed out of trouble and lived in the regular community. In short, someone like Rick Reilly is trying to sell me on the notion those athletes used to be good guys, and not the jerks they are today. Unfortunately for hack sportswriters, even a cursory examination of America’s oldest sports heroes show that they were enormous jerks. The first such example of a sports jerk that I can think of is Ty Cobb. Enthusiastic reviews of Mr. Cobb include, “he took bases, took every advantage he could. He simply took everything.” Now that makes him an American hero, someone who takes every opportunity afforded to him. However even Ty Cobb’s biggest defenders would have to agree he was a paranoid racist, the sort of man who beat up a heckler, which would be one thing, if the heckler wasn’t a handicapped man missing his hands. That is the sort of tale that makes even Stephen Jackson recoil in disgust. (On the other hand, Cobb was also a man who once beat a mugger to a bloody pulp with his pistol. Since I don’t especially like thieves, I happen to think that’s kind of amazing.) Ty Cobb was a player who was hated by all as a person, and respected by all for the way he played the game. At the inaugural Hall of Fame election there is not one player who got a higher share of the vote. The thing is, I like Ty Cobb, I find him a fascinating man to talk about, and I bemoan the fact that my Blue Jays don’t have anyone with the heart to slide into home plate, spikes up, the way Cobb did.
Sports history continued along the path of jerks becoming heroes in America throughout the 20th Century. Babe Ruth was a serial drunk and womanizer, someone who missed a large chunk of the 1925 season with either an awful hangover or venereal disease. Considering he was being paid the highest salary in baseball, I would argue as a fan that this lack of responsibility was a little jerk like. There’s an old story about Babe Ruth, that whether true or not shows the type of man he was. The story goes that a teammate roomed with the Babe, and found him with two women, crying. When questioned, the Babe responded that he was upset he couldn’t penetrate them at the same time. That’s something even Charlie Sheen dipping his head into a briefcase of cocaine with two strippers would call disturbing. However, today Bud Selig will say Ruth is the most beloved athlete of all time. Personally, I’d take a steroid user like Barry Bonds, who Selig bemoans, over a Babe Ruth. At least Bonds would be trying his best to get in shape to play, something no one would ever say Ruth did. The greatest football player ever, Jim Brown, was a wife beater. However, all old time football fans would say he’s one of the toughest players ever, refusing to run out of bounds. Well, either fortunately or unfortunately, that toughness extended itself on and off the field. When Franco Harris closed in on his rushing record instead of being magnanimous about it, Brown was, well, a jerk. He refused to recognize Harris as a great player, because he would sometimes run out of bounds. Now, I could say that in terms of wanting to be a great football player, I’d rather have someone run out of bounds than retire at age 31 to appear in shitty blacksploitation films. Which is what it seems Jim Brown did. Today there are no two people old sports fans love more than Babe Ruth or Jim Brown, and no reasonable person would call either a good, normal guy.
The most beloved athlete of recent times is none other than Michael Jordan. There’s a line of apparel (called Air Jordan, if you haven’t heard) devoted to his career and legacy. What we conveniently ignored while Michael took out every foe in his path on the road to six NBA championships was that he was a world champion jerk. Writers would chalk it up as, “pathological competitiveness.” I for one ate it up. I constantly wished Vince Carter, and then Chris Bosh, played with the fire that seemed to consume Jordan. However, my first extended exposure to Jordan the person was his Hall of Fame induction speech. What I heard for 20 minutes was: “Suck my dick, high school coach who cut me. Suck my dick, Doug Collins. Suck my dick, kids who make high school teams. As a matter of fact, everyone should suck my dick, I’m the greatest and everyone doubted me.” Now, Michael, everyone knows that’s not true, since you’re the man who Nike built an entire line around when you came into the league something never done before and not done on the same level since. It was akin to hearing the hottest, most popular girl in school complain about how no one recognizes her beauty. You know who recognizes your beauty and talent, popular girl and Michael? Any guy in the school and anyone who’s watched basketball. So you’re both the worst.
With all that being said, I personally love all those athletes. I wish every player played like those 4 men, as do most sports fans. I also suspect most sports fans, like me, not only overlook the jerks those men were, but celebrate it. I would be willing to bet that at most sports bars if you mentioned these athletes you’d hear adjectives like, “winner”, “awesome”, “badass”, “ferocious competitor”. Why do we as a people love jerks? I don’t claim to know the answer but I believe, as a high school student I might be able to put it into proper context.
High school, is a place, most would agree, that people are at their worst. Everyone conforms to a stereotype for the most part, and I would argue you could divide almost the whole school into two groups: jerks and losers. The sad truth is, to have any sort of social life in high school you sometimes need to be a bit of a jerk. On Saturday night, you sometimes have to turn down a kid who you believe would make the night worse. Like it or not, this makes you a bit of a jerk. That’s okay, however, as your alternative is to be a loser. My friends and I may badmouth a kid who we believe to be a jerk, but that’s better than being a loser, they’re just ignored. I would rather be in a roomful of jerks than a roomful of losers.It would be far more interesting than it would be in a roomful of losers. I would probably talk about it a shitload after. We as a society love watching jerks, that must be part of the reason Jersey Shore is a hit. While we all may be claiming to laugh at DJ Pauly D, and The Situation, the truth is as most guys we would kind of like to be them. We admire their fearlessness, and their willingness to embarrass themselves without shame. We almost live vicariously through their fist pumping, their clubbing, their fame, and their women. I’m not saying we want to be them, but we all find that there is something about them that has us in front of the screen whatever night it’s on. This concept applies to all reality shows, and many scripted shows, like Mad Men. Because, after all, who doesn’t want to be like Don Draper? People admire the qualities and deceptions that make him successful, but at the same time those qualities and deceptions make him a philandering jerk.
We watch sports for many of the same reasons. I may think Ben Roethlisberger is a deplorable human being, but every Sunday I gravitate toward him for the reasons that make him a great football player, and probably a horrible human being. I admire his toughness, and fearlessness, and his unwillingness to take no for an answer. He refuses to give up on a play, letting the football fly with two defenders about to sack him. Could these same qualities have gotten him to refuse to give up on a woman and do something potentially unethical and illegal? Many of the attributes that make athletes great competitors, make them jerks. The point is I let it all go because Ben Roethlisberger is a winner. In life and in high school, and in sports, being a jerk will be forgiven as long as you’re a winner in the end. I may not like the cool guy or the hot popular girl as people, but in the end I’ll be forced to overlook it in public. As a people, as long as you can be popular, or get girls, or throw a football, you can be a jerk and we’ll accept you. What we can’t stomach is a loser. That’s why I so vehemently defend Ben Roethlisberger and insult Vince Carter. Carter has never been accused of any crime, other than not trying his best on the court. That makes him a loser, a crime most fans and I cannot forgive. We’ll stomach a jerk because that’s what makes the athlete a winner. What we cannot accept is a loser. So my answer to that teacher should have been that I could accept a jerk so long as he’s a winner. As a matter of fact usually the same traits that make him a jerk are what make him a winner. I suppose that’s why I put up with Big Ben and follow sports, for the same reasons people are fascinated by popular kids, or watch a certain show, because I need to see a winner. I can accept Ben being a jerk whether I can accept his losing performance at the Super Bowl is another question entirely.