On sports nonsense

David Shields has a power-packed little volume called "Body Politic" which is well worth your time. (It came out the better part of a decade ago, but hey, the lockout's a great time to catch up.)

The introduction is by Robert Lipsyte, who shares a little tale from his days as an "expendable" 22-year-old writing for The New York Times when he was sent out to ask Mickey Mantle about a mildly controversial incident:

Mickey and Yogi Berra were playing catch in front of the dugout when I politely introduced myself before the game. I'm sure I was wearing a suit and tie that evening at the stadium, possibly a matching vest, and I'm pretty sure I called him "Mr. Mantle" when I inquired if I might ask him about what happened the previous week. Very casually, Mickey glanced over his shoulder and made a rude and impossible suggestion.

Now I had heard such words before but never from an American hero. I read the papers; I knew the story of this sunny Oklahoma Kid gutsing it out on bad wheels, genetically doomed to an early death as he tried to replace the Clipper and the Bambino. Yet despite it all, he was terminally loveable. What I didn't know was that he had been permitted, enabled, by his press claque to disregard any questions he didn't want to answer, assured that his image would be protected no matter how much snarling at reporters and spitting at young fans he needed to do to relieve his angst. No wonder the Times had ambassador to the Yankees didn't bother. I assumed I had asked the question incorrectly, so I rephrased it. Mickey signaled to Yogi, and they began throwing the ball through my hair. I was experienced enough to realize the interview was over.

I felt ashamed, humiliated by the experience. What had I done wrong? How had I offended this American icon? Should I even be doing this work? It was a long time before I told the story to a more experienced reporter, who laughed. "That's Mickey. We don't write about it," he told me, "because our editors don't want to print such stuff because our readers don't want to hear about it, and we don't want to lose access. Welcome to the club, kid. Don't let it get you down. Happens to all of us, every day."

It took me a while to become properly angry because I didn't want to admit to myself that I had been bullied, that I was a victim. It was all too close to the feelings that women have when they are sexually harassed and made to feel that it is their fault, that they bring it on themselves. I didn't want to feel like a girl. I am a man -- I hang with the Bronx Bombers.

Lipsyte isn't the only one who was mistreated in that story. Sports heroes are a Big Cultural Deal. To the extent their heroism is really an illusion, a conspiracy of profits, we are dupes.