BY ART REMILLARD
“Dirt offends against order,” wrote the recently deceased anthropologist Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger. “Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organize the environment.” Douglas’s complex book makes a simple point. For the sake of social order, societies enact various means to purge their symbolic pollutants.
With this in mind, consider the current swirl of attention surrounding the “dirty athlete,” the great American Pigpen guilty of using performance enhancing drugs. Recently, leaders in Washington performed a civic cleansing ritual known as the congressional hearing. Bud Selig, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, was among those called before the committee. Blame and shame were in no short supply. In his opening remarks, the committee chairman remarked, “everyone in baseball is responsible: the owners, the commissioner, the union and the players.” The hearing went on to confirm what we already know, that players are taking performance enhancers and have been for at least a decade. The political spectacle was ultimately a demand (plea?) to MLB to bleach this stain. The question of “how” remains. Blood tests, suspensions, and heavy fines may work. One sportswriter called for Selig’s resignation, labeling him “the guy who brought us better baseball through chemistry” and made the sport “a toxic waste dump” filled with “polluted record books.” The commissioner, the author concluded, could not be trusted to “clean up” baseball.
The problem of performance enhancers extends far beyond baseball, into practically every sport to include—oddly enough—professional golf. If sport is a reflection of society, what does this say about contemporary America? Obviously, as the congressional hearing indicates, we take our games seriously. But this is nothing new in history. In his classic Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga argued that the “play element” in any society provides inspiration for civilization, and is therefore anything but frivolous. “The player can abandon himself body and soul into the game, and the consciousness of its being ‘merely’ a game can be thrust into the background.” He continued, noting that true play demands true purity, and cheating “spoils it altogether, because for us the essence of play is that the rules be kept.”
In professional sports, the rules have clearly been broken (many times over). Like many, I’m upset with dirty athletes and blame them and the corrupt system they belong to. I also blame myself. No, I didn’t inject players with HGH. But I love watching brutish batters bash a few dingers. And what a great story it makes when an aging pitcher rediscovers his 90-plus mile-per-hour fastball. Put simply: I want superhuman performances. But I also want virgin-like athletic purity. It seems I can’t have them both. Perhaps I should take a step back and assess both why I love sports, and how I love it. Without checking the latter, the dirt will continue to fly.