Unfortunately, I teach on Monday nights, so I wasn’t able to watch Michael Vick’s titanic performance against the Redskins this past Monday. I watched the highlight reels, however, and read the stories, and listened to the chatter around the proverbial water cooler, and did not feel a mote of discomfort, other than regret that I had missed the game. Before I explain, just in case there’s anyone reading this who isn’t familiar with the Michael Vick story–unlikely, I know–let me sum it up: one of the most physically gifted athletes in NFL history liked to watch dogs destroy each other for fun, and if the dogs he owned performed poorly in the ring, he helped electrocute, hang, drown, or shoot them. Gruesome stuff, something you might see in a Faces of Death movie or in a suggestively edited introduction to a cinema villain: cut to savage and barely restrained dogs, cut to well-suited man with wicked grin, close on his black eyes as we hear the dog’s chains released, then just his eyes as we follow the murderous combat in his pupils–bark-bark–growl–snap–sound-effects lunge–sound-effects tear–growl–yelp–whimper–silence. The end result, we’re ready to watch the hero use whatever means necessary to bring this villain to heel. Well, after a year-and-a-half in prison, Vick’s back, and he’s playing like a demon. The problem is, of course, athletes are supposed to be the heroes.
I’m far from the first person to wrestle with this dilemma–the best treatment of which was, I believe, Malcolm Gladwell’s October, 2009 article in The New Yorker. Gladwell, in typical fashion, makes an elegant argument for the tacit connections between our love and treatment of football players, and a dog owner’s love and treatment of their fighting dogs. “In a fighting dog,” he writes, “the quality that is prized above all others is the willingness to persevere, even in the face of injury and pain.” Remind you of anything or anyone? If you’ve ever played a competitive sport, or really, I suppose, just been on the planet for any length of time, you know that the same qualities that are valued in fighting dogs are the values required of all heroes. It’s the heroism that Springsteen sings of, that Larry Bird admired in his father, who would pull a work boot over his broken foot before a full day at the factory rather than stay home, in Brett Favre, whose 2003 Monday Night Football performance the day after his father’s death still turns my eyes glassy; it’s the heroism that bounced Mohammed Ali off the canvas in 1971 at Madison Square Garden and allowed him to finish the 15th round against Joe Frazier; it’s Aung San Suu Kyi fighting Burmese oppression and Milton fighting blindness. That thing that keeps you going, that “I don’t know what” quality, demands admiration. Gladwell, of course, points out that the difference between the above examples and dog fighting is the abuse of that virtue. The dog’s unconditional trust is turned against the animal, used up, beaten, shot. But that’s not the only complication. Dealing with that is the easy part. There’s something harder here, much harder.
That virtue, that “gameness” as dog fighters call it, is also what led Adolf Hitler to continue on after the Beer Hall Putsch. It helped Qin Shi Huang unify China on the backs of the murdered, and inspired the First through Ninth Crusades; it even led Khan to blow up the Genesis device at the end of Star Trek II. In fact, if we can cut to that shell of a cinematic villain introduced earlier, we recognize that quality in all of our great cinematic villains, the Freddy Kreuger that won’t stay dead, the Hannibal Lecter that won’t stay silent. The problem is that “gameness” is a virtue; it’s just not one we’re comfortable with. We like the 13th century version of virtue, the Christian virtue of meekness, goodness, rectitude; but “gameness” is closer to virtus, the latin root for virtue, meaning strength and power. And when we look for the first in the second, as we do with our athletes, we become lost.
We watch sports for a variety of reasons, but it is clear that we do it for more than entertainment–no one riots over puppet shows. Sports have been around for a pretty long time, at least 5,000 years, and are often connected with religious ritual: the Mesoamerican ballgame, for example. They are also, quite often, violent. African stick fighters will brave severe mutilation and even death in order to prove themselves. Why? Because a great stick fighter earns security for his children and fidelity from his wife. He brings home the bacon, so to speak. There is a reason sport is a cultural universal. Cultures must provide acceptable expressions of the violent impulse in order to survive. Just as a successful predator secures survival through strength–both physical and mental–a successful athlete secures laurels; liberated by society from the basics of survival, athletes become like kings, and, occasionally, queens. Put simply, sport is a culturally conditioned outlet for our innate predation. Sport is canonized violence.
It is that capacity for power that serves the athlete, that secures her glory. It is also, what separates sports from the rest of society. Earlier, I mentioned other examples of that same kind of power, examples in the world, off the field: the Gandhis in their unflagging quests, the Stalins in their relentless crusades. They are, however, historical anomalies. The world’s shifting alliances and diplomatic deceptions reward the mouse far more often than they reward the lion. Even the most physically talented athlete must have a killer lurking in his brain, a bit of cruelty in his chest; if he doesn’t, he’s a Chris Webber, a Jim Kelly, a LeBron James–all men I would rather have a beer with than a Bryant or a Favre, but not men I would bet on in a dog fight.