In a (very) old Saturday Night Live sketch Steve Martin plays “Theodoric of York: Medieval Barber,” a man of “medicine” whose every prescription is to let more blood out of the patients. All of them are weak and ghostly from his treatments. After a woman chastises Theodoric for being a charlatan who has no idea what he’s doing, Martin begins to reflect. He wonders if there could be another, better way to heal. He becomes excited, seeing himself as leading mankind into the light.
Martin: “Maybe this scientific method could be extended to other fields of learning: the natural sciences, art, architecture, navigation. Perhaps I could lead the way to a new age, an age of rebirth, a Renaissance! [Martin thinks for a minute.] Naaaaaahhh!”
I expected a similar punch line last week when baseball commissioner Bud Selig responded to the 409-page George Mitchell Report on the use of steroids. At some point, I was sure Selig would stop his litany of promises to clean up the game and just go, “Naaaaaahhh!”
We’ve known about steroids for years, and interpreting the Mitchell report as a mandate for change, although it is, is a little like hoping that liquor store owners will get into another line of work because there was an especially gruesome drunk driving accident over the weekend. Still, I’d like to latch on to this “Woe is sports” moment that has arrived during the season of reflection and renewal to suggest that we might all make something good come from Mr. Mitchell’s extensive work.
Something turned in us in the 1980’s, right around the time of those John Houseman TV ads for Smith Barney. You remember: “We make money the old-fashioned way: We earn it.” Why did that resonate at the time? Maybe we already knew then, almost 30 years ago, that something in the American soul was beginning to decay. Did the money-coke-possessions-more money “go-go” drive of the 80’s leave us feeling so empty that a grandfatherly actor in a 30-second TV spot could nail our troubled spirit just by hitting the word “earn” the right way?
For the sake of my argument, let’s say that it was also right around then that “branding” became part of our lexicon, and right behind that the idea that having a good brand was good even if the stuff wearing the brand wasn’t all that special. This is how our household ended up owning an electric fan from a company that had been “building American fans for 100 years”… although our fan came from China.
We need to look beyond sports, if only because I’m lost on finding a morality for baseball that will somehow exceed that of, say, boxing (where you score by pounding a man’s brains into jelly) or football (where you pound a man’s bones into jelly) or auto racing where “fans” drink beer all day in the hot sun waiting for a crash. But we if stand on the Mitchell report to lift ourselves a few valuable inches off the ground, maybe we’ll have a vantage point for viewing the larger problem.
Which is that simple integrity has taken such a beating over the last few decades that many will pooh-pooh an expensive and thorough report confirming that baseball players use drugs to cheat. And while our discoveries (WMD lies, “We didn’t know about the lead paint” lies) should always prompt us to discuss atonement, the baseball report made me more concerned about the question of integrity in general. In everything.
Government, the Catholic Church, corporate environmental disasters kept hidden… maybe we shouldn’t waste time wringing our hands about sports. Rather than conceding to a cynical view, however, we could renew any and all efforts to return simple integrity to American life and business. We could give ourselves the holiday gift of striving in the New Year to beat the erosion of caring whether things are in fact what we say they are.
Because it’s bigger than coming clean with your kids about your own pot use. It’s now deeply woven into the way we are with each other any time we leave our bunkers and big screens and venture into congress with others. If a baseball star stops to sign an autograph for a kid as drugs course through the hero’s blood system… then it’s literally inside of us. A happy holiday to all, and not just a happy New Year, but a better New Year.