an apology for the ages

(Hoisted from comments over at gothamist; slightly edited and expanded here for clarity.)

So apparently Tiger Woods had a press conference to apologize to the world of sports journalism for behaving pretty much like every professional athlete in history.  I would have happily avoided any contact with this information, but there’s a TV mounted in front of the treadmill at the gym, and some days I’m dumb enough to look up at it.  It was the usual dreary scene: “I’m sorry I disappointed everyone, I’m in therapy now, I hope you can forgive me, and I take all the responsibility.”  And I found myself thinking: you know what would be awesome?  What would be awesome would be if he’d come out in front of the cameras and said something like:

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry all of you dumb bastards were deluded enough to think that any professional athlete, ever, was a suitable role model for yourself or your kids. I’m sorry that our nation’s priorities are so screwed up that any newspaper in country, never mind all of them, devoted more than an inch of print to this story when there are only twenty people it actually matters to: me, my wife, my children and the sixteen strippers I was banging on the side.

But since we’re all here and you don’t seem to be going away, here’s a bit of truth: professional athletes are assholes. To get to the top of any pro sport, even a half-assed one like golf, requires a level of mental obsession and physical commitment that no sane person would ever endure. You probably pat yourself on the back if you do half an hour of cardio work in the gym three days a week. For me, or Tom Brady, or god forbid a mutant like Michael Phelps, that’s called a warm-up, and we do it before we’ve had breakfast, every day of the week. Then the real work starts. It’s difficult, it hurts, and it breaks the body down: we require teams of trained physicians, masseurs, trainers and physical therapists just to make sure that we don’t snap every ligament in our bodies.  I’m not asking for sympathy here: actually I think it’s pretty much the best job in the world.  But let me repeat: no sane person does this.

So why do we? Why do I do it? First, because we are hyper-competitive obsessives. The idea of not being the best, of not enduring any amount of agony if it even slightly increased the chances of winning is almost physically unbearable. If my trainer told me that I could cut three points off my handicap by beating my own mother to death, I’d say ‘sorry, ma’ as I reached for the 9-iron and started wailing away.  Michael Jordan used to bite the heads off of live kittens because somebody told him it’d help his layup.  It’s true, I swear.

But second and much more relevant here, in the words of the great philosopher Tony Montana: ‘First you get the money. Then you get the power. Then you get the women.’ Champion athletes are made, not born, and they’re made when little Johnny sixth-grader realizes that the high school varsity quarterback gets to date the head cheerleader. Trust me: there is no greater motivating force on earth than a teenage boy’s desire for sex and adulation. We all do this (even the gay ones, I’m looking at you Johnny Weir) because we know in our bones that the benefits package for this job includes unlimited access to fantasy-grade sex partners. And all you poor slobs out there wishing you were Drew Brees know this too. It’s part of why you watch us, maybe even the biggest part.

By the way, I’m pretty sure this is how it works for female pros as well: they’re just usually a lot smarter about not getting caught out in public. But if you think that the WNBA or the LPGA don’t have enough drama to match the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, then I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

Also, maybe you figured this out already, but we’re all a little fucked-up around gender and relationships in general.  A professional training and competition regimen means that we all spend 14 hours out of every day hanging around a very small group of people, and they’re all either exactly the same kind of obsessive competitors that I am, or they’re trainers and bodyguards who are paid to be there (and are not paid to offer their opinions on anything not directly related to their job), so not only is there damn little time or opportunity to learn how to treat other people respectfully, there’s basically nobody there who’s going to suggest that it’s even a good idea.  And just so we’re all clear: we like it this way.  I’m the king of my own carefully cultivated little world, and it’s awesome.

So yeah, I fucked around. I liked them blond, jiggly and none-too-smart, and for the last ten years it’s been hot and cold-running bimbos flowing freely any time I wanted to open the tap. The mistake I made wasn’t dogging around, but marrying someone who cared, and not being smart enough to stick to the ones who wouldn’t go running to the newspapers. But given half a chance, I’ll do it all again, because did I mention that I’m a hyper-competitive asshole, and did I mention that without that urge I’d pretty much suck at golf?

So go ahead and take your shots: you thought I was one thing and I turned out to be another, and I know that makes some of you really mad. You feel like having me shill for an insurance company meant that I was somehow committing to living a life of calm risk-aversion. Do I look like an actuary to you? This is what I am, this is part and parcel of why I’m a champion, and if any of you were honest with yourselves for even a minute, you’d admit that and tell your kids that maybe they should pick some better heroes. Of course, you’d best not ask too many questions about what firefighters do in their off hours either.

Thank you and good night. Oh, and that hot blonde number in the back? Call me!”

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Postscript: I’ve been getting occasional complaints that commenting isn’t working. I can’t seem to reproduce the problem myself, but if you can I’d love to hear about it, preferably including dates, times and your browser and OS versions: send it to me here. Alternatively, the post is mirrored at good ol’ livejournal, here, and anyone should be able to comment there.

As a serious athlete as well as someone who knows a number of former and a few current professional athletes, I take serious offense at this article. You’re drawing the “douchebag” stereotype with an excessively wide brush. Certainly, there are a lot of folks who conform to that stereotype, but I’m also confident that there are a lot of folks who don’t.

To get to the top of any pro sport … requires a level of mental obsession and physical commitment that no sane person would ever endure.” Absolutely flat-out wrong. Is a parent who constantly thinks of his children insane? A doctor who constantly thinks of her patients? A writer who obsesses over the plot of his upcoming novel? Does keeping systems up and running require any less a commitment? Does someone become insane for willingness to take an on-call shift?

Sure, becoming good at a sport requires a certain amount of obsession. Becoming good at _anything_ requires a certain amount of obsession. I, for one, am obsessed with pole vault. I am also obsessed with photography. Am I doubly insane now? I would argue that you see obsession in this small group of people, yet fail to see that same obsession in yourself, and in nearly everybody else who cares strongly about something….

So while the monologue above might be true of Tiger Woods and of a large multitude of professional athletes, asserting that it applies to all or nearly-all professional athletes is basically daft and myopic. Equally as daft and myopic as someone who asserts that computer engineers universally have poor communication skills and can’t find relationships.

Omari: all good points, and I’ll happily concede that painting with a wide brush is most certainly what I was doing, and on top of that I was going for laughs and trying to write in the voice of a hypothetical unrepentant (and somewhat sociopathically self-aware) Woods, none of which were going to lend subtlety to the argument even if I was doing it really well, which I’m okay admitting I probably wasn’t. My sincere apologies if you felt like the paint spattered on you. (And seriously: not lame “I’m sorry you were offended”, but I’m flat-out sorry if what I wrote was personally hurtful. It’s not what I was out to do.)

In the piece’s defense (assuming it’s worth any, dunno), I will say this: it was a conscious choice to consistently use the prefix “professional”, and the named athletes were chosen with some care: all pros and all celebrities, except for Phelps who seemed germane since he’d already had his moment of having to apologize for behavior nobody in their right mind thought he seriously regretted. (Phelps also seemed relevant as an example of a training regimen that _really_ left him no time for socialization outside a small circle, and which most human beings would be both physically and mentally incapable of withstanding.) And my admittedly far-outside perspective, there really does seem to (often) be a pretty large difference between amateur athletes, no matter how serious (even, largely, at the olympian/world-champion level) and the pros.

Pretty much all of the sports bio writing I’ve read (and I specifically had Hunter Thompson’s old piece on Muhammad Ali in my head as I was throwing this thing together, as well as Bill Lee’s “The Wrong Stuff”) talks a lot about both the socially isolating effects of living at the intersection of athlete and celebrity, and also about behavior towards sex and relationships that ranges from the occasionally inappropriate to the downright pathological. And while it’s a fair cop to draw the parallel to any difficult job or hobby (engineering, the military, photography, medicine), the complaints about (or cheerful endorsements of) the peculiar pressures of pro sports always struck me as being different both quantitatively and qualitatively.