we on the sofa

The final scene in John Sayles’ Eight Men Out features John Cusack (as Buck Weaver) sitting on some bleachers watching a not even minor league baseball game. He’s watching the center-fielder and listening to some fans make small talk about who the center-fielder is, or at least who he used to be. It’s him, the fans say, it’s Shoeless Joe Jackson. Weaver, who knows Jackson and played with him, shakes his head. Those guys are all gone now he says. But, of course, it is Shoeless Joe Jackson and even the fans in the bleachers can tell that the guy they’re watching is a cut above the rest, there’s something special in the way he pretends not to be.

That something special was something lost, something cast aside and disregarded. Shoeless Joe had been banned from professional baseball after the Black Sox scandal in 1919. Eight players, as the title of Sayles film denotes, were cast out of the professional leagues by Commissioner of Baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis, never to play again. That there was a conspiracy to lose the 1919 World Series is not in doubt, nor is it in doubt that it was a poorly executed conspiracy that benefited no-one in particular, especially not the players. A Chicago court acquitted the Black Sox (as the eight were called) but seeking to maintain baseball’s clean reputation Landis threw them out, forever:

Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ball game; no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ball game; no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing ball games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.

Shoeless Joe and Buck Weaver maintained they never did anything wrong. They never spiked a play or dropped a catch or ran slow but they were banned nonetheless. Weaver tried until his death in 1956 to get reinstated, and even more recently when the White Sox again made the World Series two of his nieces petitioned to have his ban overturned. Jackson played semi pro ball for years after his ban, for nothing much else but love of the game, before returning to Greenville to run a liquor store with his wife, which they did until his death in 1951. In 1999 the US House of Representatives passed a motion calling on Major League baseball authorities to rescind Jackson’s ban to no avail. Both Jackson and Weaver remain on the banned list.

It seems to me that the players of the 1919 Chicago White Sox were faced with a terrible conundrum. Be part of the team and throw the games, and lose. Or, be part of the team and denounce the conspirators, and, more likely than not, lose. Alongside this is the crystalline fact that the players were punished for the conspiracy. Not the gamblers for setting it up, not the baseball authorities for failing to foresee such circumstances, not the team management for providing minimal support or respect. Only the players were punished, punished for finding themselves in an untenable situation.

This is the model for strict liability currently in place for the use of performance enhancing drugs. The individual, the athlete with pill in mouth or needle in thigh, is responsible. The context for such liability is completely elided. Sports are businesses, big business. They are competitive institutions seeking our recreational dollar and punishing the athlete is means for corporate sports to maintain their image as simulacra for pastoral, bucolic resonances of happy childhood play. As consumers we’re meant to see the players on the field, fit and healthy and clean, as being a narrative extension of schoolyard games. This is marketing, spin and nothing more, mere advertising.

When the corporate playing fields are surveyed by regulatory authority the most important thing for those corporate entities is to manage reputational damage. To keep the punters handing over their cash, to keep the bums on seats, and to keep the televisions tuned in and the advertisers lining up to sponsor the whole shebang: these are the primary objectives in the face of investigative scrutiny. Reputation management prevents sports from being theatre, or wrestling, or just bad television. It means they’re not a joke, and that we can continue to tune in with our consciences clear.

Strict liability is a core pillar supporting the management, and elision, of reputational damage. It’s also what Lance Armstrong is currently railing against. Lance wants to run marathons and do the things that middle aged men in lycra do in the dawn light and on Saturdays: triathlons, harder mudders and what not.  “Hell yes, I’m a competitor,” Armstrong told Oprah. He wants to play and win. This is not dissimilar to Shoeless Joe and Buck Weaver who just wanted to play ball.

The defenders of Shoeless Joe and Buck Weaver and the Black Sox point out that the White Sox were run meanly, and that the concerns of the players were unregarded. Pay, benefits, job security, the reserve clause, their career trajectory, their family’s ongoing viability. All these were grist to the mill for the owners and controllers of baseball. The Black Sox scandal was not a result of player greed but of baseball’s unencumbered exploitation of the players. Lance Armstrong could make similar arguments. That cycling benefited more than he, that cycling created and exploited him. That cycling created the circumstances in which EPO and blood doping were key tools for success, and that cycling created the scale on which the Lance issues are being played out. That cycling created the scale of rewards that Lance reaped and created the risks to match that (industrial) scale.

Ultimately though, cycling is just the proxy because we on the sofa, the audience (and the source of all that revenue), did it. We fetishized the speed, the grace, the seamless movement toward victory and their uncomplicated delivery to our living rooms. We coughed up the cash for advertisers products; we bought replica US Postal gear; we coveted Trek bikes and Oakley shades; we bought the magazines and the DVDs; we tuned in and kept watching. We are still watching, that’s how successful cycling’s industrial combine has been. Even Loser Lance is enough to generate revenue (how much did those ads on OWN cost? 100k for two slots I heard) and ensure that cycling doesn’t become the new racquetball. We ensure the safety of the industry.

Eight Men Out tells a story that is about the injustice of taking a childhood dream and crushing it, taking the play out of playing ball. That injustice was weighted on the player, not on the industry and not on the audience. There’s some awry in this, a troubling denial of the manner in which we buy and sell our fun, a terrible blindness to the salesmen. When Lance said “I deserve to be punished, I’m not sure that I deserve a death penalty” he was pointing to the same injustice, an injustice to which we on the sofa were party.

A couple of weeks ago the Australian Crime Commission issued a report regarding performance enhancement in Australian sport and found that quite a number of AFL and NRL clubs had made use of the services of a sports doctor with a penchant for peptides and other supplements. Investigations are continuing amid much brouhaha and finger pointing. The clubs are dancing around and offering any number of mitigating circumstances which might excuse the marginal difference a few peptides might have made over the course of twenty six games. The clubs are being loudly defended by those who love them, us again, and we can expect that when punishments are handed out clubs will be chastised but not penalized. Strict liability means that the players will be punished. The players will pay the cost in terms of their livelihoods, just like Shoeless Joe and Buck Weaver and, maybe, even Lance Armstrong.

This system of injustice warrants some thinking about. Who’d want to find that something loved was lost?


About rustichello

A rather too quiet fellow of little reknown.
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