Friday, December 14, 2007

The Mitchell Report: Follow the Money

Bear with me on what might appear to be a tangent from my usual monastic concerns. I promise that I will get to the relevance as quickly as I can. Also bear in mind that I was a sports enthusiast as a young man, to the point where I managed to get a press pass by becoming a sports announcer on a Green Bay radio station.

Yesterday, the "Mitchell Report" on steroid use in baseball was released, naming over 80 players, some superstars. It is a sad story all around and probably will get worse.

In today's Chicago Tribune, most of the reporters responded with outrage, which I understand. However, I think that it is misplaced. I would like to suggest that we as a society are all implicated by this scandal, and here is why.

When faced with the prospect of making 5-25 million dollars a year playing a game versus getting a real job like being an auto mechanic or insurance salesman, is it any surprise that some men would choose to bend the rules in their favor? When a megastar like pitcher Roger Clemens loses a step and is fading into irrelevance, can we really be surprised and outraged when he allegedly decides to rescue and prolong his career by doing what countless other men around him are doing?

I will not comment on the motive of glory and fame for now, and focus simply on the money. Major League Baseball players are automatic millionaires these days. A guy barely good enough to make a roster is almost assured of seven figures. That is a whole lot of money, enough to set a clever investor for a long time. And they make it every year. Who of us wouldn't be enticed?

This raises the question: all this money for what? Where does this money come from? Most of us would bark out the answer, "Ticket prices inflated by those greedy owners," and this answer would be incorrect. The huge revenues actually come largely from television contracts.

But where does television money come from? Here is the link that is almost never talked about in our world. One would think that the omnipresence of television would spawn more intelligent commentary about the meaning of the phenomenon itself. Instead, what passes for intelligent analysis are stories about how many episodes of Gunsmoke are out on DVD and who will win Dancing With the Stars. The very important question, "Why watch television at all?" is almost never asked, except when people encounter monks who dont' have one.

The fact is that millions of people take television for granted. And if the stakes are high for baseball, how much higher are they for television in general. I forget exactly how much money a Super Bowl ad costs these days, but it's not the $18 my old radio station used to charge for a thirty-second spot (and we were FM!).

Advertisers are willing to fork out this money because...advertising works. I must admit that this is one of the single biggest mysteries for me in the modern world. Why we should be swayed by self-interested promoters of products baffles me. The documented effectiveness of advertising suggests that the larger part of Americans are perfectly willing to turn off their God-given faculties of critical judgment, even when their own money is at stake. How many people buy more expensive brand name things simply because they are brand name? I will admit that Pepsi and Coke taste different, but why should the sales of one or the other change because of advertising? Are people's taste preferences really altered by, say, images of women on the beach?

Well, yes, apparently. And here we arrive at the crux of my long-winded argument. Advertising works, it seems to me, because television really does disable our rational ability to discern the movements of our passions (there is the monastic connection). Advertising stokes the fires of our passions (lust, gluttony and vainglory are probably the most typical) in order to override our reason. The subjection of reason to the passions is one of the effects of sin. It is not reasonable to spend our money on products simply because advertisers appeal to our vanity and we feel that we will be 'cool' or 'the first on our block' to own a pet rock. But we do this. If we didn't, then advertisers would not seek out television. Television would have less money to give to baseball owners, and baseball owners less money to dangle in front of players tempted by steroids.

It is possible that revenues might be just as high if sporting events were all pay-per-view. In this case, it would be our worship of sports figures that would be to blame, and indeed this is not absent as a problem in the previous scenario. What all of this suggests to me is that sports fans in some measure and television viewers in some smaller measure, have colluded with major league sports to contribute to the steroids scandal.and that we turn a blind eye to the connections because we like having our passions stoked. If this is the case, then there is a much larger sickness to this whole story, and it implicates a whole culture. Outrage is out of place when it is coming from individuals and aimed at the men who have been tempted beyond their strength--by our money.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
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and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
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Origen of Alexandria
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