Athletic Supporters

ESPN's The Life holds up the sensitive side of jock culture

I suppose we can blame this all on Mary-Ellis Bunim, who said, nearly a decade ago, Let there be The Real World. And so the heavens opened, and it was good, sort of. Narcissists, showoffs, and sociopaths hurried from far and near, took their star turn, then occasionally had a fleeting opportunity to look hurt when the spotlight burned out. Where have you gone, Eric Nies? A nation turned its lonely eyes to you, woo woo woo.

Then we discovered that it wasn't just hot-to-trot youngsters who would bare all in the name of, well, something. (Exactly what I'm not sure anyone has taken the time to pinpoint: Exposure? That canonical quarter-hour? The idea that any publicity is good publicity? Some pie-in-the-sky dream of stardom that most often translates into the opportunity to dodge Hef's Viagra-fueled paws?) Whatever the cause, putative adults have displayed their eagerness to endure the sadistic attentions of camo-suited sadists (Boot Camp), Chanel-suited sadists (The Weakest Link), birthday-suited sadists (Survivor), and even Regis Philbin in the pursuit of some numinous grace. Next season, watch for the Damon/Affleck The Runner, which strikes me as an excellent incitement to vigilante action. Where have you gone, Philip K. Dick? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you, woo woo woo.

For a glimpse at how effortlessly the real pros do it, try ESPN's The Life (which airs at various times on ESPN and ESPN2), a sneakily attractive voyage into the corners of the sporting world. Expanded from a feature in ESPN, the Magazine, this show reveals a particular genius in selling you exactly what athletes want you to see, while persuading you at the same time that you're just kicking it with your boys on the weekend. (Fittingly, it is sponsored by Sprite, which has woven an entire generation of ad campaigns around a sly our-image-is-no-image message.)

Mr. Ed in the slammer: The prison rodeo at Angola from ESPN's The Life
Mr. Ed in the slammer: The prison rodeo at Angola from ESPN's The Life

You could hit the cynic button here--notice how the NFL started running all those we-do-our-part PSAs just as the Rae Carruth and Mark Chmura trials were hitting the news?--and wonder how much, and how willingly, ESPN wants to cover bad news about sports. But I admit to enjoying the expertise with which this seamless illusion of the athletic life is constructed and laid before me. They fake it so real they're beyond fake, as noted jock Courtney Love once put it. (On which subject: Where have you gone, Courtney Love?)

For a dose of perspective, compare The Life with HBO's recent Billy Crystal indulgence, 61*, which documented how deadly media backspin could be, even 40 years ago. Poor Roger Maris, the wrong Yankee to break Babe Ruth's record, never learned to play the press with the adroitness of his teammate Mickey Mantle (subsequently revealed to be an amphetamine-charged letch) and went through hell as a result. Here, by contrast, titanic Ravens defensive tackle Tony Siragusa has a love-in with the camera, auditioning as comic relief for The Sopranos. See the town mayor talk up his north-Jersey burg. See the guys at the local deli marvel at Tony's monumental stomach. See his kids cheer Tony on, quite charmingly, as he ferries them around in the SUV. "Sam," he asks his daughter, "what did Daddy win this year?" "Super Bowl!" "Bee-boo!" adds her brother from his baby seat. (There's apparently no mommy in the picture, since she never gets a mention.) See Tony dis his brother when he lays claim to the title of "the original Goose." Hear Tony ruminate on fame: "I just live like tomorrow's my expiration date." Also on merit: "I didn't want some huge thing. My father couldn't buy this house if he worked 800 years."

Other stars let down their hair as far as they want to, often with surprisingly touching results. Budding Houston Rockets stars Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley want to be good sons. As close as brothers, they dress alike, taunt and nourish each other in practice, buy matching cars and scooters, and reward their loved ones with houses well beyond anything they'd ever imagined. Playing golf with Phoenix Coyotes Keith Tkachuk and Jeremy Roenick, we see how hard it is to tamp down your competitive fire, even during leisure time. Watching him cruise the Strip in his XXXL custom ride, I couldn't help recalling Jay Gatsby, his own inner sadness incompletely masked by his golden car.

In other episodes, we take little anthropological tours to various precincts of Sportsworld, many of which teach the encouraging lesson that not everyone is necessarily camera-ready, nor do they intend to be. The inaugural show visited the famed Battle of the Bands between Grambling and Southern universities, whose flamboyance and deep-rooted communalism remain touchstones for graduates of these historically black schools. Paunchy guys at the NFL draft root quasi-erotically for their favorite teams to hook up with the players of their dreams. And at the Angola Prison rodeo, lifers tease death--because why the hell not? The breeder of Dollar Bill, a horse that finished a disappointing 15th in the Kentucky Derby, offers salty counsel that any halfway competent PR adviser would have quashed: "Two things you don't fall in love with--a horse or a bad woman." His wife, in the background, looks away.

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