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Sportin' life

A few weeks ago, I met a woman on the shuttle bus to the Oakland airport. We were chatting and she mentioned that she was from Salt Lake City, a rare non-Mormon. In a hushed voice, she discussed the current Olympic bribery fiasco. "About time those bastards took a hit," she hissed with glee.

Indeed, nothing warms the heart more than hypocrisy unmasked. From Bob Livingston to the Atlanta Falcons Bible-thumper on the prowl for a Monica, the fun never lets up.

In the sports business, however, hypocrisy is the name of the game. Somebody please explain why Pete Rose will never get his place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum simply because he bet on games, while Lawrence Taylor breezes into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, even though he’s a clapped-out, unrepentant dope fiend. Athletes are specialists – they make difficult albeit inconsequential tasks look easy. But off the court or the field, plenty of them have no idea how to function in civilized society. Smashed-up cars, smashed-up chicks, crackhouse busts, the list goes on and on. The sports business knows that today’s hero could be tomorrow’s chump, breaking rocks in the hot sun and, thus, acts accordingly.

Watch "ESPN Sports Desk" or "Fox Sports" and you’ll see plenty of PR shucking and jiving. With shrill voices and vernacular copped from the hood, commentators simultaneously mock and hype the product. Throw in some rackety music and a visual cacophony of digital graphics and you have the makings of a nice little migraine. To enjoy watching sports on television requires an ability to endure, no matter how bad the hype or the toupees. On occasion, you’re rewarded with moments of sheer beauty and genuine suspense, such as the Canada-Czech hockey match during the Olympics, or the England-Argentina nailbiter during the World Cup. But they are few and far between, and the aspirin bottles continue to pile up.

What Marilyn Manson is to pop music, Dennis Rodman is to sports. There’s no such thing as "authenticity" anymore. We’re wise to all the tricks. Parody is the last refuge for scoundrels, while the rest of us drown in irony. Michael Jordan must breathe a sigh of relief now that he’s free to stroll the fairways of exclusive resorts, far removed from the insane big top of fame in which he did his marvelous deeds.

Which brings us to old friend Iron Mike Tyson. He’s back in the pen. To quote Karl Marx: first time tragedy, second time farce. But so what? He’s still my hero. As a relatively white, relatively middle-class gent, I would seem to have very little in common with Tyson in terms of background and upbringing. Yet living in an age in which heterogeneity and multiculturalism are aggressively foregrounded at both the informal (popular culture) and formal (institutional) levels of American society, one has many opportunities to engage the "other" in a nonfetishistic way.

And this is the challenge of liking Mike Tyson. As a privileged white spectator, it would be very easy to subscribe to the dominant racist understanding of Tyson as a thuggish madman who turns a boxing ring into a zoo cage. If Ali was seen as a noble savage embodying civil rights, black power and the arid beauty of Islam, Tyson is an "uncivilized beast" broadcasting an irascible negritude that articulates the nihilism of inner-city America and the aesthetization of that misery into the vulgar consumer culture of hip hop and Black Entertainment Television.

Ali, once rabidly articulate, has been muted from too much punishment for too long. Tyson remains silent because, when he does open his mouth, he says things like "Fuck Holyfield" on the "Today Show," in that quaint Marilyn Monroe voice of his.

Indeed, what’s intriguing about Tyson is that he’s beyond the pale of public relations and its project of making people and things more palatable, and thus more easily consumable. What a package – the dreamy-eyed, gold-toothed sneer, the jailhouse tattoos of Mao and Che that adorn a rippling physique and a sterling reputation for episodes of psychotic behavior in (ear biting) and out (spousal abuse and rape) of the ring, plus a long affiliation with ultranefarious impresario Don King. Tyson is the bad boy that Dennis Rodman only wishes he could be.

Boxing has struggled for decades to simultaneously parlay and whitewash its dodgy image into respectable, big money entertainment. Tyson is a problem because, as good as he can be in the ring, where savagery often wins the day, he can be equally dreadful out of it. Short of locking him up in a dungeon, Tyson’s handlers and investors have had to keep him on a very tight leash. And now, after the Holyfield ear-biting debacle and subsequent 18 months in suspension wilderness, he is on his own, free of King, free of expectations, yet still fighting the good fight, as it were, even behind bars.

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