The Mercy Rule

The Inhuman Element

By David Roth

When Alex Rodriguez got into trouble earlier this month for purportedly playing in some illegal high-stakes poker games it was barely a story. It got attention because it's August and the alternative was writing about golf, and the brand-minders at Major League Baseball got huffy about it, and that led to the sport pundit-ocracy pretending to care about it for a day or two. But none of that meant it was a story that mattered at all, in any real way, to anyone on Earth. Which makes it perfect that this Very Controversial Story about the best-paid—and formerly best—player in baseball and his fancy, cocaine-including poker games was broken by celebrity burp-rag, Star magazine. If there's a story here, it's that the people who ordinarily pay their rent by pointing cameras up Lindsay Lohan's skirt were going after the marzipan-faced mandroid who, health permitting, plays third base for the New York Yankees.

It's not that A-Rod isn't notorious or defective enough to fit in with the sex tape ghouls, narcotized celebrity siblings, nip-slip artists, and Photoshop victims that ordinarily pad out the page view-mongering slideshows on the celebrity-carnage portion of the internet. This wasn't even A-Rod's first turn in this particular spotlight—his relationship with Cameron Diaz got wall-to-wall coverage from classy rags like Star. So yeah, A-Rod is very much a celebrity, even to internet-less grandparents and elementary schoolers who aren’t sure exactly who Beyonce is. But that doesn't make the tabloid-ization of sports more palatable.

Admittedly, traditional sports coverage isn't really where anyone looks for perspective or wryness or anything else that adults enjoy in the things they read. On one hand you’ve got harrumphing veteran columnists who have forgotten how to think for themselves and beat writers who sleepwalk their way through game recaps, and on the other hand you’ve got the dippy keyword-trolls at low-end sites like Bleacher Report, which is where you go when you think the internet is getting too smart. And yet I would take either of those options over the dead-eyed smirkiness and relentless fatuity of celebrity anti-news—better to mean it too much than not mean anything at all. For examples of how a place like TMZ covers topics that aren’t just semi-famous hardbodies doing drugs and recording themselves having sex, check out their takes on politics ("Barack Hard Abs") or finance ("MTV STAR AMBER LANCASTER Way TOO HOT For Economics”), which are dull, easy “articles” that generate SEO-friendly metadata.

But we'd probably all do well to get used to celebrity-style news creeping into our sports, like mold spreading in a refrigerator drawer. The Enquirer won't be scooping anyone on where Carlos Beltran will sign this offseason, but TMZ Sports is already crafting keyword-loaded headlines only tangentially related to sports (and reporting on women’s boxing, for some reason). The line between celebrity-actors and celebrity-athletes is already plenty blurry, and the media now knows that people are just as interested in Brett Favre’s penis as Kanye’s. As lousy as so much sportswriting is, both in its baying-bro and stern-scold forms, it’s good to remind ourselves that it’s preferable at least to the smugness and constant churn of celebrity-driven non-scandals. Eventually, of course, all news will be duckspeak-esque keyword compilations wrapped in goony knowingness and slideshows of genitals. But there's no need to rush into this era. It'll be here soon enough.

DAVID ROTH

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