Defining Obscene

You have probably heard about the recent contract agreement between the Miami Marlins of major league baseball and Giancarlo Stanton the baseball player. The contract was for $325 million over the next thirteen years. Stanton is a very talented player who is most renown for being hit in the eye by a baseball last season and missing some of the season while still managing to hit .288 with 37 home runs and 105 rbi. That’s impressive and it is certainly the case that the Marlins are wise to sign the man to a long-range contract. But the fact that this contract makes Stanton the highest paid athlete on the continent raises some eyebrows. In a recent interview, he was asked if he was a bit embarrassed to be making the equivalent of $165,000 a day for the next thirteen years. His response brought about the following attempt at wit:

The man asked if he was embarrassed by the money, he being Giancarlo Stanton, who at that moment sat at the left shoulder of Jeffrey Loria [owner of the Marlins]. Still, the man in the audience remained laser-focused on Stanton and not Loria.

Embarrassed, he said, as though Loria had panhandled $325 million on a street corner in South Beach, which, OK, he sort of did, but he didn’t have to. That was Loria’s choice. And that was Miami’s choice. If not the residents, then the city leaders, and now the city has an honest-to-goodness “generational player” (unless, disgusted, he were to leave) to go along with a lovely ballpark the taxpayers carried in on their backs.

The game is rich. The owners – this one, in particular – are rich. And the man asked Giancarlo Stanton, someone who actually hits the home runs and catches the gappers, if this weren’t all so embarrassing. To, you know, Giancarlo Stanton. Personally.

To which Stanton opened his eyes wide, confirming that that fastball had indeed missed his eye socket, and he smiled, showing teeth still connected to his gums in spite of that fastball.

“Embarrassing to me?” Stanton didn’t so much ask as hold at arm’s length between his thumb and forefinger. “Nah, not exactly.”

.Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton smiles after his news conference Wednesday at Marlins Park. (USA TODAY Sports)

(Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton smiles after his news conference Wednesday at Marlins Park. (USA TODAY …)

The fact that Stanton was not in the least embarrassed and, in fact, didn’t seem to understand the question, must give us pause. Is it possible that we are coming close to understanding what the word “obscene” means? I realize that the word usually applies to works of art or other visual items that we find repulsive, but I suggest that the word has wider application — as in this case. I mean, after all, $165,000 a DAY for playing a game.

Given the fact that the highest salary on the Marlins prior to this contract was for $6.5 million and that the lowest salary on the team is a mere $500,000 one might suspect there could arise some tensions on that team in the future. But, more to the point, there are over 100 million homeless people on this planet, at last count, and 3 million unemployed people in America alone at a time when the average annual income of all Americans (including the Koch brothers who skew the figures a bit) is $25, 567. In the face of such widespread poverty and suffering, where the average Joe who is expected to pay for the tickets to see this man play a game will work at one or two jobs while this man drinks a $20,000.00 bottle of Champaign to celebrate his new contract, the truly depressing thing to note is that Stanton doesn’t grasp the fact that he might have the decency to be a bit embarrassed.

I know, the Marlins didn’t have to pay the man this kind of money and the average Joe doesn’t have to pay for the tickets to see him play. But these things happen on a regular basis in a country were the Congress can’t make a decision not based on corporate influence and the planet is in serious jeopardy of irreparable damage due to our demand for creature comforts that may, or may not, be necessary. Something’s wrong here.

Lacking Perspective

Andy Roddick is retiring from professional tennis at the age of 30. This is big news on the tennis scene, though it has been apparent for some time that he cannot compete with the three or four top players in the world. His game is one-dimensional: it’s all about power. In any event he is reportedly going to build a tennis center and that will be his focus in the years to come. This is what the world needs: another tennis center. Andre Agassi and John McEnroe have tennis centers as does Vic Braden and heaven only knows who else. One notes that it has almost become a cliché for the retired athlete to build an athletic center — in his own name, of course — to teach the skills (and “life lessons”) to younger players.

The bothersome thing is that the world really does not need more tennis centers! It needs people with excess money to think about real human needs and attempt to address some of them. Think of the good that Roddick, for example, could do with the money that will go to another tennis center to teach kids how to play tennis. 45 million people in this country go to bed hungry; the number of homeless people who live with their kids in a cheap motel or sleep in their cars grows daily; the planet itself demands our attention since, as Diane Keaton (of all people) has noted “climate change, like gravity, doesn’t give a damn whether you ‘believe’ in it or not. It’s happening regardless.” Now there’s a woman with perspective.

I have commented in a previous blog about the apparent lack of perspective of so many wealthy professional athletes, specifically Billie Jean King who did remarkable things to help give women a foot up in women’s tennis but also seems to be unaware that there are things besides tennis that really matter. As I noted in writing about Billie Jean’s appearance before a Congressional Committee to promote tennis: “Billie Jean King is on my rather short list of sports heroes, along with Phil Mickelson and Magic Johnson — folks who are keen to do the right thing, not just their own thing. But I have always thought Billie Jean stands too close to the trees to see the forest. Like so many professional athletes, she lives in a small world, though she is admittedly an exception in exhibiting any social awareness whatever. She has repeatedly spoken out for tennis and for women’s rights — important issues, to be sure, especially the latter. But despite her “platform” she has also been silent throughout her life on the larger issues that affect us all, issues that take priority over even women’s rights and especially the success of this country’s tennis programs. One must applaud her for wanting to “give back” and promote worthy causes. But one must also question her perspective and lack of a sense of priorities.”

It might be asked: this is their money why shouldn’t they do whatever they want with it? This is true, of course. But the question is whether there is something they should do with their money. There’s a moral principle involved here: when we know there is a wrong being committed and we are in a position to ameliorate that wrong we have an obligation to intercede. The wealthy — athletes included — are in a position to do great good given their wealth and their position in this culture. They cannot claim ignorance of the wrongs that are being done on a daily basis all around them. Therefore they have an obligation, as do we all, to intercede and try to rectify that wrong. These people travel the world but they don’t seem to see what is going on around them. Their world is the size of a tennis court or a golf course or a football field — with a few exceptions, as mentioned. The world could be such a better place if all of us could see the wider canvass — but especially those with tons of money they apparently don’t know what to do with!

A Disquieting Parallel

I read with some dismay the story about the athletes from North Korea who have had success and will therefore be welcomed home — and about those who fail and are punished by their government when they return back home. In part, the story reads as follows:

International sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, a decaying economy and a defective food distribution system have left almost a third of its 24 million people poor and hungry and it has few friends besides its neighbor China.

The gold medalists are hoping their feats will cover the country in glory and please its people and one man in particular – new leader Kim Jong-un, who only recently took over as head of the family dynasty on the death of his father Kim Jong-il.

For good reason: a life of luxury awaits the Olympians as reward for glorifying the Stalinist state. Elite athletes receive cash, cars, houses and the coveted membership of the Workers Party of Korea.. . .

The consequences of sporting failure are far less palatable.

The coach of the national soccer team, who lost all three of their 2010 World Cup games, was reportedly expelled from the Worker’s Party and forced to become a builder for his “betrayal”.

Now we certainly do not punish losers in this country — unless vanishing from the public eye can be regarded as punishment. They are quickly forgotten. But there are some alarming parallels between a country that chooses to ignore its poor and disadvantaged and our country.  Bear in mind that North Korea is in serious trouble because of the failure of its food production and distribution plus the sanctions it has brought down on itself because of its intransigence regarding the continued development of nuclear weapons. The country has thousands of hungry and out-of-work citizens who barely manage to stay alive because the country has put a premium — that is, spending the major portion of their income — on the development of weapons of war.

Therein lies the parallel. No, we are not a Communist (that is, Stalinist) country. But we glory in the gold our champions win (we also pay the winners, big time), relegate our losers to oblivion, and our government has also chosen to put its focus on the development of weapons of war at a time when a two-year drought in the Midwest threatens to further damage farm production, thereby making food more costly at a time when thousands are out of work, and the numbers of hungry and homeless people in this country grows perceptibly.

I do not wish to push the parallel farther than it will go. But the fact that there is any sort of parallel between a supposedly “free” country and one that holds its citizens in chains of intimidation and repression is deeply disturbing. The fact that there are thousands of wealthy people in this country who endorse their government’s decision to continue to spend money on “defense” while it ignores the plight of their neighbors —  neighbors who have no place to live and very little food to put on the table, or who have to work two jobs at minimum wage (if they can find work) to support a hungry family — is also deeply disturbing.

We talk about the 1% who control the wealth in this country but we tend to ignore the plight of  the 1% who are homeless, who sleep in their family van or in a cardboard box, and worry where their next meal is coming from — an average of 842,000 in a given week. And there are thousands more who are not categorized as “homeless” but who live in temporary shelters and suffer from lack of adequate food; 46 million Americans are on food stamps. We call them “bums” but they are people like you and me who have been caught in the “trickle down” [sic] of wealth from the rich to the very rich. It is not something we can be proud of. And given the fact that these people and the government they support continue to build weapons of war while their fellow citizens suffer and they look for another social program to cut is a somewhat alarming parallel between our country and a country that we rightly criticize for being cruel and inhumane.

No, we don’t punish those who lose athletics contests. Not really. But we punish those who cannot keep their heads above water in life and we call them “losers” when it is we who are the losers.