But what about the games themselves? If we question the back-story to what we’re watching, will it still move us the way it used to? The guess here is that it will: on an aesthetic, primordial level, athletic feats are going to retain their emotional power. “Baseball fans may be very aware that there’s all sorts of stuff going on and not care — they still like watching the shortstop pick up the ball and throw over to first,” says Bill Littlefield, host of NPR’s Only a Game and author, recently, of a book of the same name. “They’re delighted by the grace and beauty that’s available at the ballpark. And I’m not sure that’s going to change.” In fact, we might even enjoy technical and aesthetic excellence more if we’re no longer fretting over the integrity of the athletes themselves.
The mental shift to a post-ethical fandom is more plausible than it sounds. Back in 1858, in the famous treatise “Saints, and their Bodies,” Massachusetts author Thomas Wentworth Higginson cast athletic activity as the sine qua non for American greatness. “Guarantee us against physical degeneracy,” Higginson wrote, “and we can risk all other perils — financial crises, Slavery, Romanism, Mormonism, Border Ruffians, and New York assassins . . . nothing can daunt us.” A century and a half later, Higginson’s claim for the curative power of sport sounds ridiculous — but come 2150, our own overblown notions of sports ethics probably will, too. And if they do, we’ll have the Year of the Cheater to thank.
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