Column: Rules

by Josh Goller

I Expect Nothing But Am Constantly Let down
Rules are the spine of sport. Without them, the physical acts of athleticism—the movement of balls toward targets, the passage over, or staying within lines of paint or chalk—lose all function. Look no further then talking-head halftime slots featuring spiffed and swollen former athletes—bereft, in retirement, of the brawn that aided their athletic rise. As they contradict each other and question preconceptions about superiority of physical ability and mental will, it’s evident that sport analysis is largely echo-chamber yammering and little more. Sport allows theory and assumption to be tested in full contact, contradiction to be acted out between the lines. But the speed and fury of athletic competition, contained only by the framework that rules provide, achieves Socrates’ goal of seeking human excellence through defying the very assumptions of what is deemed true. Like the seminal Greek philosopher, athletes continually challenge themselves. In sport, however, it is the opponent that is eliminated rather than some hypothesis about moral character. Yet, sometimes, rules are broken and giants fall. Even Socrates was court-ordered to do a shot of hemlock.

“I’d walk through Hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball.” –Pete Rose, all-time hits leader

September 11, 1985: The San Diego pitcher delivers one down the middle and Pete Rose pokes it into left. The ball bounces awkwardly off the Riverfront Stadium Astroturf, but fleet work by the Padres outfielder only allows Rose a single. No matter; the city of Cincinnati proceeds to lose its collective mind. Rose’s likeness, lit up in orange bulbs on the scoreboard, appears alongside the number 4,192, which hovers over the notoriously ruthless Ty Cobb’s 4,191. The Reds’ dugout empties. Rose is hoisted in the air. The team’s owner appears on the field and presents Rose with a cherry red convertible. The Cincinnati TV announcers crack open a few celebratory on-air cold ones. Pete Rose, this Bud’s for you! 

August 24, 1989: Dapper, silver-goateed Major League Baseball Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti steps to a microphone in New York City and announces that Rose, now the manager of the Cincinnati Reds, will be banned from baseball. The gambling evidence against him is staggering—including an avalanche of phone calls to bookies, sometimes only minutes before games. Eight days later, Giamatti suffers a massive heart attack and drops dead. Twenty-five years after that, Rose is making over $1 million annually by selling his autograph in Vegas.

“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” –Steve Prefontaine, record-setting distance runner

May 30, 1975: As it had throughout famed distance runner Steve Prefontaine’s decorated career, scenery whips past his periphery and wind tousles his hair. The orange ’73 MGB convertible speeds—top down—along Eugene’s Skyline Boulevard, not far from the University of Oregon where Prefontaine (affectionately known as “Pre”) has become his state’s most famous athlete. Pre heedlessly moves along the roadway with the confidence of a 24-year-old who owns every American running record between 2,000 and 10,000 meters. In the papers, he’s chalked up his success to guts, saying his opponents will have to bleed if they ever hope to beat him. But a year shy of what would have been a celebrated trip to the ’76 Olympics, Pre’s guts are swimming in liquor, his fermented blood boasting a blood alcohol level of 0.16. The centerline blurs, his vision warbles. Pre swerves, crosses the line, jumps the curb. The ’73 MGB crashes into a rock wall and flips, pinning the chest of America’s greatest distance runner underneath two tons of steel. Pre is pronounced dead at the scene.

“I want to eat your children.” –Mike Tyson, former heavyweight champ

November 22, 1986: The Las Vegas Hilton Arena combusts with flashbulbs as diminutive referee Mills Lane—in his trademark raspy prattle—instructs the combatants. Undefeated boxing phenom Mike Tyson, a heavy favorite in his first championship fight, beats his red gloves together and shakes out his muscled legs. Twice the bell clangs. Tyson erupts from his corner, landing key blows in his initial flurry. Before the first round bell, he lands a devastating combo that sends his opponent clumsily pirouetting across the ring. In the second round, the two boxers tie up, and Tyson jukes to land a devastating body blow and a vicious uppercut. His opponent topples and his legs buckle as he swoons into the ropes. It’s all over. At 20, Iron Mike is the youngest Heavyweight Champion of the World.

June 28, 1997: Heavyweight Champ Evander Holyfield skips around the ring, his gloves pressed to his head as he shrieks in pain. Tyson, only two years out of prison for a rape conviction and one year removed from losing his belt to Holyfield, spits a one-inch slice of cartilage onto the canvas. He argues with referee Mills Lane that the blood streaming from Holyfield’s ear is only from a wound inflicted by a punch. He’s docked two points and the fight resumes. As the pugilists tie up again, Tyson bites into the other ear and is disqualified.

“Football season is over.” –Title of Hunter S. Thompson’s suicide note

January 1, 1998: The Pasadena sun gleams off the yellow and blue helmets of the Michigan Wolverines defense. Washington State Cougars star quarterback Ryan Leaf checks the pre-snap coverage and barks out signals. His eye catches #2, Charles Woodson—the defensive back who, weeks earlier, beat him out for the Heisman Trophy. Leaf takes the snap, drops back, rockets a pass away from Woodson and connects with a white jersey in the end zone for the 15-yard score. Leaf pumps his fist and trots off the field with a 7-0 lead in Washington State’s first Rose Bowl in 67 years. They go on to lose a close game, but Leaf will be a hot commodity on NFL draft day and will sign for millions when he’s drafted #2 overall.

April 3, 2012: Three days after posting a $76,000 bond when police find stolen oxycodone in his golf bag, Ryan Leaf is arrested after burglarizing the home of a married couple. The homeowners describe to Great Falls police “a tall man with an athletic build.” A search of Leaf’s home turns up 89 hydrocodone pills in the pocket of a bathrobe. The former pro quarterback currently enjoys his aubade at the Crossroads Correctional Facility in rural Montana.