It started in slow, then it started to grow. In the closing minutes of the Bulls' victory two weeks ago over the Milwaukee Bucks--a triumphant 84-62 return home after a grueling road trip--the fans in the stands started to chant, "Scot-tie, Scot-tie." The intent was obvious. Scottie Pippen, sitting on the bench--looking quite abashed as the chant persisted, fading out in one area of the United Center only to be taken up in another section across the way--had recently made a public demand to be traded, saying he would never play another game for the Bulls. This happened while the Bulls were out west, and while Pippen was rehabilitating himself from foot surgery, an operation that has kept him from playing all season and is expected to keep him out until later this month or next. Coming in the wake of his ominous it's-been-good-to-know-ya remarks during the ring ceremony before the Bulls' home opener, the demand seemed sincere. Both Michael Jordan and coach Phil Jackson had initially pooh-poohed it, only to come around to the severity of the situation. Pippen had been pounded in the media as a spoiled brat--a predictable response--but Jordan and Jackson held out hope that he could be prevailed upon to change his mind. He was, after all, still practicing with the team, and still sitting on the bench in street clothes during games. The chants, then, were an attempt to bring him back into the fold. They weren't pleading or plaintive; if anything, they expressed admiration and--dare I say it?--love for a player. This, I thought, might be the thing to open those grinchy sports reporters' hearts.
That was a naive hope, of course. When sportswriters discussed the "Scot-tie" chants at all, more often than not the phenomenon was dismissed as a sign of fan weakness. Some writers even asked what was wrong with Chicago's sports fans, to be so accepting of Pippen and Dennis Rodman and Bob Probert. The poles of acceptance and intolerance are farther apart than ever in the sports world. Jackson jokingly said after the game that the team had put together a pool about whether Pippen would be cheered or booed by the fans, and that he personally had thought the response would be negative. On the one hand, with the "Scot-tie" chants only the most recent reminder, fans have learned to show fondness and--as I've written before--an almost Christian forgiveness for players. Some writers may look cynically at this as a manifestation of how badly fans want to win--that they'll accept a cretin on any terms if only he will help their team. But then, how to explain the standing ovation the last-place Cubs received after their last game of the season at Wrigley Field? On the other hand, however, there is a real hatred simmering among sports fans--hatred of athletes they consider overpaid; self-hatred for being fans of such athletes--as any member of the Bears who has had to walk the gauntlet into the locker room at Soldier Field after a loss this season can well attest. Many sportswriters, it seems to me, nurse the same sort of envious contempt for athletes, and so they fan the flames of outrage at every opportunity.
There is a puritanical strain to American sports that seems to worsen every year. Puritanism is what it is when a writer or fan insists that a sport or a team or a player isn't pure enough, isn't disciplined enough, isn't self-sacrificing enough to be worthy of adoration. That puritanical strain tends to manifest itself in mysterious ways. Just as social guilt over working mothers emerges as fantastical child-care scandals, and guilt over sex in today's society--especially in advertising aimed at children--emerges in the form of media hysteria over the JonBenet Ramsey case, anger over the current state of sports (the loss of the mythical days of innocence, the so-called golden era of sport, when athletes were gentlemen and deserving of being made into idols) is reflected in intolerance, in a demand for draconian justice when athletes reveal inevitable human foibles.
The debate, reduced to its essentials, is clear-cut. Is an athlete obliged to be as good off the field as he must be on the field? The writers William Gass and Robert Stone got into a pissing match in Harper's magazine several years ago over the literary equivalent of this debate. Must fiction--in fact, must any art--be morally good in order to be aesthetically good? Gass argued no; Stone, placed in a delicate position--especially given his own dependence on nihilistic characters--argued that a work was unlikely to be accepted as good if it didn't have some moral sense at its core. Me, I tend toward Gass's absolutism. A work of art, no matter how despairing, affirms existence by the very fact that it must be created and interpreted. Likewise for athletes: an athlete, no matter how amoral he or she is on or off the field, is affirmative by the very nature of sport. Sport is a game of contrivances, not a battle to the death like war, and it is by definition played for the benefit of spectators. The spectators may take whatever life lessons they like--or none at all--from any game and any athlete. Of course athletes are role models, in that fans see them playing out dramas more real than any in fiction or on the stage or screen, but they don't have to be good role models. A negative example can be as instructive as a positive.
Or to put it in terms sportswriters can understand, an athlete isn't obliged to be anything but an athlete. It's hard enough being an athlete at any level without being a good person as well. It's true, the person who manages both will always have an advantage--an advantage with his coaches, with his fellow players, with the fans, and, most pertinent in today's megabuck age, with ad reps--but there is no obligation. Some writers insist that because today's athletes get paid an inordinate amount of money they must serve the common good--sort of like a utility--but that argument is specious and tautological. Athletes get paid a lot of money--when they do--because they're good athletes, and because large numbers of people pay to see them, and because TV uses that attraction to sell products to even larger numbers of people. Nobody gets paid a lot of money simply for being a good person.
If the controversy over Latrell Sprewell is that he threatened and then attempted murder, he should be charged with those crimes, and let a judge and jury decide if he is guilty. If it's simply that he challenged a coach's authority, well, that's a common conflict from high-school teams on up through the pros and has been for as long as sports have been played. In what amounted to the most obvious hypocrisy, many of the writers who said Sprewell's choking of coach P.J. Carlesimo represented a new low in sports were the same ones who had snickered in print about Mike Ditka physically challenging a player to a fight only weeks before. What's interesting is the way the money left to run on Sprewell's contract--$32 million plus--was mentioned time and again in these stories. That, it seems, is where the real public fascination with this case was. People outraged about the position of sports in this country--the sheer abundance of money involved--found everything they were looking for regarding the decline of Western civilization in the Sprewell incident.
The Pippen affair is made to conform to the same basic mold: the tale of the pampered, egotistical athlete who has lost all sense of propriety, the very emblem of the current age of decadence and decay. Never mind that the real circumstances seem quite a bit more complex than that. Ever since his back surgery years ago, Pippen has worried--deep in the back of his mind--about a career-threatening injury, which is why he accepted a long-term, relatively bargain-priced contract in the first place. So he has a very human motivation to get a better deal as soon as he can, and his demand to be traded makes no sense except as a way to squeeze money--or at least some promises--out of the Bulls' management right now. Thanks to public pressure, produced in part by the hardball pleas to return that Jordan and Jackson made immediately after last season's championship, the Bulls invested $45 million in bringing back Jordan, Jackson, and Rodman for an attempt to repeat. That money is as good as down the drain without Pippen; his only leverage is to get a deal done now, before the season ends. Of course, the National Basketball Association, in its infinite wisdom, has rules forbidding new negotiations before a long-term contract runs its course (in part to prevent just the sort of team-held-hostage negotiations Pippen now seems to be demanding). Yet everyone knows deals do get done, promises do get made--which it seems to me is what Pippen is after now. It's the only rationale that makes sense.
What's most surprising is the way the Bulls' struggles this season without Pippen have led many writers and fans to say the Bulls should go ahead and deal Pippen and start rebuilding now. That's a win-at-all-costs philosophy I find far more revolting than bringing in a talented but ethically dubious person like Rodman. What this thinking suggests is that winning is ultimately more important than the stories and dramas these athletes play out over the arc of their careers. I vehemently reject the approach. What Chicago fans are seeing now with the Bulls is like the last chapter of a great novel. They may not win it all this season. Pippen may or may not return. (Personally, I think he'll be back as soon as he is physically able.) But the drama lies not in hurrying on to rebuilding and the next story, but in how this story--the story of Jordan and Pippen and Jackson and the Bulls--plays out. I think what the fans were saying with their chants of "Scot-tie" was that they wanted to see the story completed, Pippen back on the court with Jordan and making one last stand. It's not about winning or losing, it's not about big TV deals or players' contracts, and it's certainly not about the shoes; it's about the game as drama, win or lose, and seeing the story through. That was the message of the fans' "Scot-tie" chants, there for all the cynics to hear. Maybe sport doesn't come from a tube or a store; maybe sport, perhaps, means a little bit more.