The Parable of the Tiger and the Undertaker

by by Simon van zuylen-wood

Challenger CM Punk is wearing nothing but a yellow Speedo and wrist tape marked with the letter X. His greasy brown hair dangles an inch above his tatted shoulders. He’s pacing in the ring, waiting for The Undertaker, World Heavyweight Champion, to give him his beating. Weall know he’s coming, and we all know he’s going to win.  The question is how long he’ll make us wait. Wide-eyed couples and antsy dads whisper among themselves until a gong sounds. The Undertaker’s Gong. The 6’11, 300 pound deathbeast is on his way.

By the time he slips under the rope, before he can shed his black trenchcoat, cowardly CM Punk jumps out of the ring. He plays a headless chicken for several agonizing minutes (we came to see a fight dammit), and I, who had never in my life seen a live match and neither root for nor resent any wrestlers, heard myself audibly booing that Punk bastard. It was obvious to ten thousand people which man deserved to win, and it thrilled each to the depths of their being when The Undertaker finally thrust his belt—one handed—into the air.

Everyone went home happy.

The very next night, smile stitched on my face, I saw my first World Series game. The Yankees won it all. Long after the final out, once grown men were done jumping on each other like they were a pile of leaves, a Fox reporter found Alex Rodriguez for a little congrats. You could see the thought bubbles above every Yankee fan’s head: “Please don’t ask him about steroids.”
My happiness was tainted by the reminder that our best player was a cheater.

There are no post-game interviews in wrestling. WWE’s hammed-up, performance-enhanced displays of fakeness are just that—displays, exhibitions, spectacles. Unfortunately for fans, the pure spectacle of real sports has taken a hit from our ubiquitous, reality-obsessed news media. Sports stars’ private mistakes have become the biggest show in town due to constant, real time updates from new media like Twitter and gossip blogs. The latest and greatest to fall, Tiger Woods, has been exposed to be so vile and un-heroic off the course that (once we stop counting) the number of his mistresses will be better known than his Major Tournament victories.

The Dangerous Business ofRole Modeling
This December, as a decade of bad jock behavior wound down, Tiger Woods’ car crashed everyone’s Thanksgiving. He wasn’t charged with DUI. He wasn’t accused of assault, rape or even of using an illegal wedge (Phil Mickelson’s latest cry for attention). A photo of an SUV and a fire hydrant on a gossip website was all it took to unmask the greatest sports scandal of all time, triggering the biggest media feeding frenzy in history. The collective good luck of naughty athletes had finally run out.

The hardest worker and biggest role model in the industry, a man who opened up golf to minorities, let our staidly moralizing country down in a way nobody saw coming. With Tiger as the movement’s poster boy, the good vs. bad polemic that drives our rooting interest has steadily changed over the past decade. Good and bad isn’t just about who deserves to win anymore. It’s become about real-life ethics too. The media-enforced transparency of athletes’ lives means their moral accountability goes way up if they give a damn about their careers. Thanks to the internet’s power to show pictures of everything and give voice to anyone, the 24 hour news cycle is officially on steroids.

In the past twelve months, we learned: mega-sluggers Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, and David Ortiz were caught juicing, the indefatigable Olympic swimmer did a different sort of doping, Plaxico Burress landed in jail for literally shooting himself in the foot, McGwire finally admitted what we already knew, ultra-pious Louisville Coach Rick Pitino fathered a love child, then bankrolled its abortion.

New and old media are joining forces to give us more jock than we’ve ever dreamed of. Phelps’s bong rip was some cell phone camera’s proudest achievement. But Rodriguez’s steroid bust was the product of some dogged snooping bySports Illustrated’s Selena Roberts. Tiger Woods was on the front of The New York Post for 20 straight days (9/11 got stale after 19). The internet counterpunched on Christmas Eve, when (which broke the Woods story) announced plans for a sports-only gossip sister site.

Some athletes, of course, embrace media. Barry Bonds and Terrell Owens had a few short-lived, short-on-drama reality shows. Cincinnati Bengal Chad Ochocinco tweets taunts, celebration previews, and personal meditations. Aspiring tough guy and Wizard Gilbert Arenas was the first athlete to write an entertaining, high-visibility blog. He was recently suspended for the season on a gun charge, but he apologized to the children in a Washington Post Op-Ed piece. But by and large, media coverage is not the athlete’s friend.

It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City
Multi-million dollar contracts, VIP access to anywhere, groupies, free time. What do we expect from these guys? Are we surprised that the hyper-competitive “Just win, baby” attitude most athletes live by naturally carries over beyond sports. Michael Jordan’s gambling problem and Woods’ beer-goggles problem, for instance.

Pro wrestlers don’t have these problems. And it’s not due to lack of public interest. John Cena and The Rock are blockbuster movie stars (you haven’t seen Walking Tall?). Rather, their sport didn’t have any integrity to begin with, so it can’t be disgraced. More important, however, bad guys in the WWE are supposed to be bad. There’s morality play built into the fabric of each match. One has to be a Nazi, to root for sneering, bleached-blond wrestler Dolph Ziggler.

In wrestling, getting punched hurts, losing is humiliating, and winning is glorious and smells like testosterone. The on-field spectacle stands for itself. There’s nothing to decode: it’s all symbolism. In a sport where nothing is as it appears, everything feels as it should. And if we want to experience that earth-shaking catharsis of wrestling in real sports, we must confine both our joy and disappointment to the arena.

In Sports that are Real, We Wish Athletes Weren’t
During the CM PUNK/Undertaker bout, I sat with legs crossed and hands folded like a choirboy, as the two ten year -old girls in front of me told smug Punk that he had a ‘mangina.’ From my nosebleed seat I really couldn’t see anything to suggest he did, but he certainly gave off that vibe. And if I wasn’t such a wuss, I would have yelled it too. Most sports fans dismiss wrestling for being the fraud that it is, but its appeal—WWE RAW’s broadcasts (RAW and SmackDown parade different casts of characters)on the CW and the USA network consistently score in the top ten of Nielsen’s cable TV ratings each week— is as universal as the good vs. evil narratives that suck us into the fictional universes of Marvel and DC.

For fan Roland Barthes, pro wrestling affects the spectator perhaps more deeply than other competitive sports. In his 1957 essay “The World of Wrestling,” Barthes writes that in the “spectacle of excess” that is wrestling, the story of the match is insignificant. The audience knows the gig is fixed, and no matter how sporty the fighters may appear, they are competing not against each other but to win the crowd. The poignant moments of the bout are what the fans crave. Barthes likens wrestling to Greek tragedy, or to the Commedia dell’arte, in which the characters, instead of developing, become more deeply entrenched in their personae, like human cut-outs of pedantry or cockiness. According to Barthes, the governing principles of wrestling—what the people pay to see—are tragedy, justice, and defeat.These exist in real sports too, except that by definition, one fan’s tragedy is another fan’s justice.

Defeat, however, is hard to argue with. You know it when you see it, and it should not be confused with losing. Feeling defeat is the acknowledgement of a rightful and total beatdown.

Watch a college basketball team lose at the buzzer during March Madness. The players are splayed on the parquet floor, hands over their eyes, as their opponents whoop about, fists in the air. Watch a boxer sit in the corner as his trainer squeezes the bloody sponge on his head. His eyelids are swollen and blue. He’s going to fight another round. He will lose by technical knockout and he’s aware of it. But without knowing why, he gets up again from his stool when the bell rings. Win or lose, this is why we watch. But once they’ve stopped playing, stop watching, please. It’s going to break your heart. Win with them, lose with them. Don’t follow them to the club. Keep the stars in uniform. They aren’t like us. They’re superheroes in baggy shorts. They’re gods in pinstripes. Clark Kent in a suit and tie can’t do shit. So don’t let a Tiger without clothes on hurt your feelings. 
Simon van zuylen wood b’12 is a Simonster in the ring.