Strike three, you’re dead

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Earlier this week, I was watching “Jim Rome is Burning” on ESPN, as any good American does, and Jim and his panelists were debating whether a recent block made below the knees by Miami Dolphins quarterback Trent Green was a “dirty hit.” If you’ve ever watched Jim Rome speak, you know that what he has to say isn’t particularly compelling. But at the same time, there’s something hypnotic about his cadence that forces you to keep watching even though you want to change the channel. As I sat in my spellbound stupor, fixated upon Rome’s mesmerizing tone, I realized something: professional athletes today have it easy.

During my spring break trip to Mexico this past year, I was touring some Mayan ruins and came across what looked like very broad, short, stone staircases. I asked our tour guide why the Mayans built stairs that went nowhere. He paused and looked at me blankly as though pondering why he hadn’t yet quit his job, then answered, “Sir, those are bleachers.”


Turns out your average 16th-century Mayan citizen was under five feet tall, but they still managed to fill up those stairs. Err, stands. What were they watching, you ask? An ancient game that was just as much religious ritual as sport. On a stone, I-shaped court generally 25-feet wide by 75-feet long, two teams consisting of 2 to 11 players would pass a rubber ball 20 inches in diameter between them using only their forearms, hips and thighs. On either long side of the court were stone ramps, each adorned with a vertical stone ring stationed six meters off the ground through which players tried to pass the ball. A typical match ended when one team got the ball through the hoop or failed to return the ball to its opponents after it bounced on the ground once. This bizarre amalgamation of soccer, volleyball and basketball was aptly called the Ball Game.

But whereas teams playing in major league sports today play to win the game, players of the Ball Game played to keep their lives. Typically, players on the losing team were decapitated or their hearts were torn out as blood sacrifices to appease the Mayan gods. Needless to say, few teams could exist that were not undefeated. However, on occasion, the winning team would be sacrificed instead – if those overseeing the contest wanted to make a better offering to the gods. During rare instances where teams played extraordinarily well, the team’s captain would receive the rare honor of being beheaded – an envied opportunity that supposedly provided a free ticket to heaven.

Somehow, I can’t see Alex Rodriguez playing hard for the honor of being decapitated. Nor can I see Scott Boras having nearly as many clients in Mayan times. But there are some similarities between the Ball Game and sports today. Enormous stadiums were built just for spectators to watch the game. Gambling on the outcome of games was rampant as well. The game even created its own star players: Whenever someone got the ball through the hoop, spectators in the crowd were required to give him their clothing and jewelry.

Still, as I watched Rome and his guests debate “dirty tackles” and pitching injuries, I couldn’t help but think that today’s athletes are taking their lives of luxury for granted. When a pitcher burns his index finger grilling chicken, a team of doctors and medical professionals assist him to ensure he makes a quick and successful recovery before his next start. When players in the Ball Game suffered contusions from getting hit by the ball, they would have to be cut open (lanced) and have their blood squeezed out. And the idea that players would get upset over such a thing as dirty tackles? Something tells me that sportsmanship is a moot point when you’re playing for your life.

I’m not saying we’d be better off if we sacrificed Eric Gagne after Game 2 of the ALCS. I think the Ball Game highlights where a lot of improvements could be made in the sanity and health of our sports culture. Players today wax dramatic on the vital importance of winning and whine over every call that doesn’t go their way, but instead they should look at the games the Mayans played. If they did, I bet one thought would come to mind.