Sports are supposed to remain an inspirational oasis in our culture, a place where merit and performance, and even dazzling feats of prowess grab our attention. Too often in recent years, as professional sports have grown massively popular, the gap between athletic performance on the field and athletic misbehavior off the field has widened into a chasm. But the latest shocking sports news says something worse: Now, expectations of virtue in sports fans are also falling apart.
Even before the sleaze parade known at this year's Super Bowl unfolded, sports pages were lamenting what was happening at the University of Maryland's basketball game against Duke. Not only did a bevy of Maryland supporters show up in "F--- Duke" T-shirts. Sauced-up fans in the stands greeted Duke's J.J. Redick at the free-throw line with loud chants of "F--- you, J.J." -- nominating Maryland's Comcast Center as the location where sportsmanship goes to die.
And all of this, the profane chants and T-shirts, was broadcast to a national audience, presumably filled with youngsters, courtesy of ESPN television.
Maybe one should expect the advertisers, whose money makes this programming possible, to object to the offensive product. But to advertisers, this is, apparently, a joke. After all, their contribution included the car ad where the kids put soap in their mouths after seeing the new Chevy line and saying "Holy (bleep)!" When was the last time a sports fan was presented with a Budweiser ad without crotch humor?
But the big story was the Super Bowl halftime show produced by MTV, America's Ground Zero of commercially calculated outrageousness, the architects of last summer's Britney-Madonna kiss controversy. At the end of performing his hit "Rock Your Body," a song that boasts "gonna have you naked by the end of this song," Justin Timberlake ripped off a piece of Janet Jackson's shirt, revealing a bare breast with a metal sunburst covering the nipple.
No one this side of third grade ought to imagine this was an unplanned mistake, despite Timberlake sounding like a bad campaign operative when he described it as a "wardrobe malfunction." MTV almost immediately boasted about the stunt on its Web site: "Jaws across the country hit the carpet at exactly the same time ... a kinky finale that rocked the Super Bowl to its core," the network oozed. "MTV was Super Bowl central, so armchair quarterbacks, fair weather fanatics and fans of Janet Jackson and her pasties were definitely in the right place."