If you have not had the chance to read David Kamp’s piece “Rethinking the American Dream” published in April’s Vanity Fair please do so. It is a sharp, thoughtful essay on the evolution of the American Dream – did you know that it was not until 1931 that this term was coined? (As Kamp points out, “you’d think that these words would appear in the writings of Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, but they don’t.”)
One of the more thought-provoking eras of this timeline was what he called “the Juiceball Era of the American Dream” – the late 90’s and early 00’s – “a time of steroidally outsize purchasing and artificially inflated numbers.” He explained that this was a time where we as a nation not only subscribed religiously to the theory that our standard of living must always be better than the generation the preceded us, but that we did so through credit cards. I think his explanation through the sports metaphor is spot on, and I would like to take a stab at explaining (although without much, if any, actual research – thank you twitter era) how sports often reflect our society or culture.
Sports have always reflected our evolution as Americans and can often be used to help explain what life was like during a certain time period. For example, the most popular sports during the majority of the 1800’s were barnyard sports. Sports like boxing and wrestling that did not require much space – you know, like as much space as a farmer’s barn could supply; time – there was only enough time in between plowing the field, milking the cows and churning the butter to get a quick bout in; or participants – farms are isolated and boxing and wrestling only required your brother or farmhand.
Then around the turn of the century we became more industrialized and more efficient. Ford created the assembly line and the population shifted from rural to urban as people left the farms for factories. As we did our work faster than ever we had more leisure time and thus we saw a shift in which sports were popular. Baseball became a staple of America – America’s Pastime” – along with the car and apple pie. We had the time, space, and neighborhoods to play baseball and football. Plus it was inexpensive.
After the war we see the rise of the middle class thanks to the G.I. Bill making it easy for vets to get a college education and own the homes they occupied. Their kids, Baby Boomers, grew up easier. Their parents had more money than any other generation. Sports too were affected. “Country Club” sports like golf, tennis, and swimming became more popular and for the first time had participants that lived on Main Street and not mansions. Arthur Ashe shined and paved the way for the likes of Tiger Woods and the Williams Sister – although this is more of a class thing and not a race matter.
At the same time, televisions were in more homes than ever and sports were now able to be seen on your television rather just heard on the radio. Events became more popular and eventually grew to larger than life, i.e. the Super Bowl. Football became more popular as baseball began to resign to more old-fashioned, nostalgic sport. Hence the World Series being called the “Fall Classic”. We also see the rise of the sports “star” as athletes became more popular with the face time television afford. This also began the metamorphosis of athletes as every-day, All-American people to handsomely paid pop culture icons. Figures like “Broadway” Joe Namath and Mohammed Ali became more and more the norm, although not completely, yet.
Basketball, the most urban of all sports, became more and more popular as the civil rights movement gained steam. Basketball has always been a sport of the inner-city (Jews dominated the NBA in the 1920’s. They also dominated the inner-city) because all it takes is a ball and a basket instead of expensive equipment and a large field. The major difference between the Jewish-NBA and Black-NBA was television.
So now moving into the 80’s we have sports as means to strike it rich as salaries really began to rise. Sports were perceived to be an easier, more fun way to achieve the American Dream. This was especially true for minorities as African Americans not only began to dominate rosters, but for the first time African Americans also began to dominate their sports as individuals. Hello Michael Jordan. The 80’s, as Kamp notes, became a time where middle-class Americans rallied “to seize control of their individual fates as never before…decoupled from any concept of the common good.” This was the start of both the credit card and the steroids era. Reagan deregulation made it more acceptable to acquire debt.
Both the use of credit cards and the use of steroids would grow exponentially throughout the 90’s and early 00’s as noted in his Juiceball Era analogy. Pop culture as we know it today was also prevalent during this era. Actors/actresses, musicians and athletes made millions a year. Their lifestyles idolized by every young man and woman watching shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, MTV Cribs and any number of reality shows following celebs and athletes in their homes. Americans striving to replicate this lifestyle greedily mounted debt to by a BMW or the biggest SUV possible as if to say “look how successful I am, my car is two lanes wide.” The American Dream had shifted from the house with a white picket fence to the mansion with the white land rover sittin’ on dubs. But it was as artificial as Milli Vanilli. Nevertheless, American’s wanted more money and bigger houses the easiest way possible.
This was the case with sports. Athletes wanted to make as many millions as possible. They wanted even more fame so they began to rap, act and hang out with movie stars. Agents equated to GM’s an athlete’s star power to ticket sales. But athletes wanted this fame and fortune the easiest way possible so they did anything to get ahead. They took steroids, enhancements, and vitamins. Equipment became stronger, lighter, faster, and more powerful and athletes began to break records every season. It was all parallel with the American Dream…the most money possible by any means possible.
I think it is also important to note that American society became a society of instant gratification. Coinciding with the technology boom, it was easier to get things done fast. Americans began to do more and do it fast, and it was all possible. This equated to every facet of life. Fast food restaurants were everywhere. In order to serve more than 99 Million daily, they added a second drive-thru line. Digital cameras became popular because who wants to wait for a picture to develop? You can’t, however, ignore the fact that the quality improved. American’s wanted the most, the best, and in the fastest way possible.
So can you really blame A-Rod (and athletes in general, of course) for taking steroids in a time where the prevailing attitude in America was to get the most the fastest while exerting the least amount of effort possible?
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