Violence as Sport

The suicide of former pro football great Junior Seau struck me for a couple of reasons. He had ties to retired NFL players who live in Hawaii, and some of them openly speculated that years of taking blows to the head may have contributed to his depression and taking his own life. Coincidentally, last night I happened to watch “I Am,” the documentary by Tom Shadyac — yeah, the ACE VENTURA director — which also concerns depression and suicidal thoughts that were a result of a head injury he suffered. (BTW, if you haven’t seen it yet, put it on your Netflix queue. It may change your life. More on that in a future post.)

It also reminded me of a column I wrote for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin back in 2007 when pro wrestler Chris Benoit killed his wife, son and himself. After rereading it, I thought it was worth sharing again because it’s a commentary on our thirst for violence. There’s an amusing sidebar about my interview with a MMA fighter named Jason “Mayhem” Miller too. Not long after I wrote that piece, he got a gig in a MTV series called “Bully Beatdown.” I kid you not. He hosted the reality show in which pro fighters would go around beating up bullies on behalf of the persecuted victims. Sigh.

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IT’S IN THE SPORTS, NOT THE STEROIDS

Addicted To Life / Rich Figel

NO ONE really knows why pro wrestler Chris Benoit killed his wife, son and then himself. But that hasn’t stopped sports writers and radio call-in shows from speculating about “roid rage.” Every time a wrestler or fighter flips out, we hear about the “dark side” of steroids. What we should be talking about, though, is the dark side of sports.

Granted, pro wrestling isn’t technically a sport. It does qualify as entertainment, however, and there was a time when it was mostly harmless fun. They were big, colorful characters. The action in the ring was too cartoonish to be taken seriously. But after the likes of Hulk Hogan came along, it became a pumped-up freak show, driven by money and the need to satisfy the public’s appetite for violence.

I fear that same mindset is now behind the marketing of no-holds-barred extreme fighting. In the wrestling ring, Benoit was known as the “Canadian Crippler.” Ultimate fighting and mixed martial arts events hype guys with nicknames like “Beast Man” and “Mayhem.” Except extreme fighting is not scripted like pro wrestling matches. The savage pounding you see is quite real.

Before you assume this is a rant about how brutal sports have no place in a civilized society, let me say that I am a hypocrite. I love football. In high school, I even had a nickname. They called me “The Kamikaze” because on kick-offs I would run down the field at full speed, and hit opposing players who outweighed me by 50 to 100 pounds. Crazy? Yes. But there’s nothing like making a clean, one-on-one tackle in front of cheering fans. It’s a rush — a natural high. It was also an outlet for the anger I carried around.

Among alcoholics and children of alcoholics, you’ll often hear them talk about parents who didn’t drink or do drugs, but were “rage-aholics.” I think it runs in families, and for some, sports can be a good way to channel anger or aggression. But when players or fighters are rewarded for acting like ruthless thugs, should we be surprised when that behavior spills over into real life?

WHICH BRINGS ME back to the dark side of modern-day sports. Everything has been amped up — the size and speed of athletes, the spectacle of every sporting event from Pee Wee football on up to high school and college games. For “old school” ‘Bows fans like me, it’s a turn-off to see University of Hawaii football being sold like, well, pro wrestling … the mascot who looks like he belongs in a tag team match with Zulu the Warrior … the phony, prerecorded conch shell trumpeting the team’s slow-motion walk out of the giant inflatable helmet with the huli-huli smoke billowing out. It’s a bit over the top.

What’s more disturbing, however, is being in the stands with the New Breed of UH fan, who is also amped up — bigger, louder, drunker and cruder these days. Most of them have never put on pads in their life. But when an opposing player goes down from a concussion-producing shot, they whoop it up the same way they do while playing “Madden NFL Football” on their PlayStations.

Yet it’s precisely those kinds of blows to the head that can lead to suicidal depression and violent outbursts years later for former football players, boxers and wrestlers, long after the cheers have faded away.

More and more, there seems to be a disconnect between actual violence and “fantasy” violence — the kind of thing kids grow up with now in video games, and movies that ratchet up the action to mind-numbing and ear-shattering levels. Sports are becoming an extension of those fantasies. But to be a player, you have to do whatever it takes to compete. The fans demand it. And the athletes are willing to sacrifice their bodies, because they are addicted to the adulation. They live for the rush they get while performing for us.

All drugs, including steroids, can be used for good purposes or bad. I won’t argue they should be allowed in sports, because greed and the need to win have already resulted in widespread abuse of performance-enhancing drugs. Former NFL players who are crippled for life have admitted they were willing to shoot themselves up to continue playing, and didn’t regret it because they loved the game. Fighters, baseball all-stars and even professional cyclists have copped to cheating by using drugs of one sort or another. And it’s largely because winning is all that matters these days.

BEFORE WE blame drugs for destructive behavior, we should consider why certain individuals are attracted to violent sports. I think we’d find that many of them were walking time bombs to begin with. Perhaps the reason no one ever heard them ask for help was that their voices were drowned out by the roar of the crowds who only wanted to see them beat another human into submission.

Chris Benoit might have injected the steroids that triggered his tragic actions. But it was paid for with blood money from fans who are hooked on the sound and fury of violence as entertainment.

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REGULAR GUY LURKS BENEATH WILD SHOW-BIZ PERSONA

I’M NOT A FAN of wrestling, mixed martial arts or other forms of extreme fighting. I don’t understand the allure of watching grown, sweaty men grappling and putting their faces in close proximity to other sweaty guys’ private regions. I fail to see the sport in watching one man straddling another, as the rabid crowd exhorts him to pummel the crap out of someone who is curled up in a fetal position.

That said, my interest was piqued when I saw a paid newspaper ad that was taken out by Jason “Mayhem” Miller earlier this year. He was in the news last December when a Circuit Court jury acquitted him of charges related to an incident in which he kicked in the door of his girlfriend’s apartment at 6 a.m. and allegedly assaulted a man who was visiting her. As you may have guessed, alcohol was involved. Hence, my interest.

In the ad, he said he wanted to “make amends” to Cathy Tanaka (whom he got back together with) and her family. He blamed himself for what happened, and said he had stopped drinking alcohol. The cynic in me wondered if this was a PR move orchestrated by his manager or lawyer. So I called him to ask that very question.

He was in Los Angeles at the time, which was a relief, since you do not want to be in the immediate vicinity of a guy named “Mayhem” if you happen to say the wrong thing. I was also a little leery about interviewing him because the brief flashes of him I saw on TV were kind of scary. He appeared to be psychotic.

HOWEVER, Jason was funny, smart and refreshingly candid. I told him up front that I didn’t get the whole ultimate fighting thing. He didn’t bother to defend it or explain it. He also didn’t make a big thing about quitting drinking. “It wasn’t as Hollywood as I thought it would be,” he laughed.

No rehab, no tearful breakdown at a 12-step meeting. He simply made a decision to give up alcohol and told his friends: “Yo, I’m done.”

His drinking buddies didn’t believe him.

“When they pushed me to drink, I just went the other way,” Jason said. He enjoys being different, and dancing to his own tune, no matter how off key it might sound to others. It’s part of his charm and show biz persona.

Talk to him awhile, though, and you find a real person underneath the bravado.

He was an Army brat, who had problems in school. At 16, he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and says he was given amphetamines for it. “I was so amped!” he recalls. Around the age of 17, he started fighting after a friend showed him some moves. He got into judo, jujitsu and kick-boxing. Mayhem found his calling.

HE SAID his dad was an alcoholic, which is maybe one reason he didn’t start drinking until he was 19. Jason would abstain while training, but after the fight was over he’d go “power drinking.” He had blackouts. “I knew I had a problem. My girl would have to tell me what I did.” There was a very real possibility of him going to prison in December because of past fights he had gotten into while drunk. He knows how lucky he is too that he didn’t kill someone with his fists in those brawls he can’t remember.

I asked him about steroids. “A lot of fighters use them. It’s part of the business,” he said. But he says he’s never shot up. If they were legal, he admits he would consider it. (In Hawaii, there is currently no drug testing of MMA fighters.)

His most surprising revelation was that he takes Zoloft. He calls them “steroids for the mind” to increase his serotonin levels. Jason was diagnosed as having depression and being bipolar. He’s been taking Zoloft for the past year and says it makes him feel “clearer” but doesn’t take away his edge.

I don’t know if a happy, well-adjusted individual makes for a good fighter, though, or how long a career he’ll have. At age 26, he thinks he’s got another “10 good years” at least. I asked, “What would you be doing if you weren’t fighting?”

“Exactly!” he answered, not realizing I didn’t intend it as a rhetorical question. Then he laughed again and said he might have been a “violent TV star or comedian” and probably would have “gravitated toward Hollywood.” Figures.

Pro wrestling, boxing, extreme fighting — it’s show biz. As long as the public is willing to buy tickets, the Chris Benoits, Mike Tysons and guys like Jason “Mayhem” Miller will give them what they want until they have nothing left to give. I hope, for Jason’s sake, he knows when to quit. Just as he did with drinking.

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