Last week, D.H. Lawrence wasn’t mentioned by name in any sports sections, and no professional athletes cited The Rainbow in their postgame interviews. But there were intriguing baseball- and football-related stories about the line between violence and love, anger and passion, manhood and mania—and what could be more Lawrentian than that?
First of all, in my old hometown, a VP in the New York Mets baseball organization tore off his shirt in the clubhouse of the local stadium and starting screaming obscenities at a bunch of minor league ball players. This is no joke; the Daily News got wind of it and reported on the story here. Tony Bernazard, supposedly a guru of player development, traveled to Binghamton intending to give a motivational talk to players on the AA minor league squad, which has been flailing just as the sad-sack Major League Mets have. According to the Daily News, Bernazard’s motivational technique included baring his naked middle-aged chest and calling an infielder “a slang term associated with a woman’s anatomy.”
Two thoughts sprang to mind when I read this story. One: No wonder the Mets suck. The man they rely on to cultivate talent is a raving hack more worried about the size of his penis than about teaching and assessing young athletes.
The second thought that came to mind was: Women in Love! Because when a man strips down, getting at least partially naked, and then challenges another man to nut up and fight—that’s D. H. Lawrence. I mean, it’s the dark, involuted, psychologically revealing stuff of real literature. So, Mets VP of Player Development Tony Bernazard, if you’re listening, I want you to know that you’re really bad at your job. But hats off to your mythic man-wrestling gesture. (And for the record, I am writing this with my shirt off.)
Reading about the Binghamton Mets incident inspired me to look through Lawrence’s Women in Love again in an attempt to find the famous naked wrestling passage. This is when I discovered how awesome Google Books can be. In about two seconds I had the scene where Gerald and Birkin, both buck naked, test their manly friendship in a two-member (get it?) Modernist Fight Club:
So they wrestled swiftly, rapturously, intent and mindless at last, two essential white figures working into a tighter closer oneness of struggle, with a strange, octopus-like knowing and flashing of limbs in the subdued light of the room; a tense white knot of flesh gripped in silence between the walls of old brown books. Now and again came a sharp gasp of breath, or a sound like a sigh, then the rapid thudding of movement on the thickly-carpeted floor, then the strange sound of flesh escaping under flesh.
Why do the two men begin to wrestle this way? Because Gerald has discovered that being in love with a woman doesn’t solve all of life’s ills; a woman’s love doesn’t necessarily save you from boredom or angst or anything else in the catalog of existential crises. So Gerald wants to hit something.
These days, Chuck Palahniuk notwithstanding, straight men who struggle with such feelings are more likely to turn to sports—particularly to watching sports—than to fighting or strip-wrestling with their male friends. We still have these gladiatorial instincts. And while it’s interesting to think of how tame SportsCenter is compared to the spectator events of the gladiator era, we still expect professional athletes to make extraordinary sacrifices. The Pros are our proxy gladiators, the ones who’re supposed to distract us from the creeping discomforts of aging and ennui.
This, I think, is why the football player Ricky Williams has been mocked and reviled so thoroughly since he took a self-imposed sabbatical from pro sports to smoke dope and study yoga and ayurvedic medicine. Williams, a gifted running back who returned to the NFL’s Miami Dolphins two seasons ago, makes no apology for his soul-searching. As a Dolphins fan, I know I should be angry with him for leaving the team in a lurch to tend to his spiritual issues. But I’ve always rooted for Ricky the Healer, and I’m glad he’s on my team. This fall, when football season rolls around, Williams will be out on the field, pounded into the turf over and over again, occasionally escaping to book down the sideline for a big gain. Millions of football fans, instead of glancing down into the abyss, will watch Williams and his helmeted comrades run around a green rectangle for four quarters. Why begrudge the man his search for meaning, even if it’s out-of-bounds?