Exactly when athletes became software is hard to pinpoint. They were always a little larger than life, but for a long time, no matter their increasing fame or wealth, it was possible to think of them as human beings. Maybe it was when the media companies began buying teams, turning the arenas into theme parks and the games into programming that the players acquired the flatness of cartoon characters and became nothing more than the bits and bytes of entertainment empires. There doesn't seem to be much that's human about them anymore, that's for sure.
As the business of sports has grown, to the point where the play is practically an ancillary activity, the athletes have become little more than electronic inventory. The clothes they wear, the fragrances they market—these are what pass for personality nowadays.
Now comes the news that former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson has resigned as chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission because he's suffering from severe memory loss, probably brought on by his decades in the ring. Our games have been so shrewdly packaged, so thoroughly sanitized, that we've lost sight of a truth: The entertainment value of sports is grounded in the blood and sweat of human beings. Then last week, here was the 63-year-old Patterson confessing that he doesn't always remember his wife's name. It was a shock.
Certainly it was a familiar story in the crudest of sports. But the repercussions extend far beyond the ring. Patterson, who had survived the combat to become one of boxing's prominent statesmen, no longer recalls where he fought to win the title or who his secretary is. So maybe he didn't survive boxing entirely. Yet watching him testify—he was, heartbreakingly, videotaped during a suit over the barring of ultimate fighting from New York—was to be reminded that athletes do have the human dimension.
Patterson was returned to our fold, having been snared in several cruel and bleakly comic ironies. Thirty-three years ago he suffered 12 rounds of torture at the hands of Muhammad Ali. Now he and his tormentor reside in, respectively, mental and physical ruins. This should get a dark laugh: Patterson, who used to cloak himself in disguises after a humiliating loss, has now effectively disguised everyone else. He sometimes does not recognize even his closest aides.
Patterson's confession was a brisk reminder that athletes are not merely the fodder of corporate broadcast fantasy. It might be important from time to time to recall, picturing Patterson's confusion over a sport he loved too much ("I can't remember the opponent I fought, but I wound up beating him to become heavyweight champion!"), that athletes are the hardware, too.