INTEGRITY IS NEVER "OVER THE EDGE"

by David Sisler

Two unusual events happened in the sporting world in Kansas City this past weekend. In one, a journeyman athlete, Owen Hart, died; in the other, a journeyman athlete, Jeff King, retired. The immediate reaction of the management of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) to the death of "The Blue Blazer," and the reasoning which caused Kansas City Royals first baseman Jeff King to retire paint two different pictures about integrity and the value of a man.

An hour after Owen Hart plunged 50 feet to his death, the PPV concluded with a championship title bout between Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Undertaker. Where minutes earlier a man had died, the two combatants pummeled each other with choreographed violence, but staged or not, Undertaker's face was bloodied. Evidently, in the WWF, there is no such thing as enough.

Austin's character, modeled after a psychopathic serial killer, demonstrates vulgarity in the squared circle which has few, if any rivals. The Undertaker, whose ring persona has devolved into the Lord of the Evil is supported by the Acolytes, bit players whose costumes feature the pentagram, a symbol of satanic worship. Together, Undertaker and the Acolytes form the "Ministry of Darkness."

In an earlier column, I confessed to being a professional wrestling fan. I understand, and most fans do, that the story lines of the sport are as real as Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones scaling a catwalk hundreds of feet above the streets of Koala Lumpur. The athleticism is real, the rest is staged. Only a "mark" does not know that.

But the entertainment value which once attracted me to "rasslin" has become dark, vulgar and violent. I will not watch a movie which is rated R because of sexual content, vulgarity, or the portrayal of demonic activity. Likewise, disgusted with the course of "sports entertainment," I became a former fan of professional wrestling months ago. My small financial contribution won't be missed by the yummies up on carpet corridor, but until the madness stops, I will not watch again. The promoters can work any way they choose that is the American way. And my TV set has a channel selector that is also the American way.

If there was ever any question that the whole business has turned to the dark side, it was erased Sunday night when the WWF crassly played out the show. No announcement of Hart's death was made at the time, but sensing the seriousness of his injuries, a few fans left the arena, throwing away tickets costing up to $100 in protest. The positive publicity WWF owner Vince McMahon would have gained by cancelling the event and refunding everyone's money, would have reaped rewards far beyond the actual amount it would have cost.

It would have been so simple announce Owen Hart's death, express the grief that everyone felt, tell the audience at ring side to mail their ticket stubs back to Titan Sports for a refund, and tell the folks watching at home to mail a copy of their cable bill for full credit towards the next televised event. But no, the greedy show had to go on.

In the Kansas City Royals club house, on the same day, it was a different story.

Jeff King was one of my favorite members of the Pittsburgh Pirates back in the days when the Bucs and the Braves battled for the right to represent the National League in the World Series. Two years ago he signed a multi-million dollar contract with the Royals. Late last season he hurt his back and saw limited playing time this year, batting only .236 in 72 plate appearances.

"My head is here, my heart is not," he said at the press conference where he announced his retirement from baseball.

One of King's teammates, catcher Mike Sweeney said, "For him to walk away like this proves Jeff King is a man of integrity. It shows he's a man. He could have continued to play the next four months and taken a paycheck every two weeks and not had his heart in the game. But Jeff is a man of integrity. He shut it down when he thought the time was right."

The paycheck which integrity prompted Jeff King to turn down was worth $3 million. Wrestling authorities I contacted this week told me it is a figure comparable to what the WWF collected in their prophetically named, "Over the Edge." One man knows when the show is over, and with character, turns the money down. Another man keeps the show alive, callous of the fact that a performer who has helped build the corporate bank account is dead. That is more vulgar than anything Steve Austin or the Undertaker ever did.

-30-

Published in the Augusta Chronicle 5/29/99

Copyright 1999 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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