We Need Mike Tyson
By Neal Shaffer

There was a time, the records indicate, when the world of sports was populated by characters. Baseball players renowned as much for their ability to knock back pints at the hotel bars as they were for their on-field prowess. Hockey players whose spot on the roster had nothing to do with hockey and everything to do with fighting. With these characters came incidents, and among these we can count the bench clearing brawl, the tell-all book, the marriage to and subsequent divorce from a celebrity wife, and the five minute major for fighting.

As they will, times have changed. Jim Bouton, Mickey Mantle, and Art Donovan have been replaced by Derek Jeter, or some variation thereon. Their kind is no longer welcome. The tyranny of the well-intentioned has intervened to sterilize and prepackage sports as surely as it has with so many other things. Ticket and concession prices have soared out of the reach of the working class, and quality is now measured by the extent to which the "product" is family-friendly. Disney, which wouldn’t have gone anywhere near hockey in the seventies and eighties, bought an NHL team and named it after one of their movies.

Yet in much the same way that plenty of people in California still choose to smoke, interesting athletes do exist. Oakland Athletics pitcher Barry Zito’s oddities are currently the subject of an Esquire profile, and this year’s NHL playoffs have been as wild as ever. These things have been pushed to the margins, but they haven’t been eliminated. The rough edges of the world can never be completely smoothed over, and it is for this reason that it is important to remember Mike Tyson.

Boxing has never been the sort of place where one would be likely to find a great deal of intelligent discourse. Mike Tyson has turned his own corner of the boxing world into a gallery of incomprehensibly weird verbiage. The collection began some time ago, with its most notable acquisition being his statement to Lennox Lewis a couple of years back that "My style is impetuous, my defense is impregnable, I want your heart, I wanna eat his children." Then two weeks ago, while training for the long-awaited Lewis fight, he gave an interview during which he made several outlandish claims. Among them:

(To the reporters in the room) "I wish that you guys had children so I could kick them in the fuckin’ head or stomp on their testicles so you could feel my pain because that's the pain I have waking up every day."

"There's no one perfect... Jimmy Swaggart is lascivious, Mike Tyson is lascivious—but we're not criminally, at least I'm not, criminally lascivious. You know what I mean. I may like to fornicate more than other people—it's just who I am. I sacrifice so much of my life, can I at least get laid?... That's just who I am. I want to have a nice career for my children. I want them to have a great education. I want to fly my birds. I want to live my life. I want to have a drink every now and then. I want to have a charity event every now and then. And every now and then, I want to fornicate and that's just being a human being."

There is a lot more to what Tyson said, including his feeling that if Jesus were to come back now he would probably sit down with Tyson and have a drink and discuss things (for more, check out The overwhelming response to Tyson’s rant has been predictable. He’s been condemned and called out of control and insane, and there have been numerous calls for us all to stop listening to him so that maybe he’ll go away.

Now, there are two things going on here. On the one hand there are people who find the things Mike Tyson does and says distasteful. Some folks find him hilarious, but it's easy to understand why one would be put off. That is as far as it ought to go, but in the typical fashion of the well-intentioned, the calls have come fast and furious for Tyson’s head. To what purpose?

The only thing accomplished by condemning Tyson is that the ego of the person doing the condemning (too often a "journalist") grows exponentially larger. Saying that you’re sick of Tyson’s tirades is saying you’re a better person than Tyson, and this makes you feel good. But cloaking that simple equation in the language of one who would like to save society from the Tyson monster is pointless. The truth is that Tyson is harmless. His business is entertainment, and at this he succeeds amazingly. He is no crazier than a thousand men whose names we will never know and whose lives will never affect our own. We may choose to disagree with what he says and find it disgusting, but that is not what lies at the heart of the Silence Tyson movement. What lies there is self-righteous fear.

It’s fear of the unknown and the dirty, and it’s a self-righteous urge to remake the world in one’s own pure vision. Having the fear is fine, but attempting to turn it into a crusade is ridiculous. Not only will Mike Tyson not go away until Mike Tyson chooses, but we need his antics for one simple reason: to remind those who would deny his world of the fact that it still exists.