Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Athletes, Rock Stars, and the Art of the Tear-Down.

Hard on the heels of the recently-released Walter Payton biography, an awful lot of kicking and screaming has been going on among football's more nostaglia-driven constituents. There has been, in the words of one of my favorite authors, "a right smart racket." The issue at hand is the book's detailed chronicling of Sweetness' many problems and flaws off the field and later in life. The outrage is flowing hot and quick over the denigration of a legend, the forced erosion of his mythology. This strikes me as unfortunate. And odd.

It's not that the sentiments being expressed are strange in and of themselves. It's understandable that discomfort or even anguish might be caused when a hero's foibles are exposed in stark relief. What I find sad and confusing is the disconnect between how we react to sports heroes in circumstances such as these, and how we react to other cultural icons when the curtain is drawn back.

Of course, our sporting heroes aren't real heroes at all. Not in the manner that, say, the person who runs back into a burning building to save a child is a hero. But we do endow them with similar attributes. Greater ones, even, in that their associations tend to last longer. The burning-building savior will be forgotten by tomorrow's news cycle. The transcendent athlete will be remembered by many long after their last act on the field.

It's in the desire for those memories to be pure as driven snow that our perception of sports is completely out of line with the rest of our societal ethos. Our lionization of athletes carries the bizarre and wholly unrealistic caveat that they be paragons of virtue, and God help them if they fall short. Michael Vick ran a dog-fighting ring? Tiger Woods is an inveterate philanderer? Break out the pitchforks and torches! I'm not defending them or anyone else who does terrible things to their fellow human beings. (Or to animals, in Vick's case.) I'm merely saying that our violent reactions when these things happen are largely the product of absurd expectations. We wouldn't want such people babysitting our kids or teaching in elementary schools, but that's not their function in society. They're entertainers. That's the sum total of their purpose. That we project heroic qualities upon them is our own fault.

As fans, we reserve and are entitled to the right to root for or against whomever we choose, for whatever reasons seem justified within the framework of our individual thinking. We make our own personal heroes, and our own personal villains. Everything is fair game. "I just hate the friggin' Yankees" is the same in upshot, if not moral intent, as "that is a reprehensible person, and I refuse to support them." The interesting thing is that, as heroes go, only athletes are subjected to the latter statement. Save politicians, no other figures who might grace a magazine cover or trend on Twitter are held in this type of black-and-white judgement.

As a basis for comparison, consider popular music. Like sports, it's a form of entertainment. Setting aside the lack of a competitive element in the former, we deify the participants in both for the same reason: they do things that we, on our best days and in our wildest dreams, could never do. I've been playing guitar and shooting hoops for most of my life, and I can tell you with certainty that I will never approach the artistry of either Jimi Hendrix or Michael Jordan. Actors, writers, poets, painters, musicians, and athletes, are all akin in the reasons why we glorify them. So what is it about the particular context in which athletes exist that sets them apart?

Example: 50 Cent's time in jail gave him "street cred." So, for that matter, did Johnny Cash's. If Derek Jeter ever winds up in the big house, many people will say it "tarnishes his legacy."

Another example: if Tiger Woods were the guitarist in a multi-platinum selling band instead of a professional golfer, would we have batted an eye at that Thanksgiving night and everything that followed? Of course not. More than likely, we would have reacted like this: "His old lady found out he'd been screwing around, and he wrecked his car while on drugs and she bashed in the rear window with a nine iron? Awesome! What a f*$% rock star!!!"

In every non-sports arena that produces celebrity, these kinds of failings are seen as contributory to personal mythologies, not detracting from them. Hunter S. Thompson? Did every drug known to man and had all kinds of crazy misadventures ... and we revere him for it. Van Gogh? So messed up over a girl that he cut off his own ear ... he suffered for his art! Hugh Grant? Apparently enjoys illicit interactions with practitioners of the world's oldest profession ... but hey, that's Hollywood for you. And going back to the music analogy, the list of debauched legends is as long as The Illiad. From Mozart to Coltrane to Dylan, pretty much every relevant figure over music's entire documented history has had their demons and mistakes and unsavory characteristics well-publicized. In no case that I know of has it lessened their status among the media, scholars, and fans. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Somehow, athletes don't get the benefit of that particular brand of thinking. Their failings, when exposed, trigger a witch-hunt mentality among the populace. Fans grumble, pundits lament the lack of moral fiber, and people in the game attempt to distance themselves from the parties involved. Unless those fans, media, or insiders happen to have a connection to that specific athlete or the team they play for. Then you'll get no end of denial, justification, and defensive posturing, which is just as bad as the often irrational criticism they're trying to counter.

I suppose the fundamental question here is why? Why, when every other type of culturally-appointed icon/hero/mythic figure is not only tacitly allowed to have flaws, but excused or even encouraged in doing so, are athletes alone subjected to this rigorous scrutiny? Why does wearing a jersey make a person more culpable than someone who straps on a guitar or sits in front of a typewriter or a canvas? Are athletes' imperfections somehow more glaring, more damaging to society? In all likelihood, the answer resides in a time long before any of us were born. Musicians and artists, actors and authors have a centuries-long and storied history of eccentricity, misanthropy, and morally questionable behavior. "The artistic temperament," they call it. Over time, it's become a given that creative people will not necessarily be aligned with the social mores of the day. In fact, it's widely believed that the best artistic endeavors are driven by those who defy traditional moral conventions. While this is not true in many cases, the self-fulfilling nature of the myth has rendered it "common knowledge," and thus acceptable.

Athletes aren't granted the same clemency because their victories are perceived as fundamentally different from those of artists. While creative improvisation is an inherent part of most sports in varying degrees, the primary avenue through which success is achieved remains one of physical dominance, not mental brilliance. At least, those who have never appreciated in full the complexity of a football playbook or the subtlety of a point guard's intuition see it that way. And because sports stars are perceived as not needing an "artistic temperament" to perform at a high level, we don't allow the same leeway for their eccentricities and shortcomings. Never mind that the pressures of being a public figure are no different for athletes than they are for rock stars, or that unfortunate discoveries are going to be made about pretty much anyone under such a microscope over time. If a surgeon cheats on his or her spouse, the patient isn't likely to find out, and will therefore maintain complete faith in their ability to perform a triple bypass. If an athlete commits adultery, some odd synaptic connection compels us to subtly downgrade our evaluations of their performance. We tie what occurs in the game to what we know about the person, and it negatively shifts our perception.

Those shifts have been amplified in the past 20 years or so. Technological advances have given us real-time access to our heroes that was previously unimaginable. That access reveals in painstaking detail the best angels and worst demons of people in whose worth we are inordinately invested, but it's the demons we choose to focus on. Every imperfection and tawdry tidbit is available for immediate consumption and commentary, which translates into a pronounced tendency to tear down the gladiators. In different times, this wasn't the case.

Just look at Ty Cobb. By all accounts, he was a less-than-shining example of humanity. A racist and a mean S.O.B. A man other people found easy to dislike. Even within the confines of the game that made him famous, he was considered "unsportsmanlike." (Cobb had a reputation of trying to spike opponents with his sharpened cleats every time he slid into a base.) We know these things to be true. Yet because Ty Cobb could flat-out play baseball, and because the documentation of his less virtuous aspects was so limited in his time, our first thought when his name is mentioned is his brilliance on the diamond. Athletes in Cobb's day were essentially unknowable to the public at large. Their flaws were easily concealed because mass media the way we think of it hadn't been invented yet. There was no CNN, no ESPN, no TMZ. The all-pervasive apparatus of scandal-revealing denigration that we currently call "journalism" wasn't even a hazy pipe dream. If Cobb were playing today, we'd crucify him the same way we did John Rocker.

Which, in his specific case, would be the correct course of action.

There's a difference between being flawed in the way that many people are flawed, and a genuinely aberrant or dangerous attitude. When an athlete is revealed in the former context, we should be as understanding and reasonable as we would be with anyone else. If it's the latter, we should be as unmerciful in judgement as we would be under any other circumstance. The star player who cheats on his wife or becomes addicted to drugs or booze or painkillers or what have you is certainly flawed and tragic and, possibly, immoral. (Cheating on your spouse is immoral. Addiction to substances that alleviate the pain of a physically destructive career is not.) They absolutely should not be emulated, but they're also a far cry from real bigotry or other extremely hateful, violent behavior. Plaxico Burress shooting himself in the leg was stupid and unfortunate, but I hope he can still have a meaningful NFL career. On the other hand, if the alleged events in Milledgeville, GA actually occurred, Ben Roethlisberger ought to have gone to jail for a very long time instead of being allowed to settle out of court. When faced with serious, legitimate evil, we should abhor the athlete who does the deed just as much as the random murderer on the six o'clock news. But when our outrage stems from transgressions that anyone whose moral compass doesn't point true north 24/7 might commit simply because they're human beings, that's on us. They didn't ask for this scrutiny. As Charles Barkley apprised all of us years ago, athletes aren't role models. Why we ever thought they were, and why that idea has been perpetuated, is a mystery.

Which brings us back to Walter Payton. The people who are so offended by that new biography see it as an unnecessary exercise in muckraking, as speaking ill of the dead. They're angry because of the effect it might have on their (and our) memories of the man, and thus on his legacy as a football player and a person. The depressing thing is, they're probably right. People are going to use what's revealed in those pages as a reason to tear Payton down. As Jeff MacGregor so astutely pointed out, that's a sorry state of affairs, and not what we should be taking away from reading it. In revealing Payton's imperfections, the book encourages us to celebrate his achievements all the more.

MacGregor: "His flaws should make him more dear to us rather than less so. More inspiring. More heroic. Look what he was able to do. To be that fast and strong and focused while carrying the weight of all those secret burdens? Isn't that the lesson? Isn't that what we should teach?"

Exactly. Which is why we need to alter the way we perceive athletes. Walter Payton was as much of a rock star as is possible within his chosen profession. If we can baptize Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin and Elvis and a million others in the waters of idolized acceptance, if we can acknowledge their flaws as people without detracting from their artistry, why can't we do the same for our sports heroes?

Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen lost his left arm in a car wreck because he was provoked into a road-rage-fueled street race, which caused him to accelerate while failing to see a sudden turn in the road ahead. In addition to the loss of a limb, that crash could easily have ended his girlfriend's life as she sat in the passenger seat. (She came out of the incident more-or-less without a scratch.) In short, he made a human error, and it cost him far more than anything costs anyone in normal circumstances, but still not nearly as much as it might have. Eventually, through perseverance and innovative thinking and a refusal to be destroyed by his circumstances, he was able to play drums again short-handed (no pun intended), and resume his life as a rock'n'roll god. Retroactively, we've awarded him caps-locked LEGEND status for this. If Allen's poor decisions can be forgiven and forgotten in the face of his overcoming the consequences, we ought to do the same for Walter Payton, even if he ultimately failed to outrun his personal demons.

Athletes. Rock stars. They strive for impossibly transcendent accomplishments, for victories, for the win, however that's defined. And we worship them because of it. Or not. Maybe we choose to destroy them. Maybe we think they're jerks or fakes, maybe we think they're just here for the money. And maybe they are. Maybe they don't give a damn what we think they're here for, or what our grandchildren will think of them in fifty years. Either way, we ought to judge them a little more carefully. Because maybe it's damned tough to stand in their shoes. Maybe we couldn't do any better.

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