Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Trap of Perfection

Or: The Genius of Charles Barkley

Unless you live in a cave1, you're at least passingly familiar with the Tiger Woods saga that has played out over the past week or two. I'm interested not at all in what exactly happened with Tiger, his wife and his possible mistress(es). I suppose I'm interested in how Woods's career plays out from here, but I don't see how that is at all knowable, making any prognostication pointless. What does interest me is how we got here.
1: Ah, that hoary old cliché. It's just a bit pithier than saying "Unless you live in a television and internet media-free bubble".
Fundamentally, human beings are only somewhat knowable to each other, even in intimate situations. At greater distance, you can hope for facets of someone at best. How well do you truly know your coworkers? Your casual friends? Celebrity extends this even further. For all that we live in a maelstrom of media coverage and rapidly disseminated information, how in-depth is any of it?

Public persona then, is a construct that overlaps with the reality of private identity at best imperfectly, and at worst not at all. Because there are vast sums of money at stake, the athletes who matter on a (inter)national scale have teams working to sell them to us. Tiger WoodsTM is carefully built, with the parts of the story that fit being finessed into the narrative arc as perfect as his golf swing, and everything else is left out entirely.2 Done well, this is immensely profitable for everyone involved. The athlete gets lauded as a hero/role model, the company he3 is shilling for moves product, and the public gets an object for their affection. This is all well and good, but any cracks in the facade can spell trouble. Every elite athlete is a human first, foibles and all. For every Albert Pujols, who seems to be above reproach4, there are countless pros who fall short of the impossible ideal to which the best are held.
2: Charles P. Pierce has an excellent set of articles about Tiger Woods and this dichotomy, in addition to a nice one about Deion Sanders/Prime Time that are well worth your time.
3: Yes, there are certainly famous female athletes, but let's not pretend there's anything resembling gender parity here. For a variety of reasons, both sexist and physiological, the vast preponderance of famous athletes, especially w/r/t advertising money, are male. Just compare how many female athletes are featured in articles on and sports blogs compared to football cheerleaders.
4: And again, the operative word here is seems. I don't know Albert, he certainly could be an inveterate womanizer/drunk/gambler/general sleaze of a human. This comment is based purely on public reporting of acts that didn't appear to be calculated for public acclaim, but it's possible I've been duped by an exceedingly clever and subtle PR campaign.

In days of yore, public figures were actively protected. Beat writers traveled on the same trains as Babe Ruth. They played cards and drank together, so how could they write about the big guy's shortcomings? Think about how JFK's press corps actively safeguarded his public image. This is conjecture, but I would guess this symbiotic relationship, in which athletes images were actively burnished by writers who in turn got to write about folk heroes instead of flawed men, fell apart in the late 70s and early 80s. In baseball, several stars had very public struggles with cocaine. A large portion of the NBA had similar problems, which only compounded the fact that it was a largely black league covered by predominently white beat writers for a public discourse dominated by white audiences.5 At the same time, television contracts ballooned, and with them player contracts. Baseball had its first million-dollar player in 1979, which I assume was the first in any sport, though I could be wrong. (I can't dig it up on Google, so feel free to correct me here.) Stars' lifestyles drifted further from the average Joe's.
5: I don't know enough about the history of the NFL, NHL, golf or any other sport to compare their respective timelines here, but I have to imagine they all follow similar patterns.

Add in the ratcheting up of salaries over the next twoish decades and exponential acceleration the internet caused in media coverage, we find ourselves here. Instead of daily newspaper coverage of your local team and monthly articles in Sports Illustrated et al., you have all the varied blogs, ESPN plus the celebrity status of big stars like Tiger means that national non-sports media will run with a story like this. To really reel in the big bucks, conventional wisdom holds, you need to not only be a
The only way out, as far as I can tell, if you don't want to clamp down on access and try to rebuild7, is to emulate the genius of the Charles Barkley mold. I really don't know why another pro hasn't wrapped himself in the cloak of not being a role model. Any star who has a sufficiently public moral failing gets painted as a non-role model, but the usual response is mealy-mouthed pap about regret and living up to responsibilities in the future. Sir Charles was smart enough to realize that if he embraced not the specific failing, but rather his imperfection as a human, he could live his life the way he wanted and only have to avoid not totally trashing his image. Any future transgressions could be dismissed simply by saying "I told you I wasn't a role model." Far from ruining his endorsement prospects, look at where it got him. I can certainly understand that this is a counter-intuitive first step to take, but what I don't get is why at least one or two stars who would otherwise chafe under the mantle of perfect role model haven't tried the path of the antihero.
7: Note: this is exactly what I think Tiger Woods will do, largely successfully. It's not like he pulled a Michael Vick, he just got caught sleeping around, which I'm pretty sure something like 85% of all star professional athletes do, with some automotive bizarreness thrown in to juice up the story. If you'd rather think about what Tiger will do to rehabilitate his image, let me direct you to the always excellent Bethlehem Shoals.

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