Back in the day, we wanted our athletes to be role models.
At least, that was the sort of thing you were supposed to say.
Today, athletes aren’t instructive examples. They’re cautionary tales. We take them apart, brick by brick, until they’re laid bare. Every high-profile failure re-proves to us the base assumption of the age – that no one deserves to be special. And if it turns out that they are, it must be a gimmick.
Charles Barkley ruined that Little American illusion of exceptionalism with a 30-second TV ad for Nike.
The pull quote from that clip: “Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
It’s hard to explain to a young audience how resonant and original that idea seemed when the campaign was released in 1993. It was the closest the discipline of sociology ever got to being relevant.
The message connected immediately, because it’s true. In an instant, Barkley killed off generations worth of received wisdom. He destroyed our idea of the athlete as moral exemplar by virtue of his physical prowess.
The unintended upshot of that ad: We are people, just like you. This was a belief system being dismantled. Barkley rearranged the iconography of sport. If they’re just like us, then why do we worship them?
Before Barkley, one was encouraged to presume that athletes were all pretty good guys leading pretty good lives. Once in a while they wrapped a car around a phone pole after a night out, but that was high spirits. Call this the Mickey Mantle Exception. As a general rule, they lived big, clean lives free of compromise.
For every Sonny Liston or Rick Barry the public took exception to, there were a hundred other damaged people who skated by unhindered. Athletes were America’s children – coddled, fussed over and forgiven in advance.
It was constricting, but also elevating. A pro traded privacy and agency for privilege and ease. As long as he (always ‘he’) didn’t buck too much, all the little disasters that afflict every life – lesser sins and depressingly average personal failings – were ignored.
Not because the media weren’t anxious to report them, but because people didn’t want to hear it. Twenty-five years ago, no one wanted to cheer for a creep. They wanted heroes, and that’s what they were given.
Barkley’s big, shattering idea took a few years to dig its way into the culture. Implicit within it – “I’m not a role model” – is a rejection of the fan. In the ad, Barkley stares smoulderingly into the camera. This isn’t a speech. It’s a break-up via videotape. The pros don’t need or want you any more. All they want is to play and be paid.
That’s all most of us want from our work. But it still hurt to hear.
Within a few years, it had turned us sour.
We didn’t stop watching sports. Instead, we stopped liking the people who play them.
That was enormously freeing. We were being encouraged to wrap the coarsest elements of soap opera into athletics (it’s no coincidence that the decline of the former in the mid-90s coincided with a huge popularity explosion in the latter). We could burrow into these people’s private lives and secret motivations. That was okay because we weren’t friends any more.
The discourse around professional athletics became harrying. The average sports fan became a scold. A sub-par player was no longer just a guy who wasn’t that good. There was a basic fault in his character. We’d spend years trying to find it.
Even the elite now ride a roller-coaster of popularity. Once in a while, they screw up, after which they must pay months or years of penance trying to re-earn our admiration. Usually by winning.
The qualifications for stardom also changed. It used to be simple – the best athlete had the biggest name. Having untethered ourselves from their well-being, we became more interested in them as manufactured celebrities. Increasingly, the most obsessed over athletes are the ones primed to fail.
You could make a decent argument that, right now, the most observed professional athlete in America is Cleveland Browns rookie Johnny Manziel.
As a football player, Manziel has a few bonafides to recommend him, but there’s little to suggest he’ll ever be a dominant pro. He was the 22nd pick overall. He’s physically suspect. There are a dozen holes in his game.
But his character is fraught. By all accounts, he’s a boozy, heedless bro who made it despite himself. In college, he got away with things other kids don’t get away with. He’s a bit of a golden boy – the most easily pecked-at cliché. He doesn’t seem to care, which makes people crazy.
If we don’t really like athletes any more, Manziel makes it especially easy to find fault.
Despite his lack of quality, people can’t get enough of him. He was subbed into an exhibition game for the Browns last week. It was the most watched preseason game in NFL Network history, and by a country mile.
This week, he was late for a team meeting. They changed the time. Manziel didn’t get the message. A bunch of other guys were late too, but Manziel’s tardiness was national news.
Manziel is Tim Tebow through a glass darkly. He enlivens our need for a target, someone to tear down to our size. Here’s guessing the public gets its wish. He’ll be pre-emptively destroyed because he isn’t good enough and because he fills our need for balance in the world.
Manziel isn’t special. He isn’t a role model. And like so many others who’ve fallen in the past 20 years, we’re going to prove it to him.