Why Athletes Are Tame

In his Daily Beast column yesterday, Buzz Bissinger laments the lack of colorful heroes in sports. The first problem, Bissinger notes, is that it is impossible to get access to professional athletes because their agents obstruct communication:

“Getting to sports figures is like cutting through cords of prison barbed wire. And given the wishy-washy personality mush of gray pudding that is the athlete today, all of them sounding the same with those soporific, somnolent sound bites, I am not sure the effort of getting their cooperation is even worth it.”

Bissinger later goes on to show that going through the effort of getting their communication is decisively not worth it, griping about the lack of heart and conviction that goes into athletes’ generic answers to interview questions:

“[There are] no men and women who speak with conviction, or are willing to take a stand regardless of risk, or are just delightfully funky and insane. Athletes do occasionally post interesting and provocative tweets on Twitter, only to immediately retract them by claiming post-traumatic Twitter syndrome once there is the slightest whiff of controversy.”

In stating that there are NO men and women who fit these criteria consistently, Bissinger is incorrect. In fact, Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens, and Ron Artest (um, I mean Metta World Peace), to name a few, are squarely against the grain in these regards and are also heavily criticized in the media for their sincerity and/or insanity.

The athletes who Bissinger nostalgically remembers and says are nonexistent now, such as Yogi Berra, Muhammad Ali, Joe Namath, and Jim Brown, played in a diametrically different fan and media landscape. They were covered by daily newspapers and occasionally on television. Those who covered these athletes generally exercised discretion and personal lives were seen as off limits. If an athlete said something controversial, there was only so much traction the quote could gain. Now there are millions of blogs which dissect every word, SportsCenter runs approximately 78 times a day, there is local and national sports talk radio which has untold amounts of airtime to fill, and sportswriters yell at each other every day on TV.

None of those athletes ever had to face the onslaught of scrutiny and coverage that LeBron James had to deal with for The Decision. Saying, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach” of course pales in comparison to outlandish or provocative statements Jim Brown or Muhammad Ali made throughout their careers. Ali faced public backlash for refusing to participate in the military draft but can you imagine how much a similar action by a prominent athlete would be dissected today? Would Joe Namath have been such a fabled carouser if his drinking pictures ended up on Deadspin like Matt Leinart’s as Us Weekly and TMZ battled daily for more?

It is not just athletes who speak in platitudes and refuse to give writers access to their genuine thoughts and emotions. Everybody who is covered by the voracious 24/7 media does this. Coaches, politicians, celebrities, and businessmen do the exact same thing. A few years ago, I went to an analysts’ meeting at a major insurance company with my father. As my dad asked genuine questions in trying to determine whether the company’s stock was worth investing in, the CEO dodged and diverted the questions just as a football coach would have done, answering every question with some variation of “Both teams played hard,” doing a poor job of concealing his annoyance with having to go through these motions.

As Bissinger briefly alluded to, Twitter is now really the only place to get access to genuine human emotion of the athletes who are normally so guarded and indifferent. Fooled too many times into incurring negative backlash from having their quotes taken out of context and perceived negatively, athletes have taken to cutting out the middleman. Sportswriters who were once a necessary intermediary between athletes and the public have been marginalized by the same media environment that has caused athletes to bite their tongues.

Even with the barrage of new media, it is not a brand new development that athletes do not take stands. In my opinion, the trend started during the dramatic rise in endorsement contracts that coincided with the growth of Nike and ESPN. It has therefore been happening for at least the past 20 years. As Michael Jordan famously said when asked to support African American Democrat Harvey Gantt in a North Carolina Senate race, “Republicans buy sneakers too.”

While it is disconcerting to see athletes regress to sheer nothingness in their public statements, I really cannot say I blame them. There does not seem to be too much upside in engaging the media and public honestly and sincerely. In fact, as described above with Artest, Ochocinco, and T.O., there appears to be quite a bit of downside to staying true to yourself.


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4 Responses to Why Athletes Are Tame

  1. alphazack says:

    I’m all for colorful personalities, as long as that means they don’t run into the stands and punch fans. Or bring guns to a stadium. Talk shit and back it up, that’s how you should become a colorful athlete.

  2. btublin says:

    A couple things.

    1) I recently watched the 30 for 30 on Michael Jordan’s time in minor league baseball. In that documentary, they show several clips of him winning the NBA championship. Go watch those clips. Then watch Dwayne Wade, when he won. Or Lebron, when he’s won big games. The difference is pure, raw, emotion. Jordan cared about winning. He actually cared about making his teammates better (at least during for his final 3 rings). Lebron and Wade just *say* they care about winning. But they don’t. They only pretend to because it perpetuates and supports their desired lifestyle, and aspirations to be “moguls.” My point is, these athletes are not just fake when it comes to media access – they’re not genuine people, period.

    2) Brian Wilson. He’s open, honest, and insane. Rory McIlroy. He’s the ideal mold. That’s how I want my athletes to engage the media. Answer questions with honest, matter-of-fact answers, that reflect your true thoughts about the competition you partake in. Not much more, and nothing less.

  3. 525day says:

    I read Buzz Bissinger’s article and decided to give it a different title “I like times I didn’t live in and remorse not knowing people I was too young to know, but thought they were heroes cause that’s what you do when you are a kid.” Buzz’s criticism is way off the mark. Way to phone it in, Buzz. This is definitely not Pulitzer caliber work. He uses Yogi as his prime example of a hero athlete from a bygone era in sports that he wasn’t around to enjoy.
    There is no way that Buzz knew Yogi Berra in his prime. Buzz was born in ’54. Yogi was born in 1925. He was already about 29 years old when Buzz drew his first breath. How can he use that as an example of how “great” or “heroic” a player is?
    At least Sonny Jurgeson had the longevity to play through Buzz’s teen years. Most football players aren’t that lucky. Most QBs don’t have that kind of protection and get hurt. Regardless, he wasn’t a reporter then and he didn’t think critically about his heroes. I believe he is just gilding the lily with layers of nostalgia. Nostalgia is a wasted emotion when it comes to reporting.
    Looking at any player in the past with nostalgia gives them a different glow of a time long past. You don’t see it at present and rarely take the time to enjoy it while it lasts… sometimes the only way you can look back is with distance. That separation counts when creating the myth of the hero.
    You’re absolutely right in your criticism. If they step out of line, the media backlash strikes like lightening. The agent is hopefully protecting their player from reporters just trying to make a buck off of a nugget of controversy. At the same time though, that insulation proves to break down when a player gets traded to a new team or if a contract is renegotiated. Then he drones on about LeBron James like we haven’t already heard this story dozens of times… Beat a dead horse much, Buzz?
    As a premiere athlete, you are subjected to the same questions day after day by the same people so you revert to these answers. You don’t spend your time dreaming up new answers to the same questions. Maybe they’ve been coached to answer questions that way. Maybe that’s what they’ve been doing since little league. Then again, how often can you hear the same story told again and again? Ralph Waldo Emerson, a better author than Buzz, once wrote “Every hero becomes a bore at last.”
    The notion of the athlete-hero might need to be redefined. They take the people around them to the next level. They might not be the quarterback. They might not have a pretty face for TV, but they do get into their teammates heads and they motivate.
    On another note, it’s a journalist’s job to get the story and to build a relationship with a player over time, so eventually they get comfortable enough to talk to you like a real person and eventually they’ll say something interesting.
    I think blaming the player for canned answers is just crappy journalism. If you only get to address a player in the post game interview and you don’t know the player then what else is expected? When there were fewer options to get news, the picture of a player could be groomed better. When there were only three television outlets for sports (ABC, NBC, CBS) then you could build strong reporter / athlete relationships. Remember the relationship between Mohamed Ali and Howard Cosell?

  4. Pingback: Sports Karma is Awesome « Keepthefiresburning's Blog

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