For All the Wrong Reasons

“The spectator invests his surrogate out there with all his carefree hopes, his aspirations for freedom, his yearning for transmutation of business into leisure, war into peace, effort into grace.”–A. Bartlett Giamatti

According to Giamatti, we are so emotionally invested in and attracted to sports because they fulfill an innate desire within us to achieve a sense of paradise: where time stops, we feel fully content, and things ordinarily classified by themselves as work become autotelic, or intrinsically valuable. To achieve this sensation, there must first be a presence of athletic greatness and atmosphere in which to immerse ourselves. And this is where the majority of America, the laymen in the eyes of sports, hits a proverbial roadblock: many of us are not physically capable of accomplishing such feats.

And this is where the second part of Giamatti’s analysis comes in: the athletes we so idolize become our “surrogates.” Because we are incapable of matching their achievements, we simulate the feeling by throwing ourselves into the sport, the history, the team, the star player…we get as close as we possibly can to experiencing paradise for ourselves. And in a moment of near-athletic perfection, we do. We are able to share in the euphoria, and for a moment, we are exactly like the athletes: free from work and confinements, playing in a state of paradise.

Theoretically, there is nothing inherently wrong with this scenario. The strength of attachment to the sporting world can unite a community, a state, or an entire nation. It can promote values of sportsmanship, social justice, equality and the idea that peace is attainable. The problem, then, lies not in the action but in the doers of the action: the athletes.

On the field, court, or arena, these participants have the potential to be flawless, and we regard them as such. Due at least in part to the fact that they accomplish what we cannot, we treat them with a reverence that resembles godliness. Our complete and total idolization of star players can be seen in their overpriced yet highly-demanded clothing lines, television commercials, trademarked apparel and eight-figure salaries. And although this praise can be justified in the athletic realm, what happens when we step outside the paradise? Do they deserve such reverence as people, and not just athletes?

I answer that with a wholehearted “no.” When we examine the personal lives of those we so deeply admire, we find scandal upon scandal, atrocity upon atrocity. Lance Armstrong, Pete Rose, Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, Barry Bonds–and the list goes on. They’ve been given huge passes from the general public for committing acts that would ruin anyone else. This overlooking by the public cannot be justified simply because they possess an admirable talent; these athletes are simply not deserving of our worship.

And this philosophy is not only applicable to athletes. We see the same scandals almost daily in the lives of our favorite celebrities that we simply “excuse.” We are selective about what is important in determining a celebrity’s image, and prioritize talent, looks, and fashion sense above moral character and responsibility. We, collectively, have “forgiven” (or overlooked the allegations against) Michael Jackson, Chris Brown, Britney Spears, Kanye West, R. Kelly, and Charlie Sheen for horrible offenses because we admire what they have done professionally. Professional success should never warrant such behavior.

Some may argue that we need not praise these people as people, but rather simply as athletes, actors, or celebrities. I purport that the two identities are not separable. These public figures have become role models in the eyes of many: children and adults alike cherish their favorite athlete, singer or actor as someone they would like to rival, become, or get to know in the future. The same “role models” that make front-page headlines for abuse, infidelity, or foul play in their field have most likely once been in family-friendly advertisements or have endorsed products that encourage principles that they themselves do not live by. We cannot continue to worship these people under the cloak of selectivity; if we are going to regard them with godly reverence, we must take their whole person into account.

In actuality, though, we shouldn’t regard these figures as godly at all. It’s ok to appreciate their talent, but they shouldn’t be receiving the type and volume of recognition that they do today. They deserve respect for their craft, but it is questionable that they deserve our respect as people, and a decision such as this should be made free of the bias that their professional success creates. I’m not saying we should go crazy and start rooting for the biggest choke of all chokers, Phil Mickelson, just because he’s a great guy, but we should strive to find a better balance between prioritizing the athlete’s (or celebrity’s) ability to create and instill a sense of paradise within us and their goodness as a human being, while recognizing their identities not as gods, but as people.

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3 thoughts on “For All the Wrong Reasons

  1. I think you make an excellent point in this post. I believe in sports all too often fans become obsessed with the players themselves and not the larger organizations that truly unite the fan base (excluding golf, tennis, and other sports based on the individual.) The team is where the fan should focus. He ought not put his passion in these people as individuals for at the end of the day they are just employees doing their jobs like the rest of us. With any other company or brand, we don’t support based on employees. We support a company or brand because of the connection we have to it at large and the product they put out. In sports, fans often forget this and put too much focus into the people themselves. At the end of the day, players shift. They put on different jerseys and move to new teams. The one constant in sports is the team. The focus should be on the team. As Bo Shembechler so eloquently put it, “The team. The team. The team.”

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    • Great analysis of the public conundrum today and a very timely post considering the various player scandals that are now appearing (recent being Michael Phelps and Ray Rice). I do agree that in our quest of finding paradise in sport, in Giamatti’s words, we do get a bit carried away with our craze. But I believe there is another viewpoint that needs to be considered.

      It’s not athletes that make mistakes, normal people do too. It’s just mistakes made by stars are magnified to another level. All the scandals that you mentioned above received their fare share of media publicity, and even more. With all the public criticism, not to mention the legal and financial ramifications on their families, I think each of the stars has gotten their fare share of the punishment. Tiger can still play golf but he will never have the reputation he once had. Phelps can get more golds but he some of his advertising sponsors will still not come under contract with him due to his DUIs. So in reality they haven’t gotten away.

      So I agree that our endorsement of athletes should stay within the boundaries of the sporting field. A Gatorade advertisement for Phelps makes sense, but an education one does not. But on the same note I can’t agree with the fact that the athletes have been let off easy.

      My two cents,
      Abhi

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      • Hi Abhi!

        I definitely agree that celebrities (including athletes) that commit terrible crimes fall under major media scrutiny. However, it seems, to me, that they tend to get off a lot easier. For example, Teresa Giudice (of Real Housewives of New Jersey) was very recently found guilty of fraud and received a considerably lesser sentence than she should have (http://www.tmz.com/2014/10/02/teresa-giudice-sentenced-prison-time-rhonj/). The prosecution in the case even made the point to stress that Giudice’s and her husband’s (who was also heavily involved) fame should not save them from the crimes they had committed. The judge, however, still took the route of leniency.

        I also think that the rate with which the public “forgives” celebrities is usually directly proportional to their success in their field. For example, Tiger Woods, after his infidelity scandal, took a very long time to bounce back in the golf world. He plateaued in his career for a long time, and, because of this, it’s been difficult to grow to love him again. Only recently, in a sudden surge of success, did the public warm up to him again (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/mar/17/tiger-woods-finds-form-fans).

        So, I totally agree that celebrities (just like everyone else) receive their slap on the wrist, but it seems like they recover pretty quickly, and for questionable reasons.

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