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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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