We don’t want athletes to be like us. We dissect everything that is “other” about them. We pick them apart on highlight reels, in newspapers, and online only to discover that there’s something about them that we can’t quite put our finger on — something bigger.
As a sportswriter, you are taught to capture what goes “beyond the game.” You learn to search for greatness, find those that are the least like you and plant them on a pedestal for the masses to admire from below.
Oftentimes, though, we explore this greatness and elevate these people to the point where they aren’t people. Journalism is an exploration of people. Sports journalism might not be, or can get caught pretending to be one.
Until an athlete comes crashing down — until they’re O.J. Simpson — we are content to make them infallible. And the crash has to be certain and without redemption for us to truly notice it.
When NHL superstar Patrick Kane is accused of rape, he must be charged for it to mean anything. If he’s charged, then he’ll need to be convicted. In the mean time, journalists, executives, and his employer are on standby. The fans chant his name.
An NFL season rife with scandal is the league’s most profitable ever.
The stories of Michael Jordan’s bullying of teammates, insults in interviews, gambling addiction, failed baseball career that he blamed on a lockout for slowing his development, his teammates’ refusal to pitch on a parting gift as his career wound down in Washington, and a crumbling ownership of the NBA’s worst franchise are seldom. He’s still Michael Jordan. He’s still bigger than the rest of us. Hell, his shoe is bigger than us, worth more than us — the peak of material American culture. Is there anything he could do to not be MJ?
Too often, when journalists paint these vivid images of these Gods, they are depicted with a sort of certainty.
I was reminded of this today, when reading famed scribe Gary Smith’s 1996 Sports Illustrated story, “The Chosen One.”
The story, featured in David Halberstam’s “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century,” is that of a young Tiger Woods. It is the journalism we celebrate.
In it, Tiger’s father Earl is found saying his son will “do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity.”
In it, Michael Jordan refers to Tiger as his only hero on earth.
In it, Tiger says “I’ve always known where I wanted to go in life. I’ve never let anything deter me. This is my purpose. It will unfold.”
In it, the author says (it isn’t presented as an argument, but as reality) that what separates Tiger, not just from us but from other Gods, is “a superstar free of anger and arrogance and obsession with self.”
In retrospect, Tiger was angry, arrogant, and self-obsessed. But nobody wanted him to be, because he hadn’t been yet. And until he was, nobody cared to find out what was underneath. All that mattered was that he won, and he won more than anyone had ever won before, and more people watched — the world watched. At the time, it wouldn’t be jarring to have heard his father describe the power he held, not as an athlete, but as someone who could “change the course of humanity.” That was the pedestal the world had given him.
And he’s not the only one.
Let us always understand that these athletes, despite being physically foreign, are often just like us: flawed. Let us write those stories. And when we write of greatness, let it be nuanced and acknowledge that greatness is never complete.