I’d first like to thank Conor for reading my post and being compelled to share his views on the subject of rebranding in sports. I appreciate his willingness to be a guest writer on the subject and would like to welcome others to do the same in the future.
While my article dealt more with positives that can come from reshaping one’s image, I agree with Conor that there can definitely be a dark side to rebranding. It can help to unfairly cover up terrible crimes and bring seemingly unearned redemption to the guilty, especially in athletics. Conor brings up a number of good examples of this: Ben Johnson, Marion Jones, Lance Armstrong, Pete Rose, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGuire, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens all committed crimes against the sport, and suffer to this day for it, while Mike Tyson, Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick, Kobe Bryant, and Ray Lewis committed far more serious offenses off the field and have survived to rebuild their image. Should they be allowed to? Is it fair that crimes like murder, assault and infidelity come off as lesser offenses than doping and PED’s? Wrong that we still watch these athletes, these people, and cheer them on to perform at a high level? In large part I would say it is wrong, but it is far more complicated than that.
It has long been a habit of ours, as a society, to turn a blind eye to the misdoings of athletes. It starts as early as middle school and, depending on how talented you are, it can follow you all the way to the pros. Sure, in middle school and high school it is relatively pretty innocent stuff: skipping class, being mean to your classmates, cheating in school, drinking, drugs, etc. Between high school and college further, more serious, transgressions can arise as athletes become young adults. Instances of crime, like assault, sexual abuse and theft aren’t uncommon. Yet, without a doubt in my mind, we in the public are shielded from how often these offenses occur. More accurately, the athletes are shielded from the consequences of their actions. It is done in part for their benefit, but in a messed up way it is probably done more for us: the spectators.
Entertainment, particularly in sports, has become so important to us that we are willing to look the other way about a lot of things, as long as we get to watch the best of the best. When it comes to matters off the field we have become comfortable lowering the bar of expectations for athletes. This not only happens with crimes but also with academics. If you are a talented athlete, the emphasis that people put on you to be a good student, to educate yourself, diminishes. The idea that “Jocks are dumb” is a terrible stereotype, which certainly doesn’t apply to many athletes (some of the smartest people I know were student athletes). It is a stereotype though that everyone, every school, reinforces each year. At nearly ever college and university in the country scholarship athletes are held to a lower academic standard. They don’t need the GPA or the test scores that all other applicants do. Their education only becomes a problem if it keeps them from playing. True, the demands of being a college athlete and student at the same time are great. But every athletic department has tutors and aides to help their student athletes get high enough grades to stay off academic probation, not make dean’s list. This all amounts a system that will provide a free pass on education and protection against the public from scandal, all so us as fans can be entertained and the teams these athletes play for can make money off their talents.
I would argue that this expands beyond just sports though. I believe it to be more a question of celebrating talent, or celebrity, than purely athletics. Celebrity, whether it is from athletics, acting, or politics (to name a few) garners the same sort of culture. We are encouraged and entertained by watching immensely talented people do what they were “born to do” and as a society we are often willing to let a lot of things slide to keep that going. Crimes like drug abuse, theft, abuse, murder, obstruction of justice, perjury, and infidelity, offenses that happen “away from” the object of talent, are viewed as “obstacles” that keep the great from achieving greatness. Sure, they may get caught, these celebrities or people of elevated “status”, but do they suffer the same consequences? Is their path to redemption just as difficult? No chance. It’s the ugly truth and a poorly kept secret.
There is one exception however to this, the interesting case where the crime is against the object of talent (sports, art, politics, etc.). Sure, Lance Armstrong and Pete Rose are banned and won’t be adding to the record books anymore. They can’t fix their wrongs and rebrand themselves as clean players through future accolades. But I’m not sure they could, even if given the chance. In the eyes of a fan, it’s deeper than that. Do something that ruins the integrity of the game or makes us question your talent? Make us question whether you ever were truly as great as you made us believe? There is no coming back from that. Not only have you then cheated the craft that you’ve devoted your life to, but you’ve also deceived those who loved that craft and cherished your talent. That is precisely what doping and PED’s does for sports. It’s what plagiarizing does for writing and what copying beats or lyrics does for music. Not only did these celebrated talents cheat you, but they became rich doing it and haven’t had to give a dollar of it back. It begs the question: if you were never really that talented to begin with, why did we waste our time, our money, our energy paying attention to you? You shouldn’t have been awarded all of those breaks and free passes and you shouldn’t be making the boat loads of money you are. You shouldn’t be celebrated and you shouldn’t be famous.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the crimes committed against the game are worse than some of the truly heinous crimes that occur off the field. I’m not saying that ruining some kid’s dream of becoming Barry Bonds or Lance Armstrong is worse than killing someone or sexually assaulting someone, because it isn’t. I’m saying we are a nation that compartmentalizes what we know and don’t know. If we know someone only because of their celebrity and then they destroy the integrity that their celebrity was built on, we will take notice. But if they prove to be every bit as talented as we think they are, but happen to be a despicable person? Well, sad as it may be, we are more willing to still watch on in awe. No, we don’t condone the terrible things they’ve done. And no, just because we like to watch Tiger Woods play golf or enjoyed watching Ray Lewis’s last season in the NFL doesn’t mean we approve of their character or human decency. It means we enjoy being entertained by the best of the best. It means we take the good with the bad and focus on the good, because in the context of their sport or their craft, unlike in real life and off the field, they are great. There are plenty of wildly talented people throughout history who also happen to be terrible people. Who they are as a person has little to do with their ability to perform their job or hone their craft. It goes well beyond just athletes. Bill Clinton cheating on his wife and lying about it ruined his credibility as a husband, but didn’t put into question his abilities as a diplomat. Roman Pulaski and R. Kelly went down for statutory rape and are still celebrated as gifted film and music creators, respectively. Heck, Chris Brown publicly assaulted his girlfriend Rihanna and still has thousands of fans.
We don’t celebrate these people as humans, but we appreciate their talent. Some people can make that distinction, others can’t or won’t. I know plenty of people that were rooting against the Ravens on Sunday purely because of their disapproval of Ray Lewis, and I can’t blame them. I would argue though that the only people cheering for Tiger on a given Sunday or who were doing “the squirrel” (Ray Lewis’s dance) during the Super Bowl are the people separating the two. I would bet large sums of money they aren’t rooting for infidelity and murder.