If we weren't there already, we've reached the end of our innocence on the subject of professional athletes. The catching of the Tiger by the tail has exposed one of the last citadels of what some of us thought/hoped/believed to be a perfect role model in sports. The desensitization of athlete indiscretions is upon us.
Having been in the business of professional sports many years, I have long since become immune to the belief that our heroes are what they appear to be. Mind you, I do not have an aversion to famous athletes due to their transgressions or refuse to follow their exploits; I simply know going in that the image crafted by coteries of agents/marketers/sponsors/managers/handlers is different than reality. I was privy to seeing that up close at far lower levels of celebrity than Tiger Wood as many athletes are enticed by the same temptations and fall victim to the same indiscretions.
One of worst parts of the agent business is that many agents and manager serve as enablers to these young men, both in telling them how good they are in their sport and in being asked to look the other way or even facilitate behavior that can be disconcerting. The problem for many agents - and I do empathize with them - is that they face the prospect of being replaced by someone else if they tell the player what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear.
In times like these, we are constantly reminded of the seminal Nike television commercial that opened with a tight shot of Charles Barkley saying "I am not a role model," perhaps the most illuminating statement in a commercial by an athlete ever. Barkley, who has admitted to compulsive gambling, partying and other forms of self-indulgence, was making the point that it is up to us as parents, not athletes, to instill the proper virtues and traits in our children.
Well, uh, no. The fact is that children do look up to athletes, whether we want them to or not, whether we demand that they not try be "Be Like Mike" or not. Professional athletes like Charles Barkley and Tiger Woods are role models to varying degrees to children and fans of all ages. However, if we have not learned this lesson already, those following famous athletes should do as they say, not necessarily as they do.
Michael Jordan broke the mold of the faceless athlete hidden from the general public thanks to the impeccably-named Air Jordan products from Nike that launched him into that transcendent status of an athlete known to casual and even non-fans of basketball. Jordan became a smiling billboard for whatever product he was pitching, quick to make a quip about drinking a Coke or a Gatorade, eating his Wheaties or a Big Mac, driving a Chevy, wearing Nike shoes, Hanes underwear, Oakley sunglasses, Bijan cologne, etc. Heck, he even figured out a way to drape the American flag over his Olympic uniform while standing to receive the Gold Medal, lest the world witness Air Jordan wearing a Reebok logo.
Jordan, like his close friend Tiger, surrounded himself with layers of people (I was one of those people for Jordan in the late eighties) making sure the product was suitably packaged for maximum likability and appeal.
Soon after Air Jordan came the "Image is everything" ads with Andre Agassi. With his recently released autobiography Open, we now discover that a former role model such as Agassi - someone I admired greatly when I was a competitive tennis player - was not what he appeared to be and that "Image" was more mirage than real.
The irony of Tiger mess is that while he puts his statement out not through traditional media but through his own web site, that medium - a major shift from athletes communicated in the past - is a safe and non-confrontational way to communicate, albeit frustrating to fans.
We are smack dab in a time where not only is behavior transparent but where the public craves unfiltered messages from our athletes and celebrities rather than the fabricated brand from the agents and handlers. In the age of athlete blogs, Twitter, Facebook and much more, we no longer have the tolerance for athletes' bland statements. We want more transparency and less editing, causing athletes such as Shaquille O'Neal, Chad Ochocinco, Chris Cooley, Gilbert Arenas and others to grab our attention more than the insipid offerings of Tiger and others. As said previously, we have long ago reached our end of innocence with these athletes and their cocoons.
The onion has been peeled. Two of the star players of the World Champion Yankees - Alex Rodriguez and Andy Pettite - are admitted users of performance enhancing drugs. The star player of the World Champion Lakers and NBA Finals MVP - Kobe Bryant - endured a rape trial before it was dropped and settled a related civil suit. The star player of the World Champion Steelers - Ben Roethlisberger - is facing a civil suit for sexual assault. And now there is Tiger and the slow drip of his mounting infidelity.
Well, there are still Peyton Manning, Derek Jeter and Tim Tebow, I guess....
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