A common struggle many teenagers face is the fight for acceptance from their peers. Kids today are more concerned with how others view them than how they view themselves individually. In sports, many athletes are constantly trying to portray a seemingly flawless "image" to the media and public eye, and the media is regularly trying to assess that athlete's personal legacy within their respective sport. Many recent events in professional sports have made me start to seriously question and wonder: Why is an athlete's image, race, and legacy so necessary to focus on when analyzing that person's accomplishments and overall career?
Recently, after 'Tebowmania' finally subsided, it seemed like 'Linsanity' and the '2012 Peyton Manning Sweepstakes' dominated the national papers and broadcasts day in and day out. The Dwight Howard dilemma in Orlando has also cast an enormous seven-foot, dark, muscular, and handsome shadow over the entire NBA season thus far. Each of these incredibly interesting media topics is a little different, but they are all bonded together by one thing: Each athlete's current story is intertwined with questions of "What will this do to their legacy?" and "How will this effect the player's image?"
The ESPN program, First Take, that is hosted by Jay Crawford and features Skip Bayless debating with other sports writers and sports figures on the current hottest and trendiest topics, always hits on these image, race and legacy topics. Now, I respect the way First Take handles these sometimes sensitive and intense topics in a mature and professional way, but I honestly am growing more and more annoyed by the concept of over-evaluating every little thing that could potentially impact an athlete's image.
For example, if you haven't been living under a rock since the beginning of February, you know -- just as everyone from my booger-eating eight-year-old cousin to Stephen A. Smith knows -- that Jeremy Lin is a undrafted, Asian, Harvard-graduate point guard for the New York Knicks who came out of nowhere into a starting role and stardom. The great story here is that a guy who graduated from an Ivy League university and was cut from two different NBA teams has now found a starting role on an NBA team in a coach's system that suits his game perfectly. Obviously, American-Asian basketball players aren't laughing it up on multiple NBA benches across the league, so it's impossible to ignore the racial element in this story. But why does the fact that Lin is Asian have to dominate his incredible underdog story? It's necessary for newspapers to write Sunday paper features on how his jersey sales are elevating the Western-Asian countries' economies and how he was trending on Twitter for over two weeks straight.
But once the media acknowledged it, why didn't they move on and simply analyze his on-court performance, instead of his image and how the public is drawn to him because of his ethnicity? Currently, the crazed hype of Linsanity has simmered down just as his scoring and assist totals have, but every engaged basketball fan has to know in the back of their mind that "Jeremy Lin's image" is going to be media-blasted from New York to Los Angeles to China and back a bazillion times if he makes any relatively big noise in the playoffs. I just wish people would acknowledge his incredible story and his racial struggles, but focus more on his on-court performance rather than how the public views his image.
When I say "how the public views his image," I don't mean what quality character he displays during post-game interviews and off-the-court charity settings. If a spectator isn't interested in the quality of person an athlete is off the court today, then they are simply ignoring the morals and ethics of 21st-century American society. That's why Peyton Manning is so appealing to the public.
Throughout his entire 14-year NFL career, Manning has portrayed himself a professional, caring and admirable class act on and off the field, along with his breathtakingly masterful on-field performance. His widely respected class act was on full display during last week's "Colts Release Peyton" press conference with Indianapolis Colts owner, Jim Irsay. During his public statement, Manning showed the emotions and charisma that have allowed fans nationwide to fall in love with him. But, as tears fled down Manning's cheeks, the ominous questions about his legacy were unjustly lurking over his broad shoulders.
It's impossible to ignore the fact that Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks to every play the game of football, and that you couldn't mention the Indianapolis Colts in a sentence without simultaneously uttering Manning's name. In a perfect world, Manning would have been able to restructure his contract with the team that he led to two Super Bowl appearances and the Vince Lombardi Trophy, but we don't live in a perfect world. Now, every move Manning makes from the second that press conference ended until the moment he hangs his cleats up for good will be judged on its impact on his legacy. If he wins a Super Bowl for a different team in a different city, he'll go down as the player to win a Super Bowl as a quarterback for two different franchises, which will do nothing but elevate his legacy to even greater legendary heights. If he is never able to make the playoffs again, his legacy might unfairly suffer a giant blow. Peyton Manning's on-field accomplishments and off-the-field class should be enough to protect him from the scrutinization of the blood-thirsty media. But unfortunately, nobody's legacy is safe.
Finally, the most absurd and disappointing image issue in sports today lies within every NBA player's motives to build and manifest their individual brand. The phenomena of star players wanting to high-tail out of smaller markets for bigger markets as fast as Ricky Bobby at Taledaga was one of the biggest issues discussed during the lockout this past summer. It began with Lebron bolting Cleveland for Miami, then continued with Carmelo Anything holding the Denver Nuggets' front office captive until they dealt him to New York. And this season, Dwight Howard is clogging up all possible trade efforts from NBA General Managers during his fight to leave Orlando. This problem has ballooned to the point where now non-superstars, like Bradon Jennings and Boris Diaw, are trying to flee smaller markets like Milwaukee and Charlotte for the brighter lights of New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago and others.
The sole purpose of an athlete pursuing a bigger market is improving his personal marketability and developing his brand. On an episode of ESPN columnist Bill Simmons' podcast, the B.S. Report, Magic Johnson told Simmons that basketball players of the '80s and early '90s cared more about the overall image of basketball than their own individual brand and image. Back in the day, NBA players weren't super concerned with the length of their sneaker contracts and ability to star in movies and commercials. They were busy trying to promote the NBA. The biggest NBA stars in the '80s -- like Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins -- participated in the Dunk Contest, and Larry Bird fiercely competed in the Three-Point Shootout annually. Today, guys like Lebron, Blake Griffen and Kobe Bryant refuse to participate in the Dunk Contest in fear of losing and potentially damaging the almost God-like and untouchable character and image they have created for themselves. It is, frankly, pathetic.
Sports are supposed to teach young children and teenagers lessons and teamwork, healthy competition and determination. They're also supposed to provide adults with entertainment and an outlet to escape from real-world problems. All the unnecessary talk of image, legacy and an obsession with discussing racial subtexts within sporting events and news is taking away from the beauty of the quality sports that were played in the last century.