ROMAN: Athletes at forefront of American pop culture

David Roman

He had an affair with a stripper during the season, which led to a nasty divorce from his wife. He now tries to convince his new girlfriend that “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” was an Oscar-worthy film. He is jealous of his shortstop teammate and seems unaware of the fans’ negative perception of him. By now you have guessed that I am talking about Alex Rodriguez, the three- time MVP and perennial All-Star third baseman for the Yankees. Yet, no information about his performance in his actual job was necessary to identify him.

Athletes nowadays are a larger part of popular culture than ever before. Like Paris Hilton or Brad Pitt, a star athlete’s every action is critiqued. A mistake becomes more important than what the athlete has actually accomplished. For example, at the 2009 World Aquatics Championships, Michael Phelps won five gold medals, but ask the average sports fan what Phelps has done in the past year, and odds are you’ll get the answer, “weed.” Plaxico Burress caught the game winning touchdown pass in one of the biggest upsets in Superbowl history, yet people are more likely to make jokes about him shooting himself in the leg.

But it isn’t simply the law-breaking athletes that are criticized by the public for actions outside the sport. Tony Romo is struggling this year and has yet to win a playoff game, but most people don’t like him because he broke up with pop-star Jessica Simpson the day before her birthday. Even Lance Armstrong, seven-time Tour de France winner who heroically overcame testicular cancer, was mocked for divorcing his wife and later dating Sheryl Crow.

Athletes in the past never had to deal with this type of scrutiny or over exposure. Ted Williams was allowed to hit .406 without being criticized for getting a divorce. Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle could drink John Daly under the table, but they were known more for their heroic plays for the Yankees. Wilt Chamberlin practicality slept with every female Philadelphian, but it wasn’t until he released his autobiography that people found out. So why the change? Why are athletes’ personal lives more important to the public now than they were before?

An obvious answer is that American culture has turned into the “need-to-know” culture. If there is information to be had on any person in the public, we either need to write about it or photograph it. If Maria Sharapova has a bad hair day, it needs to be documented in People. We want to know so we can judge, to say that we wouldn’t act as irrationally or immorally as the star.

However, it isn’t simply the public’s love of building people up and tearing them down that has put these athletes in the lime-light, but the athletes themselves. Athletes look for opportunities to increase their exposure to the public through different forms of media.

Shaquille O’Neal starred in his own show, “Shaq Vs.,” this past summer, and has starred in films such as “Blue Chips” and the terribly awesome “Kazaam.” Peyton Manning does a commercial for practically anything that is either watchable or edible. Terrell Owens stars in his own reality show where he looks for love, rarely mentioning the fact that he plays professional football for the Buffalo Bills. Athletes don’t simply want to be star athletes, but stars in general. They want to be seen on Sports Center and TMZ.

While it is fair for these athletes to try to reach fame outside of sports, it is sad when they become more known for their non-athletic accomplishments or endeavors. We have witnessed some great athletes dominate in sports, but instead of appreciating that, we focus on either their personal faults or on their significant others. While they may star in movies or commercials, they are still athletes and should be judged based upon their actions on the field rather than all of their actions off of it.

So, focus on A-Rod’s statistics and defense instead of his love life and on Michael Phelps’ skill instead of his mistakes. Because when their careers are over, it is going to be important to recognize the athleticism of Mr. Khloe Kardashian and the greatness of Mr. Gisele Bündchen.


David Roman is a junior psychology and sociology major from Windham, N.H. He can be reached at [email protected]