Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Controversial Sports Figures: The Tiki Barber Edition

Noko Marie asked me if I was going to post on Michael Vick. I was thinking about it, and never got back to her.

I don't actually have that much to say about Michael Vick. I don't think the country's outrage over the case squares with its general position on animal rights. I think the case demonstrates a revolting publicity-seeking on the part of some federal prosecutors. I think it illustrates our over-criminalization of the world in general. I think Michael Vick's friends are not very loyal. And I think it's pretty goddamn amazing (and, all right, funny) that the biggest scandal to erupt in the NFL, a league where a player was sentenced to prison for conspiracy to commit murder, has to do with dog-fighting.

Not that I'm pro the electrocution of dogs, okay?

But I didn't have a lot of outrage one way or another until my Aug. 13 copy of ESPN The Magazine showed up containing an article by David Fleming titled "Arthur & Mike: A Love Story Gone Bad." I wasn't able to find a link to it online, so I'll summarize. It features lots and lots of pictures of the Falcons owner, Arthur Blank, hugging Michael Vick, pushing his wheel chair, high-fiving him.

The thesis of the article seems to come at the end of the third paragraph. Fleming has described the scene as Blank pushed Vick onto the field in his wheelchair for opening weekend 2003. You can tell, kind of, where Fleming is going pretty quickly. He describes both Blank and Vick as looking "inappropriately giddy." He suggests that Vick could have walked onto the field -- he had a set of crutches and a walking cast for god's sake. He says "[S]omewhere on the sideline that day in Dallas, they rolled over a line, blurring the boundary between owner and player. Blank and Vick looked far more like business partners and close friends."

Ok, here's David Fleming's point: "In retrospect, Vick's precipitous fall from national icon status to federal indictment may have begun with that little push from his boss."

Michael Vick went bad because Arthur Blank treated him like an equal.

It made me think about last year's Tiki Barber controversy. No dogs tortured there. Basically, Tiki Barber, a suave and handsome man who health-wise, still probably had a season or two in him, decided he wanted to step down and pursue his interests in broadcasting. Given that my recollection had him already at the age in which players in his position are usually too fucked up to play anymore, it seemed reasonable enough to me. But according to an article in ESPN The Magazine (I threw away that issue, so no citation -- I really need to start saving them. Probably in plastic covers) this decision by Tiki Barber illustrated a critical lack of heart. And we wouldn't remember him as one of the all-time greats. Instead, we would sneer at his memory.

So I thought I wasn't going to be able to connect the dots between Michael Vick and Tiki Barber. Fortunately, controversy erupted again when Tiki Barber made the mistake of criticizing Eli Manning. This article breaks it all down for you -- for our purposes all that's really important is this quote from Manning: "I guess I could have questioned his leadership skills last year with calling out the coach and having articles about him retiring in the middle of the season, and he's lost the heart." Eli, nicely summarizing the press coverage.

Regrettably, googling for blogging purposes, I am forced to acknowledge that not all the press coverage was as one-sided as that (see, for example, this). And I know Chuck Klosterman once wrote a column where he pointed out that most of us are a lot more like Ricky Williams than Michael Jordan.

Whatever. I'll jump on the goddamn bandwagon. I would like my boss to treat me like an equal. I would damn well expect my boss to treat me like an equal if I was a superstar and the face of the franchise and the person who kept ticket sales up. None of this would make me more or less likely to buy property on which to host dogfighting.

And if and when I want to retire from what I do I expect people not to make a goddamn federal case about my lack of heart (and we're not talking my current joblessness here; we're talking a future joblessness where I have some kind of financial security).

It's a little strange that we don't apply the kind of analysis to athletes that we apply to ourselves. I'm not just saying that we expect more from them, or less from them. We don't think about them as human in the same way. (I 'm not really prepared to be thoughtful about the race issue right now, although I have, in my knee-jerk liberal way, no doubt that it plays a huge role. Fortunately we have the refereeing studies to keep us busy on that front.) Which makes me feel a little sick to my stomach, frankly.

I was having real trouble ending this post. I couldn't figure out why. And then I realized it was all that sports journalism. I was convinced that I needed a punchy ending.


Charlie said...

I will address the race issue. If the Falcons owner (whom I assume to be white...based on my racial stereotypes) pushed the wheelchair of a white player onto the field--think: John Elway--I doubt it would ever be mentioned again, except for its demonstration of heart warming owner-player loyalty.

Most sportswriters are white, and their favorite players tend to be scrappy, gritty white guys or non-controversial, unassuming black guys. Most sportswriting, it seems to me, is also written at the basic level of tabloid journalism. Heroes, villians, simple moralizing; not too much concern for credible sources, independent research, or giving two sides of an issue. Combining the two, you get the Barry Bonds Story, the Michael Vick Story, etc.

Captain Colossal said...

A quick google search for "nfl owners african american" turns up only the 2005 saga of Reggie Fowler who was going to be the first African-American owner of an NFL team (the Vikings). The deal, it appears, fell apart.

By the way, the NYT's Selena Roberts had what I thought was a spectacularly dopey article about how Tim Donaghy and Michael Vick were only the tip of the iceberg. I thought, at least in the case of Michael Vick, she meant the tip of an iceberg of side bets and revolting pastimes, but apparently she was talking about dogfighting in and of itself. It featured the line "You don't dust for fingerprints on a subculture, though."

The Secretary said...
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The Secretary said...
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The Secretary said...

Captain C. may accuse me of once again being overly "meta", but I do want to note that I appreciate the very use of oddly off but somehow fitting visual collage that produces a very Free Darko-type dialectic between text and image. Bravo, Captain C., bravo.

Also, this is all totally racist. Peyton Manning could shoot Guatemalan orphans for sport and blow up kittens with M-80s and he'd still be selling Rockports and Buicks. Not that I am in favor of electrocuting dogs, mind you.

Finally, I am responsible for the deleted comments. I kept on fucking this post up for some reason. I think it might still be fucked up. Note that I am not drunk.

Captain Colossal said...

Mr. Sec.: I can't really deny that there was a certain "homage to Free Darko" quality to the photos. Nevertheless, I resent having it pointed out.

Also, was your Peyton Manning example designed to illustrate or undermine a claim of racism in sports?

Peyton Manning came out today in strong support of Eli, which is nice to see.

Captain Colossal said...

By the way, does anyone get how all this "we want our athletes to be fierce competitors" stuff squares with the warm bath of approval that comes whenever a player goes back for a (draft-wise) unnecessary year in college (see Leinart, Matt; Noah, Joakim)? The competition is presumably better at the pro-level; shouldn't we want them to be gagging for that?