By Jason Keidel
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People like me cash in on the public foibles of public figures. But unless I’m attacking Joe Paterno – whom I think harbored a child rapist – I try to keep the clutter to the field of play. From A.J. Burnett to Carmelo Anthony, the commentary in this column is designed to judge the performer more than the person.
Clearly, we want to know something about our sports figures beyond the superficial. We do know that the greatest performers, from Ruth to Ali to Jordan, don’t win just by dint of their physical splendor. They also had an insatiable lust for conquest, a need far more visceral than that of their peers and opponents (which occasionally spilled into their well-archived personal lives). So we want to know what makes them tick to the tune of great accomplishment.
But where’s the line between salient and salacious?
Last week Mike Francesa asked Brian Cashman if he could still run the Yankees despite the turbulence in his personal life. Cashman said he could. At first I thought it was an odd question. Then I did some research and plunged into a volcanic world of infidelity, texts, emails, extortion, and divorce. Frankly, it’s disturbing stuff, even by our voyeuristic standards.
Of course, we don’t need to know all of this about Brian Cashman. But it seems we want to know. Based on the plague of reality television, the public’s palate is quite open to nonsense. Does it make the masses feel better to know that icons are just as flawed as their fans? It’s beyond my pay grade.
Then we discover that Allen Iverson is broke despite earning more than $200 million over his stellar NBA career, according to a report from Forbes. No doubt Iverson had a me-first mien off the court. But on the hardwood I don’t think we ever saw a small guy with more guts. How many times did we see Iverson break an enemy’s ankles with his crossover, plow the lane, pinball between big men, only to find the ball drip impossibly through the net, with a ref lashing down his arm in the “And One!” refrain?
And the fact that “The Answer” is in the red is not unique. Most of us know that the majority (60 percent, says Forbes) of NBA players have blasted their bank accounts within five years of retirement. Of course, most of them don’t make $200 million. But do we care. Should we care?
With folks like Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, and other life rife with celebrity sans accomplishment, there’s an implicit understanding that they communicate with their fans through faux marriages and other gibberish. When you’re famous just for being famous, sensationalism is its own end.
Then we have Derrick Rose, who just signed an obscene sneaker deal with Adidas, worth $185 million.
I have no idea how many kicks Rose must sell to make financial contact with that contract. But I do know that Rose reminds me of what’s great about sports, a beacon for basketball and beyond. It doesn’t take a forensic scientist to see that Rose is all about the team, that he literally winces when asked about personal accomplishments. Rose plays the game with Iverson’s skill, lives with none of his selfishness, and (it seems) none of his baggage.
Did Rose even take his own SAT test in high school? Depends on whom you ask. But with certain talents like Jordan and Ali, we forgive certain gaffes for the greater good, sensible enough for at least a few moments to realize that hating a player means hating his game.
And we are usually cogent enough to distinguish between the recklessness of a teen and the fecklessness of a titan. Unless we’re celebrating an athlete’s life (Gary Carter), character (Eli Manning), or impact (Muhammad Ali), you wonder how deep to dig. Unless parsing their sins is instructive, do we need to know where (and with whom) Brian Cashman sleeps or where A-Rod plays his poker?