(This is my first post for HIDIA, and I’m very excited to be a part of this collaboration. Hopefully I can help expand our horizons to beyond just basketball in the future as we take this project further.)
I awoke the other morning – hungover in the afternoon as expected after working the night of the 4th of July – and groggily flipped on my laptop as I downed a glass of water. I’m on Facebook for no more than ten minutes when suddenly my news feed starts blowing up.
“I can’t believe they let her off!”
“What a fucked up system, it was obvious she was guilty!”
“The jury may have said she was not guilty, but God will not be fooled when it comes time to judge!”
“Oh yeah,” I mumble to myself. “Wasn’t some woman on trial?” My indifference to hyped up media stories is a well-known trait amongst my friends. I abhor the paparazzi and what they have done to American entertainment. I detest the way we uphold celebrities, putting them on some golden pedestal, wherein every move they make can be scrutinized, analyzed, judged, and then re-analyzed. Only in America can you get a reality show because your mom was once a Vice-Presidential candidate and you got knocked up in a tent by your teenage boyfriend, or because your father was once the attorney of a former football superstar (hey, foreshadowing).
But there was something about these Facebook comments that exploded onto my grimy laptop screen. Such intensity, such disgust, such seemingly omniscient judgment. For a woman they don’t even know! Some no-name piece of white trash (as my friend so eloquently put it) who happens to be hot, and to have potentially killed her baby daughter (hey, I’m not passing judgment, I already told you I didn’t watch the trial). “Why do you all care so much?” I thought to myself. This woman, guilty or not, has had her private life thrown in front of the spotlight, like some endangered creature new to the local zoo, with all manner of people pointing at her and whispering opinions about her guilt. Where do you people come off?
As my seething, hypocritical temperament cooled, I remembered how apt this was to stick with my previous plans and finally complete my first entry for HIDIA: a look at how we as fans have bought into this hyper-sensationalized, media-driven culture surrounding the world of sports
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A little over 17 years ago, Arnold Palmer was playing his last round in the PGA, the New York Knicks were battling to win their first championship since the 70s, the New York Rangers were already receiving the infamous ticker tape parade through Broadway, and the World Cup was being kicked off in Chicago (which no one was really watching anyway).
And a white Bronco was driving down Interstate 405, trailed by a cadre of police vehicles and media helicopters, about to change the face of sports personalities forever.
In his excellent 30 For 30 Film, June 17th, 1994, Brett Morgen documents the amazing set of circumstances that occurred that Friday in the world of sports. I myself was just a young kid, and I had the same reaction to those events as I had to the Casey Anthony trial. For adults, though, the event was momentous. My mother recalls being in the office that day, and all the employees opted to grab the quickest meal for their lunch break in the cafeteria so they could find the best seat around the tiny television in the dining area. They all sat, huddled together, watching the events unfold, wondering where the once legendary football star was hiding.
Late that evening, the cops finally spotted the Bronco on the highway, and shit got real. A whole army of media copters were following the chase, every news outlet had coverage of what should have been an event not too far out of the ordinary…if it weren’t for the fact that a Hall of Fame running back and former TV personality had a gun to his head in the back seat. Gripping stuff. People all over Los Angeles started driving out to the overpasses ahead of OJ’s path, waving at him and holding signs and banners (these people had time to make fucking banners?) as Al Cowlings and him drove past. Across the country, people sat in local bars and watched the NBA Finals as a fucking PiP to Tom Brokaw (the NBA Finals with the Knicks!). 95 million viewers that day. There was so much coverage that the live feeds from the helicopters were interfering with each other.
The following trial was internationally followed, the most publicized criminal trial in American history. Though I was too young at the time to care, and many of the details are fuzzy, I look back and see exactly what Brett Morgen was trying to document in his film: this may be the game-changing event that extended the paparazzi/Princess-Di-shit culture to the world of sports. That trial changed the way we view our superstars. Where has it gotten us?
If there is any event I can think of that even remotely comes close as a parallel to the OJ trial, it would have to be Lebron’s festival of hubris. How could it not be? For weeks people agonized over where Lebron James would end up. The whole day, ESPN just splooged all over James (and its ratings as well; really, it was just one big circle-jerk). The cameras, the “fans” behind them, even that pompous striped shirt he had on. It was all so hyped up, there wasn’t a way you couldn’t get pulled in. I didn’t even really like basketball at the time, but there was nothing else I could watch, it was all anyone talked about. But by the time he finally announced he was headed to South Beach, I had been pulled into the narrative. Miami! The team that had Alonzo Mourning that I really liked when I cared about basketball as a kid. Hooray! All throughout the bar, you heard shouting at the screen like a representation of the entire country. Anyone from South Florida was cheering.
Everybody else was pissed off. Why? People look back and say they hate Lebron for his arrogance, for the audacity to have a whole day of network coverage planned around him like that. Bullshit. We were all sitting there with our mouths hung open like a bunch of buffoons, waiting on his every word. Sure, the interviews and the stories of his life got tedious and boring, but when that moment came, as Lebron sat there, his lips ready to release those words that almost seemed poised to shake the foundation of the game, every single basketball fan out there was on the edge of their seat. We weren’t pissed at James because of his ego; we all live for that, the media spends all its time creating a package to sell to us that we are all too eager to buy. We were pissed because, deep down, we knew that this is what the sport has become: a media-driven circus. We were witnessing the demise of the core values of the sport, and at the same time, we were disgusted with ourselves, guilty even, because part of us wants that.
No matter your opinion of Lebron, you cannot deny that the media created the King. Every game of the NBA playoffs, ESPN had hours of coverage on whether James was going to choke or pull it together, whether he was capable of leading a team to victory. Dirk? He got the mandatory coverage he deserved, he played well. But Dirk unfortunately isn’t someone you can sell to the American public, at least in the long-term. Dirk is the quintessential guy that you want to like. The underdog, the man with something to prove, the determination, yet with humility and a big, goofy smile behind him. His interview with Spiegel that Kerem posted earlier only proves that point further. He is everything we are supposed to like in a person, but in 2 months, he will be relegated back to his dying-superstar status, and all the talk will be back on whether Lebron can overcome his failings and lead a Miami Heat team to a championship this year (assuming the NBA owners gain a conscience and end the lockout).
Lebron is an entertainer. He’s pompous, arrogant, and extremely good at the game. He is a story that is more easily packaged and sold to our most crass desires, the part of us that secretly wants to hang out with the Jersey Shore cast or that watches the Kardashians (see, told you foreshadowing). Because of this, Lebron is doomed to always be in the spotlight, and always be hated. The man can’t take a piss and miss the toilet seat without people talking about it over a pint, shaking their heads and throwing some expletives his way.
And that is the world of the superstar in the post-OJ era. We hold them to a higher standard, we demand that both their public behavior and their private life fit accordingly with the American narrative. They now experience the Princess Di culture to the full extent, but for them, its even worse. With social media as popular and easily accessible as it is these days, fans can now get even deeper inside the minds of their favorite superstars. The boys over at Ball Don’t Lie have a weekly blog post wherein they pick out their favorite tweets from NBA superstars in order to “get a picture into the more interesting aspects of NBA life.” Interesting they are, but how strange it must be to have your life constantly watched. And how careful you must be! Gilbert Arenas is always getting in trouble for being very liberal with his tweets, Dwight Howard took some flack for taking a shot at Lebron James’ receding hairline. It seems that the only safe fun NBA stars can have nowadays is planking since most of America just doesn’t seem to get why that is fun (I personally love that these players have started trying to one up each other with this new fad…and of course Gilbert Arenas is looking like the champ).
Where am I going with this? I’m not too sure. I thought I’d figure out a conclusion as I wrote, but now that I’m near the end of what I had say, I’m not certain where this leaves me. Maybe this was just a rant against the hyper-sensationalized media culture becoming linked up with sports. When I think of sports, I think of sitting at a bar, watching two teams hit a ball/puck back and forth into nets/over fences, relaxing over a pint and bitching about stats, whether Gordie Howe may have been better than Gretzky, why the Mariners had the best record ever when they dropped their best players and yet still lost in the playoffs. But it seems that after the OJ trial, sports stars have become Hollywood celebrities. Now as I walk behind the bar, eavesdropping on conversations, I hear people talking about who Alex Rodriguez is currently dating (if you must know, it’s still Cameron Diaz), or how Hines Ward really sucked last night on Dancing With the Stars. I feel like the only sport that seems true, in a sense, that has stuck with the core of its philosophy is hockey, but only because its such an underappreciated sport in America that it hovers at just that spot where its popular enough to garner a fanbase and television time, but will mostly just get a passing mention on Sportscenter.
I guess in the end, it’s just important to recognize the space that has been created – the market if you will – at this juncture between sports, media, and our paparazzi culture, and how it has slowly been affecting the core that is at what we love about sports.