CULTURE OF CELEBRITY
May 8, 1998
Essayist Anne Taylor Fleming considers some fallen heroes.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: When Golden State Warriors basketball star Latrell Sprewll was fired and suspended for a year after attacking his coach, a kind of quiet cheer was heard. There were some disgruntled fans, but there was also a sense that justice had at last been served. It was getting to the point of embarrassing absurdity--the violence of our national athletic heroes. Where do you start: Mike Tyson taking a bite out of Evander Holyfield's ear--Chicago Bull's cross dresser, Dennis Rodman, butting a referee and kicking a cameraman--Baltimore Oriole Roberto Alomar spitting on an umpire?
Alomar was allowed to play through his supposed suspension. Tyson was booted out of boxing, but only for a year. And Rodman was fined and sidelined for a few games. Somehow the punishments don't live up to the crimes. Had they been committed by civilians instead of athletes, there might have been assault and battery charges, maybe even prison. But these are sweat-suited golden boys, the dream team of modern America and Madison Avenue. And nobody--it seems--certainly nobody in charge--wants to see them punished, pulled out of the game, or down off their mega buck pedestals. Within months, in fact, Latrell Sprewell was ordered reinstated and his suspension overturned.
We tolerate violent behavior from our athletes no one else could get away from, and that includes a whole lot of domestic violence as well. The relationship between big time sports and domestic violence has been one of America's dirty little secrets. It exploded into the open with O. J. Simpson, who became the poster boy for abusive athletic superstars--his wife's bruised face and anguished cries ringing through the conscience of the country. (911 Call Excerpt)
DISPATCHER: What does he look like?
NICOLE: He's O. J. Simpson. I think you know his record.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: But there were others before and after. The Golden High School jocks in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, for example, who sexually assaulted a mentally retarded girl. In fact, between 1986 and 1996, over 425 professional and college athletes were publicly reported for violent crimes against women, but few missed a game or lost any salary. During one five-year span seven members of the Denver Broncos were charged with crimes ranging from assault to rape. Most pleaded guilty to reduced charges, and all played on. And let us not forget the ear-biting Mike Tyson, who also served time for rape.
This winter New York Giants defensive back, Tito Wooten, was charged with beating and choking his girlfriend. The charges were dropped, and Wooten was given an $8 million long-term contract. The girlfriend? She committed suicide. So what's the conclusion here--that hard core sports foster violence? Obviously, there's some of that. The ferocity of competition; the desire to win at all costs; to overwhelm physically and mentally any opponent leaks off the field and into the bedroom. But cautions Jeff Benedict in his book "Public Heroes, Private Felons," that's just the headline. Underneath are big, eager, raw kids, predominantly African-American, who latch onto sports as their way up and out, kids who are then lavished with adulation, money beyond their wildest dreams, and goodies, from gold chains to groupies.
It's not about race but poverty, boys raised on the street, boys who slam into the big time without preparation, chips on their shoulders, ready to take what they want, when they want, including women. Even more, it's about the culture of celebrity, particularly sports celebrities, which cuts across all racial and economic boundaries. It's about how we and men in particular take vicarious pleasure in the feats of other men, granting them immunity from normal behavior, idolizing and identifying with their prowess in a world where chances for public adulation are slight and women can be seen as threats.
So among us walk these magnificent ruffians, biting, choking, spitting, hitting, raping, and earning millions, and some would say even getting away with murder, while we line up to see them play or get their autographs--our heroes. I'm Anne Taylor Fleming.