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Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2009

Hall of Shame?

Jordan, Owens, Vick and the celebrity-athlete apocalypse

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When Michael Jordan descended Mount Olympus to deliver his now-infamous Hall of Fame acceptance speech, an astonished nation of “Airness”-obsessed faithful took to Twitter and online message boards to simultaneously debate what appeared to be an irrefutable fact: Michael Jordan—the fiercest competitor of our time and arguably the most recognizable person on the planet—was a total asshole.

To lifelong Jordan fans, this was not news. He famously hated Isiah Thomas so much that he personally lobbied to keep him off the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. He reportedly had teammate Steve Kerr removed from his basketball camp’s coaching staff after Kerr beat him at a game of pool. He allegedly cheated on his ex-wife with scores of women. The verdict? Yeah, probably an asshole.

But this wasn’t really the issue. What was actually at stake was this: Michael Jordan, always an elusive and mysterious figure, delivered an honest and self-indulgent speech that showed a side that many hadn’t seen. He was more than just a jump shot and a wagging tongue, more than a handsome prop to move sneakers and man-panties. He was a celebrity who had clearly transcended sport, giving people a glimpse into his brain. And many people didn’t like what they saw.

The role of athletes as mass-consumed celebrities has always featured the faint scent of unfair scrutiny. Athletes are revered for their physical prowess, adored and lionized by pathetic people like me who follow their every move. However, for every athlete who successfully steps outside the athletic arena into mainstream media—try to name five, I dare you—there are scores of athletes who put their toes in the big media pool and are met with disaster and scorn. Remember Magic Johnson’s short-lived talk show “The Magic Hour”? Or the immediately canceled Barry Bonds reality show “Bonds on Bonds”? Or the unintentionally hilarious rap albums by Shaq, Allen Iverson, Deion Sanders, Ron Artest and Kobe Bryant? Or Reggie Theus, the NBA basketball player who retired at age 34 to pursue a modeling career?

The fact is that, for all the love they are shown on the field, athletes who act above their perceived station are almost universally unsuccessful, either because 1) the public isn’t willing to view them as anything other than ciphers who exist only for our couch-bound amusement, or 2) they are comically untalented at any activity that doesn’t require a ball. And, if I were to venture a guess, I’d say it’s probably some cocktail of the two.

All of this is important, because thus far 2009 has been a banner year for athletes looking to break from their role as mere sportsmen. Consider the following sequence of events, all of which have occurred in the last year:

n Terrell Owens, NFL home-wrecker extraordinaire, starred in VH1’s “The T.O. Show,” where he limped through seven dreadful episodes of watching TV, eating cereal and generally acting totally uninterested in everything. A ratings disaster, it narrowly edged out the 5 a.m. showing of “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” on TBS.

n Stephon Marbury, once a marquee NBA point guard, broadcast his daily life 24 hours a day for several weeks on Justin.tv. He was seen doing such engrossing activities as eating Vaseline, crying like a child, and dancing arrhythmically for many uncomfortable minutes at a time.

n Michael Strahan, the NFL’s single-season record holder for quarterback sacks, currently stars on the FOX sitcom “Brothers.” He portrays a retired NFL lineman, adhering to the unwritten rule that athletes are only permitted to act as long as they are depicting an athlete, a coach, or a 7-foot-tall genie.

n On Oct. 27, as millions of Americans use their 401(k) paperwork as papier-mché for a Halloween piñata, NFL wide receiver Chad Ocho Cinco will be high-stepping and middle-fingering his way onto TheNew York Times best-seller list as he releases his autobiography, titled succinctly, Ocho Cinco. This is the illuminating story you didn’t know you weren’t waiting to hear, about an over-publicized and under-stimulated athlete, who, in his own words, “love(s) me some me.” You’ll read about his “sweet-ass cars” and his “huge-ass house.” And that’s just in the first two paragraphs.

And these are just the well-publicized examples. There have also been reports that LeBron James is in talks to star in a movie (not to be confused with the documentary about him, released in early October), and you can also be certain that no fewer than five unbearable reality shows/albums/autobiographies are already in the hopper, with at least one following renowned canine enthusiast Michael Vick.

It’s an indisputable fact that athletes qualify as celebrities; they are instantly recognizable to people who don’t know them personally, they are given free stuff for no reason, and people want to sleep with them for no other reason than that they can say to their friends, “Hey, you smell that? That’s Ryan Braun.” But celebrity is a fleeting thing; people only like you for as long as they don’t actively hate you, and this certainly applies to anyone who mistakes the clearly defined adoration of a sports fan for a blanket acceptance of all misguided acts of jackass hubris. It was Michael Vick, remember, who responded to suggestions of fan backlash by stating bluntly, “People love Mike Vick.”

When dealing with exposure to a fickle public, less is usually more, as elusive celebrity-athletes like Jordan and Tiger Woods have successfully shown. If Terrell Owens and his ubiquitous brethren can learn anything from this, it’s that celebrity is essentially just an illusion, and in the here-today/gone-tomorrow world of the 24-hour news cycle, the illusion is that people honestly care about the daily thoughts and events of your charmed existence.

Better, perhaps, to save those thoughts for your Hall of Fame acceptance speech, or for season two of “The T.O. Show,” whichever comes last.