The Chicago sports media--print and electronic--reached some sort of new low in the wake of Dennis Rodman's most recent transgression. For days after Rodman kicked a cameraman on the baseline in Minnesota, coach Phil Jackson stopped talking to the media. Gosh, various reporters said or wrote, Phil must be really mad at Rodman this time; he won't even talk to us. The utter cluelessness of that state of mind is difficult to fathom.
Now, we're no expert in reading Jackson's mind, but his dealings with the media are never as abstruse as some people like to think. When Jackson doesn't talk to the media it's usually because he doesn't trust himself not to say something rash in that instant. When his silence runs on for a few days, it's not to punish some player--how logical would that be?--but to punish the media. Who is hurt when Jackson doesn't talk to reporters? Not the players, though in this case any uncertainty Jackson prompted in the mind of Rodman was probably intentional. No, his silence is a message to the media. When Jackson finally ended his silence last week, in an interview with Lou Canellis on the Bulls' flagship radio station, WMVP AM, he explained that indeed he hadn't wanted to say anything rash while a possible lawsuit was still pending, that he'd been irked at himself for making light of the matter the night it happened, but primarily--and here's our stress--that he'd been irritated by the moralistic tone taken by many in the media. In this, we believe, Jackson had plenty of company, not only among members of the team but among the fans--readers, listeners, and viewers.
That moralism is getting increasingly difficult to stomach. We thought it was long since settled whether athletes were heroes and role models--settled in Jim Bouton's Ball Four and many times since--yet newspaper columnists, TV sports anchors, and other blowhards keep trotting out this line of argument. It involves the worst kind of hypocrisy--people taking positions they personally have no faith in, merely to posture for public acceptance. (In this, they are misguided about how gullible and puritanical the average fan is, but we'll get back to that in a moment.) When someone like New York newspaper columnist Mike Lupica--to stray, for a moment, beyond our more provincial concerns--goes on Larry King Live and talks about protecting sports for "the kids," who is he kidding? When he goes to a game, is he taking in the action on the level of a child? Is the reason he became a sportswriter so that he could find heroes to identify with? When Bob Costas directs much the same argument against Rodman on NBC, appointing himself protector of the National Basketball Association's honor, it's ludicrous, and far beneath his usual considered opinions.
Let's make this point as simply as possible. Playing major-league sports involves a level of commitment and dedication few of us know anything about. It is difficult enough to be a proficient athlete at that level, much less an eloquent and self-aware critic of the game, let alone a bona fide role model. An athlete should be under no obligation to be anything other than an athlete. For those who aspire to be more, great--more power (and more sponsorship money) to them. Michael Jordan's eloquence, his openness with the media--that is, his willingness to talk the game of basketball, not necessarily his power of oration (though he can be remarkably pithy and cutting from time to time)--is in large part what sets him above other athletes, in addition to his skills on the basketball court. The same can be said of Charles Barkley and others. Yet that makes them exceptional; it's not behavior to be expected of every player. Some players can't divorce themselves from a game they've just played enough to talk about it dispassionately. Others find that the temperament required to put on one's game face isn't conducive to sweet relations with the media, and that the transition from one face back to the other isn't achieved by simply taking a shower. Athletes are people and individuals, and they all handle their jobs differently from one another. That has to be respected.
Few of us understand the cost or the difficulty of maintaining an athlete's high level of dedication, but in general fans seem to have an easier time of it than the professionals in the media do. There is little if any excuse for what Rodman did, just as there was little if any excuse for Roberto Alomar's spitting on umpire John Hirschbeck (an incident that colors Rodman's latest misdeed and no doubt contributed to the stiff 11-or-more-game NBA suspension he received). Yet there is an explanation. Athletes are under intense pressure, and in "the heat of battle" (a phrase Rodman himself used in attempting to explain) they are prone to crack. What other explanation is there for Alomar, a player with no history of misbehavior, doing what he did (in a game critical to his team's making the playoffs, it should be noted)?
Rodman's kick showed no self-control, but it grew out of the warrior mentality he nurtures on the court--the same mentality no doubt that makes him such a voracious rebounder. It's true that he has yet to learn to confine that mentality to "the heat of battle," and to avoid run-ins with referees and cameramen (especially cameramen who appear to swoon at the vision of dollar signs swirling around their heads). No matter what injuries, real or imagined, were suffered by that cameraman, Rodman was in the wrong; but does that make him a bad person, or "nutty," "crazy," "stupid," "dangerous," or "psychotic"--all labels he was saddled with? Does either Rodman or Alomar deserve the continued vilification they've been exposed to?
Working in the media, it should be pointed out, is also a high-pressure profession in which people are prone to crack. Some of the people working in the media today--including at least one of Rodman's foremost critics--have been guilty of behavior as ill considered as Rodman's (and that critic in the end served a much longer suspension, we might add). We might also point to the example set by John Schulian, the best sports columnist to work in this city in at least the last 25 years (and we'd be tempted to say the last 70 years), who went out throwing punches at the Sun-Times. Athletes and reporters have much in common, so why is it so difficult for members of the media to show a little empathy?
In the entertainment world--a world that, let's be serious, sports is part of--behavior like Rodman's is generally celebrated; and Rodman, we believe, has seen that double standard for himself. As a celebrity, he is well aware of what a little loss of control has done for people as disparate as Johnny Depp, Norman Mailer, Courtney Love, Robert Downey Jr., and--let's really go out on a limb here--President Clinton, not to mention Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner (ill-tempered drunks and fighters all), and of course Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle (dead legends, it seems, receive different treatment than living figures--especially in the sports realm). When these people are guilty of transgressions, major or minor, people don't say merely, "What an awful example they're setting for the kids." No, they say that the struggle with their personal demons gives their lives drama.
Rodman's difficulty in controlling his impulses is what makes him such a compelling figure. Can he rein himself in without diminishing his performance on the court? Anyone who remembers how he used his reputation as an erratic player to befuddle Frank Brickowski and the Seattle SuperSonics during last year's NBA finals already knows the answer to that. Yet that's the thing about being an athlete: the same basic truths have to be tested and proved day in and day out. Rodman has to prove on his return that he can still adapt his unconventional personality to a team approach. That, we believe, is why people have such a fixation with him. It's not that we enjoy seeing him do bad; it's that we find drama in his struggle with himself to do good. When an athlete like that is playing for the opponent, we usually root for him to lose that struggle; when he is playing for our team we root for him to win it. In either case the struggle is dramatic.
In today's sports world, there is nothing more poignant than an athlete brought low by the very qualities that drove him to greatness, just as there are few triumphs as great as that of an athlete who wins a conflict with himself at the same time he is victorious on the field of play. There are no absolutes and there is little room for morality in the present-day sports world, but if anything this has led to a richer, deeper, more humane sense of what sports is all about. Of course, there will always be people who yearn for an absolute standard of good and evil, of winning and losing. The question is, how do so many of them wind up in the media? o