Monday, March 30, 2009

Rethinking Celebrity - A Media Responsibility?

Last week I read an article on Darryl Flea Virostko, a big wave surfer who recently bottomed out due to drug addiction, and is fighting hard to stay on the road to recovery. While he has a steady stream of supporters, the thing that really struck me about this story was the lack of support from the surf industry itself. In fact, not one of his sponsors called him out when he was spiraling out of control nor did they offer to lend him a helping hand. It got me thinking about the notion of celebrity, and the dichotomous nature of how we relate to people who have attained "star status". The media is often blamed for creating stories that can deflate the esteem of struggling stars, but the real culprits are us, the folks who live vicariously through a star and turn away from them the minute they exhibit flaws that make them human like the rest of us. Sports provide a good anecdotal backdrop for this discussion.

There seems to be a golden rule as a fan of celebrities: praise separation. Stars like the late basketball prodigy Len Bias are a great example of "grooming ignorance"; in other words, we rear them, praise them, in some ways help cultivate their talents, and then lead them out to pasture, often times losing sight of their formative development, or, forgetting about them as humans altogether. In Len's case, here was a guy - like Reggie Lewis after him - who had a heart condition to accompany a healthy coke addiction, and few people bothered to take notice or keep tabs on the guy off the court. When you look back at guys like Lawrence Taylor - who battled drug and gambling addictions for years while he was an NFL star - it makes you wonder how any sports franchise could ever be responsible for putting someone in that condition out on the field and actually feel good about it, let alone tally the value of their "player acquisition". They had to have known that there was a problem. More importantly, they had to have known that an athlete can't be held responsible, entirely of his own accord, when representing an organization. But they let it happen anyway, and this type of irresponsibility is enabling the destruction of the relationships we as fans have with these celebrities.

Given the amount of controversy that's settled within its ranks over the last few years (and especially the last few months), baseball is probably the most glaring example of accountability lost (perhaps it was never really there to begin with). It's an interesting issue to dissect because baseball players, like most professional athletes, are incredibly fortunate in that they are well-paid and enjoy access to resources most of us wish we could have. Conversely, the demands on their time are great, and the pressures to perform are enormous. For one thing, baseball has more minor leagues than any other sport. For another, any major leaguer who hits the DL (disabled list) is vulnerable to being sent down to triple or double-A, meaning your career can be over in a matter of minutes. Now, it's doubtful that someone like Alex Rodriguez would suffer this fate, especially with a contract and endorsements that will net him more than a quarter billion dollars over the next seven years, but the point is that his recent admission in taking anabolic steroids could lead him down a much darker road to perdition: his self-worth.

What have we become as a society, what right do we have, to admire these people as celebrities, idolize them, and then practically within the same breath, castigate them as people who are suddenly undeserving of our respect, and ultimately, our forgiveness

Media can't forgive, they can only tell the story. And typically one side of that story. The sides of us that allow for vulnerability - and respective emotions that are commonly unreasonable - are what make or break those celebrities as people. And if they are the ones taking great risk to realize the fantasy elements we wish we had the strength to pursue on our own, then the responsibility is shared, at least as it pertains to the value we ascribe to them

With respect to social media, well, the conversations that take shape can certainly help buffer against these pratfalls, but until executives like MLB commissioner Bud Selig start holding themselves accountable in providing spiritual and emotional guidance for these star athletes who feed their $17 million-a-year salaries, we will see more and more celebrities die by the narcissistic vine and likely slip into obscurity, if not ill-fate. Narcissism, by the way, is a bi-product of loneliness. It should be our personal mission as fans to make sure that these men (or women) do not lead lives of quiet desperation.

I've heard too many stories of retired athletes (many of whom I know or have met) who have re-entered civilian life, wandering listlessly without the skills to assimilate and succeed in new business or family environments. How can this be? How can someone who has the extraordinary courage to surf 50-foot waves or the incredible ability to hit 50 home runs not possess the transferable skills to make a substantial impact in the private sector, or at home? Why wouldn't we want to help these people, if nothing else, for our own benefit?

Instead of embracing and celebrating the gifts they've given us, all too often we look for these exceptionally talented people to fail. It's part of the"eggshell ego" we've built up on a foundation of collective insecurity and passive entitlements. What we should be doing is helping these folks become who they really are: transformational figures who have the potential to inspire us all, and in immensely positive ways.

It's time we start building real relationships with the celebrities we've grown to love. We are as much a part of them as they are us. And they need us now more than ever. After all, they are people too.

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