McCall: Media have warped perception of athletes

Jeffrey M. McCall

Let's remember a key fact as we prepare snacks and grab the remote to watch the Super Bowl. The people playing in the game are important only because they happen to be good at football. They aren't necessarily good at anything beyond football. Some are philanthropists who give back to their communities, but even those efforts are the result of being good at football.

The media world has concocted a culture in which athletes are idolized and their importance exaggerated. Rhetorically, television constantly tells us that a guy who can tackle or throw a ball contributes more to society than an elementary teacher or car mechanic. Americans need to carefully consider whether their favorite NFL quarterback is more important in their lives than the workman who hauls away the trash each week.

Television and the sports leagues have snookered society into an oversized obsession with athletes. The media have to boost sports personalities because huge money is invested in contracts to broadcast sports. The NBA signed a $24 billion contract with ABC/ESPN and TNT to carry pro basketball for the next nine years. The NFL collects more than $5 billion a year for TV rights. It is no wonder broadcasters and leagues supercharge players to ensure people watch their favorite athletes.

Note how the networks promote their telecasts. An Indianapolis Colts-Denver Broncos football game was billed as Andrew Luck vs. Peyton Manning. An NBA game is promoted as Kobe vs. LeBron, as if their teammates are unimportant.

The leagues allow, and television captures, grandstanding. A player who makes a routine play and then dances is sure to get a television replay and the approval of the play-by-play announcer. A high school player who made such a display would likely be penalized by officials and sanctioned by their coach.

The television spectacle includes sideline reporters who act starstruck as they adoringly ask players how they feel and then nod approvingly as the athletes utter meaningless phrases about 'intensity' or how much they wanted the win.

Sports sensationalism has seeped into network news. The major networks all led their evening newscasts one day last week with Deflategate, the story about underinflated footballs at the AFC title game. Morning network newscast hosts have taken to squeezing underinflated balls on set, telling us more about the topic in the last week than President Barack Obama's tax proposals. And all Deflategate coverage includes mandatory video of Patriot star Tom Brady's supermodel wife, Gisele Bundchen.

Most professional athletes are decent, sensible people. But marketing geniuses at networks and sports leagues don't sort the deserving from the undeserving.

Former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis' checkered past was washed away by CBS and the NFL with a gaudy celebration of Lewis' retirement two years ago. Lewis is now an analyst on ESPN. Steelers star Ben Roethlisberger remains an NFL poster boy, in spite of past sexual assault allegations. Former NBA bad boy Ron Artest parlayed his "Malice at the Palace" fame into a spot on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars." NASCAR's Tony Stewart's anger management issues, which had fatal consequences, haven't diminished his profile on race telecasts.

Rasmussen Reports research shows 24 percent of Americans rate pro athletes as good role models for kids. That's up 9 percent from a year earlier, and comes after the Ray Rice domestic violence incident last year.

Responsible adults now wear jerseys of prominent athletes. It hasn't always been like that. Look at videos of crowds at sporting events in the 1940s and 1950s. Nobody wore player jerseys. That's because those crowds included real heroes from the Greatest Generation who survived the Great Depression and won a world war.

Americans love sports, enjoy competition and admire athleticism. Nothing wrong with that. But obsessing over and worshipping the people in the games distort cultural values and leads to misguided priorities.

Long gone are the days when a level-headed star athlete like Cardinals baseball legend Stan Musial offered to take a salary cut after a season in which he didn't meet his own lofty standards.

Jeffrey M. McCall is a communications professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.