Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"Broken Heroes"

I feel sorry for Michael Phelps. A young man of 23 who has made the horrible mistake of wanting to hang out and party with college kids his age, became yet another unwilling victim of our postmodern media culture, where if you do something wrong the whole world discovers it in a matter of hours. The infamous photo of Phelps taking a hit from the bong, along with the accompanying News of the World story, details a man not on the edge and incapable of coping with fame, but someone who relished the idea of being the big man on campus and all the perks that come with it. Everyone on this planet has been in positions similar to that of Michael Phelps. It may not be easy to admit (especially to our children), but all of us have been is embarrassing situations we’d like to forget or at least pretend never happened. The main difference is there weren’t cameras photographing every idiotic move we made. In 2009, the paparazzi isn’t just on T.V., selling their latest juice to TMZ, it’s in our own backyard, at the stores we go to, the bars we hang out at and even in our homes. Big Brother is officially here, true believers and we hold its power in the palm of our hand.

I like funny pictures of my friends as much as the next person. I’d also like to think I have the testicular fortitude to tolerate embarrassing pictures featuring myself. However, I don’t think anyone should be running around photographing and videotaping every move we make. Most of us can probably think of something they did or said in the last 24 hours that we wouldn’t like photographed or recorded. I’ll confess to never wanting anyone to see footage of me running around my house like a hamster on steroids looking for my wallet or car keys, only to find they’re on the kitchen counter next to my electric bill. What about you? Nobody wants to be photographed when they’re not at their best. Unfortunately, we are paying the privacy price for our super-awesome cameras and cell phones. It’s ok to want to channel your inner Annie Leibowitz and Martin Scorsese, just try not to do it at the expense of others. If you are fortunate to have a 1973 Monte Carlo, do you drive 120 miles per hour because you can? We live in an era where we have to use responsibility and restraint with our cool toys or they will surely be our undoing.

Anyone who wishes to condemn or ridicule Michael Phelps needs to take a hard look at the great journalism featured in People, US Weekly and my personal favorite, OK! Magazine. Since when have celebrities and sports figures been such bastions of crystal clean morality? Gossip guru Perez Hilton has made a career and a personal fortune following the exploits of “tramp troika” Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan and Britney Spears a few years ago. They’ve since settled down (for them, anyway) but the gossip mavens have found new victims in Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers and unfortunately, Mr. Phelps. Phelps, whose young career should be defined by athletic triumph, is now going to be stalked every time he goes to McDonalds for five Egg McMuffins. Consider, for one second, the possibility of Michael Phelps not living up to his hype during the Olympics (anyone remember Bode Miller?). If he had only won a few medals, he would have been able to return to a basically normal life and frat parties. Maybe Phelps wishes that were the case. Just because he was given the ability to be one of the worlds’ best athletes should not prevent him from being a normal 23-year old with all the rights, privileges and stupid mistakes that come with it.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, there was no athlete more respected and admired than Mickey Mantle. A country boy from Oklahoma with good looks and unmatchable speed and power, the Hall of Fame Yankee was idolized by millions of boys and respected by parents for his clean-cut, all-American image. But in 1970, a book called “Ball Four” written by ex-teammate Jim Bouton, shattered the Mickey Mantle myth. Bouton described a baseball culture filled of booze and women with Mantle as one of the stars. It seemed Mickey Mantle did not actually spend all his free time signing autographs and visiting sick kids. Instead, he frequented bars and drank himself into an idiotic stupor during the entire baseball season. His drinking buddy, the great Billy Martin, was traded by the Yankees in attempt to reign in Mantle’s wild ways. It did not work. Subsequent books on Mantle attribute his many injuries to alcohol abuse. It is believed had Mantle been able to control his problems; he would have been the greatest baseball player of all time instead of one of the top twenty.

So how was “the Mick” able to keep this wholesome image throughout his career without being exposed as a fraud? I guess the answer is fairly rhetorical. Mantle played in an era with limited media coverage. There were just three news networks that broadcasted a whopping 1/2 hour of world news every night. If someone went to a newspaper or Sports Illustrated with a story regarding Mantle’s debauchery, the Yankees convinced the publication to shelve the story. It wasn’t difficult in those days to do so. Can you say “free Yankees tickets”? I bet lots of editors could. This left a freelance reporter with very few options. What were they going to do, take out a small loan, start their own paper and publish it themselves? My, oh my, how far we have come, yet how little we’ve learned.

Since the publication of “Ball Four”, books and articles detailing the failures of athletes, celebrities and icons have dominated our almost infinite media. Yet we are still compelled to place individuals on a pedestal and force expectations upon them none of us could ever hope to live up to. If a hero is inherently flawed, they are made into something more palatable (see Kurdt Cobain). We put them up, watch them fall, kick sand in their face and cheer them if they “come back” (see Robert Downey Jr.). Our concept of celebrity is more than ironic, it’s truly pathetic.

Our new President, Barack Obama, smokes. Period. That’s it. End of debate. Despite prodding by the likes of Katie Couric and Anderson Cooper, Obama will not admit to quitting smoking. Continually embarrassed and annoyed by this questioning, our President rightfully waffles on an answer, knowing that many children in this country look up to him and their parents expect him to be an example. In the grand scheme of things, this is the last thing we should be criticizing Barack Obama about. If he leaves a smoke in the oval office and burns down the White House, that’s one thing. Expecting the President of the United States to be without even the most human of flaws, is another. If smoking two packs a day helps Obama deal with running the free world, then leave him alone. We all have our fallibilities, failures, ticks and addictions. Obama, if nothing else, is more like us in that respect than the celebrity cartoon characters we encourage our kids to admire.

We are less than a decade into this brave new world of uber-media and have yet to fully comprehend its impact. It’s not only the mistakes of Michael Phelps filling the internet rabbit hole, but also the exploits of many of us shared in a pretense of innocence. Take a look in the mirror and ask yourself, do you really want your children to see you glossy-eyed with a beer stained shirt proclaiming your eternal youth while partying at the local bar? Don’t worry. It’s not a big deal. Just a simple misjudgment. A regrettable activity that won’t happen again for the sole reason you will be careful not to be caught next time. Currently, America is taking Wall Street to task for its million dollar perks and the concept of entitlement “just because”. However, would we not take that free trip to Las Vegas, the all-expenses paid for resort weekends and the nightly cocktail parties on the company dollar if we could? Like the kid alone in the candy store, the free Tootsie-Pop is yours, providing nobody sees you. Whether we like it or not, boys and girls, the cameras are indeed on and the whole world is watching. Take a lick, if you dare.

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