Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The pros and cons of treating athletes as TV characters

Lorenzo Cain of the Kansas City Royals

Forget Harvey Bullock, Barry Allen, Jane Villanueva, or Professor Annalise Keating. For my money, the best characters of this fall TV season have been the Kansas City Royals. On September 30, the Royals played one of the damnedest games in the history of Major League Baseball’s postseason, coming back from being down 7-3 against the Oakland A’s to tie the Wild Card game in the bottom of the ninth (after a risky steal of third)—then coming back again in the 12th to win after Oakland had retaken the lead. Throughout October, the Royals have played dramatic baseball, and along the way a small-market team with no superstars has introduced even ardent ball fans to the talents and personalities of men like Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Yordano Ventura, and Billy Butler. The Royals have been compelling television.

Sports broadcasting is the business of crafting narratives—sometimes clumsily so. Stats-oriented fans (and I consider myself one) often resist those narratives, because they’re spun from conventional wisdom and make-believe. Listening to the average baseball or football color commentator try to explain why a given team is doing well is like listening to the average dad try to explain to his kid how a television works. Words like “chemistry” and “grit” have about as much practical application as “beams of energy” and “magic.” The problem with most sports storytelling is that it’s facile, and so vague that any quality of any athlete can be spun as a positive or a negative, depending on the result of the game. Does the ballplayer yell and scream a lot? That’s the intensity of a winner. Does he do his job quietly and efficiently? Nothing fazes him; that’s the sign of a true champion.


But this doesn’t mean sports broadcasters are wrong to think of games and seasons and careers in terms of stories. That’s a big part of what makes sports so popular. Regional pride? Sure. The aesthetic pleasure of a seeing a well-trained human body perform feats of strength and agility? Absolutely. A daily reminder that so much of our lives is governed by pure chance, and that failure is our inevitable end? Yeah, that too. But ultimately, the impulse to follow a team over the course of six months isn’t that far removed from the compulsion to watch a serialized drama every week. I watch both because I’ve grown to like the characters and because I want to see how it all turns out.

In that sense, an MLB postseason—or NCAA basketball’s March Madness, or the summer or winter Olympics—is a lot like a TV miniseries that captures the public’s imagination for a week or two. The compressed batch of games and players is akin to Roots, or Lonesome Dove, or Ken Burns’ The Civil War. It’s water-cooler fodder. Unknowns become household names, and the culture at large has a rare, shared moment.


That’s why NBC handles the Olympics the way it does, breaking away from actual on-the-field action to spend 10 minutes on slickly packaged tales of one athlete’s triumph over personal tragedy and/or family hardship. Devoted sports fans fume every two years at NBC’s coverage. (Or at least they sneer at the primetime broadcasts; the NBC family of networks does an excellent job of covering the games during the day.) But NBC isn’t targeting fans. The network wants to reach the people who are trying to choose between a track-and-field event and Scandal.

By and large, this is fine. Personally, I can’t begrudge NBC its biennial attempt to sell me a new slate of wholesome All-Americans, because I have too many fond memories of watching the U.S. men’s hockey team at Lake Placid in 1980, or the women’s FIFA World Cup team in 1999. When a phenomenon like the Kansas City Royals happens, it justifies a lot of the hype in sports television. This is why I watch: to develop a fascination and an intense rooting interest in a group of people I’d barely heard of a few weeks ago.


The downside to framing athletes as TV characters is that sometimes they start to act like TV characters. ESPN recently aired a 30 For 30 episode about Brian Bosworth, the former University Of Oklahoma and Seattle Seahawks linebacker (and current B-movie star) who became one of the best-known football players in the country in the late 1980s because of the things he did to self-promote. He sported crazy hairstyles (and tried to keep his helmet off as much as possible so that people could see them), wrote messages on his uniform, insulted his opponents, and generally acted like a pro-wrestling villain. When he went to the NFL, Bosworth even started a company that sold “anti-Boz” merchandise to the fans he’d urged to hate him. In a lot of ways, Bosworth drew up the blueprint for how to profit off being a self-centered jock who puts himself above the game.

All of this encourages a potentially harmful blurring of the lines between reality and fiction. It’s one thing for TV audiences to boo a catty Real Housewife or a snotty Survivor castaway, but when sports fans start excusing antisocial behavior because it makes an athlete more fun to watch—or worse, when voters and journalists start to see a politician’s worst traits as merely “colorful”—there’s little to no incentive for correction.


But then maybe that’s the best way to enjoy sports these days: to think of athletes as fictional characters. I know I’ve struggled with how to continue to enjoy football, baseball, and Olympic events when scarcely a day goes by without a report about catastrophic injuries, domestic abuse, performance-enhancing drugs, economic exploitation, academic dishonesty, racism, hazing, and the colossal misappropriation of fiscal resources. The cynic in me says it’s in the best interests of fandom to stop holding athletes and administrators accountable in a real-world way. If I want to be able to watch Jameis Winston play football and not feel lousy for three hours, I’ll have to start looking at him as though he were the “bad boy” from some primetime soap.

The idealist in me says there is more than a little actual value in turning athletes into TV characters—beyond just making it easier for rich people to get richer. Phenomenal athletic achievements are one of the signposts of popular culture. The 1990s can be defined as the era of Michael Jordan as much as it’s the decade of Friends, grunge, and Quentin Tarantino. In a time of increased fragmentation of tastes and beliefs, there’s something comforting about these few remaining shared myths. Plus, this is one of the ways we tell our own stories, to position them next to whatever’s going on outside our own walls. (“It was 2014: the year of Guardians Of The Galaxy, and the year that the Royals made an amazing run through the baseball postseason.”)


Everybody who appears in front of a TV camera has been abstracted and commodified to some extent. The trick for the audience is to enjoy what’s good about treating real people as fictional, while remaining aware of the dangers. If my entertainment options on an October evening come down to watching The Mysteries Of Laura or watching Lorenzo Cain make an impossible catch, I’m going to go with the character who’s more likely to thrill.

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