Good Guys, Bad Boys Loved By Fans When They Win

Let's examine our mixed feelings about athletes and their public personas. We need to recalibrate how we define athletes as "good" or "bad" people, which means a halt to both the knee-jerk demonization and the casual hagiography.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Let's go now to a common story in sports - achievements juxtaposed with misbehavior. NPR's Mike Pesca offers these thoughts on how to think of the golden boys and unbearable bores.

MIKE PESCA: I've never spent Time with Tim Tebow. You neither? Well, thanks to Thom Brennaman we now know this is a deficiency that can be a barrier to self actualization.

(Soundbite of sports broadcast)

Mr. THOM BRENNAMAN (Sportscaster): If you're fortunate enough to spend five minutes or 20 minutes around Tim Tebow, your life is better for it.

PESCA: That description from the 2008 national championship game is laughably over the top. But Tebow's throwing motion isnt, which is one reason why he's the best known second string quarterback in the NFL:

Tebow has more fame and endorsements than players with 10 times his NFL accomplishments, because he was great in college, but mostly because of his character. Or more precisely, because of perceptions of his character.�

Another athlete whos almost universally loved - Twins slugger Jim Thome - this week, became the eighth player to hit 600 home runs this week. Mario Impemba and Rod Allen - broadcast team for the Detroit Tigers, the very team he victimized - epitomized the coverage.

(Soundbite of sports broadcast)

Mr. MARIO IMPEMBA (Sportscaster): Rod, he is genuinely one of the best players I think in terms of genuineness. He's just an all around good guy. There's not a person in baseball that will have anything bad to say about Jim Thome. And just a great feat for him tonight.

Mr. ROD ALLEN (Sportscaster): You know, he played on a number of different teams throughout his career. But he's been a stellar individual, and it couldn't happen to a better guy.

PESCA: Fair, fine. By all accounts, Jim Thomes a great guy. Some athletes are - Roberto Clemente died flying relief supplies to earthquake victims. Dikembe Mutombo�has spent millions of dollars establishing a hospital for the poor of Congo.

Of course, of former slugger Steve Garvey it was once said, he's so clean he squeaks. This was before his string of mistresses was revealed.

At the begging of Kirby Puckett's career, Sports Illustrated's Rick Telander wrote the strongest little man in baseball may also be the sweetest. Everybody loves Kirby Puckett. After Puckett's career ended, the same magazine wrote a cover story - The Secret Life of Kirby Puckett - which delved into his sexual indiscretions and violent acts.

Jayson Williams of the Nets seemed fun loving and charitable. The team president said: He defines the character we are trying to get for our team. Williams is currently serving a six year prison sentence for killing his limo driver with a shotgun.

It works the other way, too. Players who were once reviled, like basketballs Dennis Rodman, become revered.

(Soundbite of sports broadcast)

Unidentified Man #1: The name Rodman stands for individuality to a lot of people. It stands for going against...

Unidentified Man #2: Free spirit.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah, free spirit and all that stuff. We talk about him being a free spirit, but he always told it his way. And, you know, it really didn't matter to him who was around, he was going to speak what he thought.

PESCA: Rodmans induction into the Basketball Hall Of Fame last weekend brought out a stream of commentators, not just those on ESPN L.A., who seemed to have forgotten that Rodman cost his teams many games with his ejections and antics. Sorry - his free spiritedness and candor.

The point isnt that the public personas of athletes are sometimes inaccurate. The fact is that young people, even famous sports heroes, are unformed and somewhat unknowable, even to themselves. The ones that enjoy good reputations may just be more comfortable with journalists, or may be good actors, or genuinely nice people. But the sports media has gotten it so wrong, so often, we need to recalibrate.

Right now, the sports culture seems to make more of an effort to understand frailties. Witness the narrative around Bears quarterback Jay Cutler or Jets receiver Plaxico Burress, who are engaged in different kinds of image rehab regimes.

But if the refrain of don't judge works for the supposed scourges, maybe we ought to hold off on anointing those alleged angels as well.�

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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