Letter Three – What to Expect from Our Athletes?
A question I've recycled over and over in my head as of late is, what should we expect from our professional athletes? This question has developed and unfurled in some really complex & interesting ways ever since the rise of the athlete as also a social media star and high-level celebrity. Because it's obvious that we, as fans of sport, want more than just winning; the concept of wanting to watch someone win, like maybe it was watching the first Super Bowl, for the sake of good sportsmanship, seems dated and naive. There are so many things about professional athletes that allure us into following them: incredible physicality, beauty, grace, grit, perfect bodies, energy, charisma, wealth, accolades, fandom, playing essentially a children's game for money, travel, fame, okay, I'll stop there. One thing that holds merit now than arguably ever before is the athlete's voice. At one time in history, no one, especially the media, cared what they athlete had to say, as they long as they were performing well in their sport. And not only did they not care, they almost disdained when athletes spoke out of rank (some of this still lingers on; see the LeBron Shut Up & Dribble incident) and not just disdained, but almost mocked athletes in how they spoke, in a plethora of cliches and platitudes and disregarded them as merely lunks of society. (Hungry for more on this? Check this out.) But times have changed. We expect more from our athletes. We want them not only to be the best of their sport, but also entertaining, witty, funny, charming, media savvy, sex symbols, politically conscious, humble, down-to-earth, video gaming, McDonald's eating normal Americans. And with this, athletes now have multiple platforms, including their own, and are in seeming control of the narratives that surround them. Famously, or maybe infamously, Naomi Osaka comes to mind for giving the media the silent treatment. Opinions on this aside, this is only one tactic; it's not like it hasn't been done before (Marshawn Lynch) but with Osaka's fame and her controlling the narrative with her own platform, it has blown up into a bunch of conversations outside of the sport. In a way, it's genius, and sort of reflective of how being an icon in today's culture is. She will have her supporters and her detractors, but it doesn't touch the tennis court, nor does it affect her "brand" whether she wins or loses. If she wins, bravo; if she loses, she's brave, etc.
A tactic I've been more interested in is the mindset of the young Nick Kyrgios, Australian tennis superstar. A few years ago, Kyrgios' explosive rise to fame came with what seemed like a flash of endless potential, talent, and personality; he was once ranked as high as 13th in the world and has beaten pretty much everyone in the top 10 and every single one of the "Big 3" multiple times. Young, flashy, and a bit cocky, there seemed to be no limit in the heights he could reach, but the flame of his rise would burn out almost as fast as his launch, when a series of breakdowns and episodes that ended up with him being on probation mixed with a string of injuries tanked his ranking, and he soon began to take the form of a ghost-sighting around the tour, "Will we see Nick this week?" "Maybe in Roland Garros? Miami?" No one knew. Kyrgios' tune seemed to change over that time of his absence. He went from confident he could beat anybody anytime on any given court, with a certain intense seriousness swayed by his emotions, to a more relaxed playful attitude–a chill, tattooed, grinning presence, rocking a basketball jersey doing even more trick shots than usual, the underdog, inserting motivational rap quotes on his Instagram captions of photos of him hanging with supermodels, driving sports cars, and live-streaming his video gaming. When he returned to play, he seemed lighter, happier on court, not this wound-up ball of pressure bound to explode. He shook off losses, made funny comments mid-match, even got the crowd involved. Clearly he matured, and maybe got some therapy. The culmination of this new Nick came in an interview at Wimbledon, where he said:
"I just don't put that much pressure on myself any more, I'm okay with that. I'm okay with not winning Grand Slams... I know that's going to make a lot of people angry. 'He should be doing this,' but I shouldn't, though. It's not your life, it's mine. I'm okay with just enjoying myself, putting on a show. Not everyone can be a (Roger) Federer or (Novak) Djokovic. These are once-in-a-decade athletes that inspire millions of people, they're just gods...You have to have some people, I believe, that are relatable, that people can bring other fans to watch, like people that are just normal. I feel like I'm one of those people...I'm quite lighthearted. Yeah, they know it's a bit of a show. They just want entertainment at the end of the day."
This is a shockingly meta response from a professional athlete. Not only is he acknowledging he's okay with not winning Grand Slams (the dangling carrot of a holy grail for tennis players) but he is also calling out us, the fans, and telling us what we want: entertainment. He's taken control of a narrative. He's recognizing that sports are kind of silly, that fans expecting every young athlete to surpass the aging great ones is sometimes nonsensical, even impossible, deranged. He's vocalizing an existential threat to fandom. Not what's wrong with him, but what's wrong with us? He's not playing a victim or scapegoating anyone. He's not trying to change the system of the sport, but rather how we view him within the system. If anything, he comes off as refreshingly honest, enlightened even. He's saying, relax, sit back and just watch the show. But what Kyrgios' statement lacks is in the implication that all we, as fans, want from our professional athletes is entertainment. Is it? Or is it something more? Something indefinable and ungraspable for the regular fan? I know one thing: when Nick Kyrgios is entered in a tournament, as he is tonight with his first match of the US Open, I'm not just watching and hoping for a show, but a transcendence; a total ineffable escape from myself, to witness his sheer power, beauty, and artistry expressed through the sport of tennis and to share something truly awesome together, bigger than us both. It's why I root for him to do much more than entertain, but win, and strive toward something greater.