Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Millennial Athletes and the Media

Michael Jordan had a famous line when asked why he didn't speak out more about social or political issues as players in previous generations had. He said, "Republicans buy shoes, too," and thus set the tone for the next thirty years of player-media relations. Guys were going to play along, give the cliched quotes at the right time and cash their checks.

Millennial athletes are taking a different tactic - we saw it on display after the Superbowl. Cam Newton came out visibly sad and frustrated, gave a bunch of one word answers and one incredibly concise, but accurate explanation of how the game went, before leaving the stage. It was raw and honest and expressive and is shows the kind of authenticity and openness that characterizes this millennial generation.

It wasn't pretty. He was sulking and short and visibly upset. He took a lot of beef for being childish or a poor loser. I didn't see any of that, though. I saw a guy who did his duty, answered his questions, took responsibility for his mistakes and gave credit to the other team for winning. He did everything we expect an athlete in his situation to do - he just didn't look happy doing it.

This is the new battle ground, and I think it is very much a generational shift. In many workplaces around the world there are discussion about how we define "professional" and what expectations we place on workers. None of those is more visible, though, than professional sports. We've long been accustomed to the "suck in up" mindset, where even if a player or coach is passionate (either positively or negatively), they calm down for the cameras, answer questions as best they can, and emote in private.

It's prettier, for sure, and it makes the media's job a lot easier. But, as Cam said in his follow up comments today, is it really necessary or required? I'd ask, is it healthy?

We make these guys out to be robots, vessels for our entertainment. We don't like seeing them as real people - unless its in a factory polished window into their real people-hood that's as managed and fake as the image we think we're seeing past. The athletes have played into this, of course - look at the Michael Jordan quote above. It's about marketing and branding and money. Be as bland as possible and don't alienate anyone.

That's the down side of Cam's honesty here. He's going to make some people mad. They're not going to like the way he conducts himself and they might not buy his products or support his team. It could cost him something. He seems to be ok with that - and I am, too - I don't think people have to like Cam Newton. I just have an issue with people saying he's wrong, or it's not the way things should be done.

As with much in life, just because it hasn't been done that way before, doesn't mean it can't. Just because it's how things work, doesn't mean it has to be that way. Reality doesn't make right. Maybe there is no right, and players will choose to do their duty in a variety of ways, rather than those approved by media and tradition.

I'm not quite a millennial, but I really appreciate the millennial love of authenticity. Cam Newton doesn't want to be a different guy in the media than he is out of it. That's incredibly strange to conventional wisdom, but it makes a lot of sense to the kids he's hoping to inspire (and leverage for profit), in fact, it's almost required.

The other element is that players don't quite need the media as much as they used to. Yes, the media is still essential and still pays the bills, just not as many as it once did. Leagues are increasingly beholden to these broadcast deals (although I think the NFL could just set up channels or apps to broadcast all its games and people would follow pretty readily), but the players, especially star players, make more money from endorsements than they do from playing. They need the media, but not desperately. Therefore, they're not necessarily out to make the media's job easier.

Look at NBA star Steph Curry - he's super talented and super likable. He won't put off the old school sports fans upset with Newton - that's just his style. But he's got no problem staking his own claim to the press conference. He was criticized during the NBA Finals last year for bringing his young daughter out to the press conference with him - some journalists felt uncomfortable asking difficult questions or challenging Curry with his young daughter present.

Curry laughed it off (and won the public relations battle largely by leveraging social media - another avenue that marginalizes the traditional player-media relationship) and said essentially that he's an open book, suggesting that both, his daughter can hear the truth AND that perhaps the media need to remember that the guys they cover are real people with families when they ask questions. It was a subtle move, but an important example of how this new generation of players is approaching the media. This long held unwritten contract between the two is being renegotiated and things are a little uncertain.

Allen Iverson was the first to challenge this model (maybe Charles Barkley, although when he spoke out, media just didn't cover it, which means his reach was pretty much non-existent), he was way ahead of his time and we nearly killed him for his honesty. We're now in a generation of players (and increasingly, of fans) who understand and appreciate this approach. It's going to change things.

One thing people seem most uncomfortable with in Cam's performance is emotion. There is, of course, a difference between acting on your emotion and expressing your emotions; people seem to miss this. For the most part, we don't want athletes expressing emotion in a press conference. We like it (sometimes) during or after a game (unless you're Richard Sherman, anyway), but we'd rather get dispassionate comments afterwards. When players and coaches do express genuine emotion, we typically make fun of them (Jim Mora: "Playoffs!").

Cam wasn't whining or complaining. He took responsibility and gave credit to his opponents. When he did finally give more than a one word answer, it was pretty eloquent, honest, and restrained. He summed up the game remarkably well. This was not a guy out of control - he was simply sad. Yes, a happy guy is going to speak louder and longer and more entertainingly than a sad one, but he did his job, faced the press, and answered teh question.

I'm just excited for the precedent this sets. Players might feel free to be more honest about their feelings and we might get to know them a little more as people. You see it being a challenge for everyone, players included. LeBron James tried to manage his response to Newton, but it's clear he's coming from the same long-held mindset that we've too long taken for granted.

It will be interesting to see how the juxtaposition works itself out between this kind of authenticity from athletes and the growing managed output of "reality" stars. In some sense, the millennial generation is trying to figure out the balance between projecting an image and being true to yourself, especially in a world of social media, where the walls are blurred between personal relationships and media portrayals. I find it interesting that we'll get to see this play out among our most recognizable stars.

*Oh, and, yes, there might just be some bias here as well - it might be racial, it might just be flashy vs buttoned down - but this provides an interesting notion to think about with regards to how Cam Newton is viewed.

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