Eli Manning Is An Entitled Brat (And Other Sports Narratives)
Kazzy recently wrote a post on the Richard Sherman saga. His post focused on what he believes (quite credibly) Sherman was trying to accomplish with the outburst that got him labeled everything from a “dick” to a “thug.” In the comments, he asks:
Are Namath, Brady, Manning, Ali, et. al. assholes?
Does Sherman’s charitable work with inner city youth factor into the “asshole calculus”?
The short conversational answers to the first part are: Yes, maybe, no, not-going-there. The short actual answer is: I don’t know any of these men.
That’s ultimately what it comes down to. We often think we know them, because we are exposed to them relentlessly. But we are exposed to various slices of them. Joe Namath’s drunken outburst with Suzie Kolbert. Tom Brady at press conferences, some papparazi photos, and an outburst against a referee for a non-call. Payton Manning in scripted MasterCard commercials with Alyson Hannigan. And so on, and so on.
Of the group, I am predisposed to like Peyton Manning the most. This is in stark contrast to his younger brother Eli, whom I hate.
My dislike of Eli Manning goes back to the 2004 NFL Draft. He was slated to be picked by the San Diego Chargers and threw a hissy fit. But he didn’t want to play for the Chargers! He wanted to play for the Giants! Waaaah! This was followed by getting his daddy to straighten everything out and eventually to New Jersey he went. The whole thing rubbed me the wrong way. We have a draft for a reason, to try to keep the teams as competitive as possible. He was going to be making millions of dollars and after four years he could sign with whatever team he wanted to. What an entitled little snot.
I went on a rant about this with my father-in-law who responded with two words: John Elway. John Elway? That guy is apple pie , the American flag, and everything good and right about this country! My father-in-law went on to explain that John Elway was drafted by the Baltimore Colts but refused to play for them, using a potential baseball contract as leverage.
Oh, but that’s totally different I reasoned. Elway wasn’t being an entitled little snot. He was simply using leverage at his disposal to go to the team of his preference. Totally different! Except that’s a very selective reading of the facts. Elway’s reasons for not wanting to play with the Colts actually mirrored Manning’s desire not to play for the Chargers. I still think the baseball thing is important, but if I am being honest with myself I probably think it’s important because it allows me to stick to my preferred narratives. It allows John Elway to still be apple pie without having to take back my criticisms of Manning.
Ahhh, narratives. Sports wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without them. We yearn for heroes and villains. We make heroes and villains out of people we barely know, if we know anything about them at all apart from interviews, frustrated rants, and drunken outbursts. But we stick to the narratives because they provide us investment. They give us some moral reason to root for the athletes on our side, and to root against the athletes on their side. Or they give us a reason to care about teams that we otherwise wouldn’t.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with narratives. I would even go further to say that it’s okay to hate Eli Manning, or whomever else, so long as we realize that we’re mostly hating a TV character in our minds and not actual flesh and blood people who almost invariably love their mothers, wives, and are risking their lives and health to entertain us on Sundays.
With that in mind, there’s nothing inherently wrong with looking at Richard Sherman and saying “I don’t like that guy.” It’s often not very arbitrary at all. Sherman’s behavior indicated an attitude or persona that runs contrary to what a lot of people want to see from the athletes in their beloved arenas. While it’s perhaps better to say “I don’t like what that guy did,” it’s also engaging that way (and sports, and narratives, are there to psychologically engage). By most accounts, though, Sherman is a real stand-up guy. Maybe he’s too arrogant (or more likely too open with his arrogance), but to the extent that Kazzy is right the man is putting on a show. And can we blame him? Sports would be a lot less interesting if it weren’t actually a show. Though some of us may not approve of the role he’s playing, he’s playing the role in the larger context of his participation in a sport that chews up its participants and spits them out, it’s hard to blame him for playing the Heel.
This pageantry, though, can go quite wrong. We should be cognizant of that fact. A lot of the criticism directed Sherman’s way went very wrong.
If players are mostly blank slates, it becomes all too easy to use race in the assignment of roles and characters. This creates problems in the larger social context because these people are front and center. Especially when, in our segregated society, these are a lot of the most prominent black men around and since what they are doing is physical, and in the case of football violent, it plays into certain stereotypes. This creates a dual problem where our conscious and subconscious stereotypes affect how we perceive the athletes, and how we perceive the athletes affect our conscious and subconscious stereotypes. This is where it leaves the theater and matters outside of it.
It’s here where things start getting more complicated.
My superficial disdain for Eli Manning carries little or no social significance. If he was African-American, however, it wouldn’t be hard to perceive my criticisms of him as being entitled and by extension arrogant as being commentary on how black people are. Further, subconscious thoughts I may have about African-Americans as feeling entitled due to their talent could be playing a role in this perception in the first place. It’s unlikely coincidental that black quarterbacks are disproportionately perceived as having attitude problems. African-Americans have been battling perceptions that they have attitude problems for generations. Their skin doesn’t volunteer them to be the Heel for doing what white players are given a pass for.
Yet we crave narrative. We also have attitudinal preferences, sometimes perhaps steeped in race but often independent, on what we want from our athletes. There is a school of thought that criticism of excessive celebrations is racial in nature. Sometimes it probably is. But it’s also a preference that can lie outside of race and so it’s patently unfair to think of it – in and of itself – in purely racial terms. It’s one thing if we only or disproportionately use it against minority athletes, though another when we wave away the use of white examples as an attempt to conceal that it’s really racial in nature.
So we’re left with a situation where we simply don’t know where one thing ends and another begins. Where, when Kazzy asks me if a confluence of racial factors (skin color, an urban background, and the perceptions of black men from urban backgrounds) are completely divorced from my characterizations of Sherman, the only honest answer is “I don’t know.” Neither examples of whites acting badly nor blacks acting favorably are entirely dispositive. Which isn’t enough to prevent my participation in the audience of the show, but it’s also not enough to keep it outside the realm of the conversation (even if the term-of-choice is not as obviously charged as “thug”).
It’s only simple when it’s Eli Manning. Man, I hate that guy.