← Return to search results
Back to Prindle Institute

Media Have Warped Our Perception Of Athletes

By Jeff McCall
4 Feb 2015
Illustrated book cover for My Dream of Martin Luther King featuring a close-up painting of Martin Luther King Jr.'s face on a blue background. He is an African American man with a dark mustache. He is wearing a suit and looking off into the distance.

This post by Dr. Jeff McCall was originally published by The Indy Star.

Let’s remember a key fact as we prepare snacks and grab the remote to watch the Super Bowl. The people playing in the game are important only because they happen to be good at football. They aren’t super heroes. They aren’t necessarily good at anything beyond football. Some are philanthropists who give back to their communities, but even those efforts are the result of being good at football.

The media world has concocted a culture in which athletes are idolized and their importance exaggerated. Rhetorically, television constantly tells us that a guy who can tackle or throw a ball contributes more to society than an elementary teacher or car mechanic. Americans need to carefully consider whether their favorite NFL quarterback is more important in their lives than the workman who hauls away the trash each week.

Television and the sports leagues have snookered society into an oversized obsession with athletes. And it is all about dollars. The media have to boost sports personalities because huge money is invested in contracts to broadcast sports. The NBA recently signed a $ 24 billion contract with ABC/ESPN and TNT to carry pro basketball for the next nine years. The NFL collects more than $5 billion a year for TV rights. It is no wonder the broadcasters and leagues supercharge the players to make sure people watch their favorite athletes.

Note how the networks promote upcoming telecasts. An Indianapolis Colts-Denver Broncos football game is billed as Andrew Luck vs. Peyton Manning. An NBA game is promoted as Kobe vs. Lebron, as if their teammates are unimportant.

The leagues allow, and television captures, every player’s display of grandstanding. A player who makes a routine play and then dances is sure to get a television replay and approving comment from the play-by-play announcer. Interestingly, a high school player who made such a display would likely be penalized by the officials and sanctioned by the coach.

The television spectacle includes sideline reporters who act star struck as they adoringly ask players how they feel and then nod approvingly as the athletes utter meaningless phrases about intensity or how much they wanted the win.

Sports sensationalism has even seeped into network news. The major networks all led their evening newscasts one day last week with Deflategate, the story about underinflated footballs at the AFC title game. The morning network newscast hosts have all squeezed underinflated balls on set, telling us more about football inflation in the last week than President Obama’s tax proposals. And all Deflategate coverage includes mandatory video of Patriot star Tom Brady’s supermodel girlfriend, Gisele Bundchen.

Most professional athletes are decent, sensible people. But the marketing geniuses at the networks and sports leagues don’t help sort the deserving from the undeserving. Former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis’ checkered past was washed away by CBS and the NFL with a gaudy celebration of Lewis’ retirement two years ago. Lewis is now an analyst on ESPN. Steelers’ star Ben Roethlisberger remains an NFL poster boy, in spite of past sexual assault allegations. Former NBA bad boy Ron Artest parlayed his multiple altercations into a spot on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.” NASCAR’s Tony Stewart’s anger management issues haven’t diminished his profile on race telecasts.

Rasmussen Reports research shows 24 percent of Americans believe pro athletes are good role models for children. That’s up 9 percent from a year earlier, and comes after the Ray Rice domestic violence incident last summer.

Responsible adults now wear jerseys of prominent athletes. It hasn’t always been like that. Look at videos of crowds at sporting events in the 1940s and 1950s. Nobody wore player jerseys. Maybe that’s because the crowd included real heroes from the Greatest Generation that survived the Depression and won a world war.

Americans love sports, and for good reason. Americans enjoy competition and admire athleticism. Nothing wrong with that. But obsessing over and worshipping the people in the games distort cultural values and lead to misguided priorities. It is no wonder athletes with inflated egos think they are bigger than life and engage in ridiculous and destructive behaviors. And it is all because the media have created these big heads. Long gone are the days when a level-headed star athlete like Cardinals baseball legend Stan Musial offered to take a salary cut after a season in which he didn’t meet his own lofty standards.

Jeff McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, and author of “Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences.” Contact him at jeffmccall@depauw.edu. On Twitter: @Prof_McCall
Related Stories