The football news

Terry Bradshaw. Love me, love me, say that you love me.

The days leading up to the Super Bowl (this would be LVI) haven’t been full of good news for the National Football League. In particular, a lawsuit filed by former Miami Dolphins Brian Flores coach alleged all sorts of misconduct by various teams. But it was a couple of other NFL-related news stories that caught my eye this past week.

The first story had to do with a documentary on the Tuck Rule, a controversial call made in a playoff game in 2001 involving the now newly-retired quarterback Tom Brady. Jay Busbee, writing for Yahoo Sports, introduces us to it:

Farewell, Tom Brady the football player. Hello, Tom Brady the Image Builder.

This weekend, ESPN will debut “The Tuck Rule,” a “documentary” in the sense that it’s a series of real people discussing, dissecting and squabbling over a real historical event — the fateful play in a 2001 season AFC divisional round game between the New England Patriots and then-Oakland Raiders.

In a more accurate sense, though, “The Tuck Rule” is the first step in the construction of the post-NFL Tom Brady. Co-produced by 199 Productions — which just happens to be the production company of one Tom Brady — it’s a carefully curated version of the truth, one that just happens to break Brady’s way at every turn.

Busbee is right to be suspicious. What’s happening here is something I’ve written about several times before, most recently with regard to the dust-up over tennis star Naomi Osaka’s picking and choosing what media she would do. Osaka was lionized in the press, but I had my doubts about the way she was being allowed to play the reporters whose job it was to cover the story:

I want to express my concern at the way a widespread anger at and distrust of the media has become cover for those in positions of wealth and power who want to take control of the way they’re presented. To ask the obvious question: Who wouldn’t “much rather tell their own stories than let reporters do it for them”? How brave is Osaka in ditching press conferences for social media platforms where, as Jones puts it, “she can control the conversation without risk to herself”?

Everyone wants that kind of control. But who has that privilege? Only the most powerful. Billionaires. Those with “massive social-media followings.” Celebrities who own their own media companies.

Celebrities who own their own media companies. Would that be Tom Brady? Why, yes it would. And to these alternative-reality bubble-blowers we might add celebrities with leverage over mainstream media companies. Like Michael Jordan, who was given editorial control over the 10-part ESPN documentary The Last Dance, which wasn’t exactly a warts-and-all portrait of the superstar basketball player. Or we might think of LeBron James, whose Space Jam 2: A New Legacy was nothing if not an exercise in personal-corporate branding. These athletes are immensely talented in their field, but also smart enough to know how much money can be made as a brand. They are Image Builders, in Busbee’s phrase.

I wrote about this in a post several years ago that I’ve since updated a few times. But it’s worth repeating: a celebrity, or really any individual in a position of wealth and power, will manage their public profile very carefully. Which means that representations of these people, whether in the form of interviews, documentaries, official/authorized biographies, or anything else like that, are pretty much worthless. They are only advertisements for a brand.

Of course the chief reason they do this is to make money. But it’s not all about the money. This was brought home to me in the second bit of NFL news I wanted to talk about. In an interview for ESPN former Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback and long-time Fox Sports commentator Terry Bradshaw was asked about any regrets he might have looking back on his career. His response was surprising:

“If there’s one thing in my life I do wish I had . . . I wish I was loved and respected. . . . And I understand, I know I don’t deserve this, I just wish I had it. Like [Tom] Brady, and like Peyton [Manning], Roger Staubach . . . ”

At least it was surprising for a moment. But then I thought of Brett Favre, the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers who left that team under something of a cloud, apparently because he didn’t like the fact that the organization was moving on without him (his successor would find himself in a similar position a decade later). It was even reported that Favre might have talked to the manager of an opposing team to give them some inside scoop on the Packers out of spite. It’s hard to tell if this was really what was going on, but it sounded right. I mean, in more recent NFL news the quarterback Tom Brady retired and made a lengthy statement that didn’t even mention the team he’d played on for twenty years and that he only left at the end of his career in order to make another Super Bowl run.

It would be easy to write Favre and Brady off as just a pair of divas. But as Bradshaw’s interview suggests I think it goes deeper than that. All three of these quarterbacks were idolized not just in their home markets but nationwide. They achieved the most that anyone could achieve in their sport: Super Bowl rings and entry into the Hall of Fame (not yet for Brady, but a foregone conclusion for the player many consider to be the greatest of all time). They of course became fabulously rich, and in the case of Bradshaw and Favre went on to become film and television figures who could also cash in on how well liked they were. Indeed, according to Wikipedia: “Among U.S. consumers, Bradshaw remains one of pro football’s most popular retired players. As of September 2007, Bradshaw was the top-ranked former pro football player in the Davie-Brown Index (DBI), which surveys consumers to determine a celebrity’s appeal and trust levels.”

This is the guy whose greatest regret is that he wished he received more love and respect.

To have done so much, gained so much fame and recognition, to be worshipped as gods, and yet . . . to take away from it that it wasn’t enough. They wanted more. More respect. More love. They had been treated so unfairly.

In my earlier post on Osaka I mentioned how her media strategy was taken straight out of the Trump playbook: grievance used as an excuse to tightly manage and control one’s coverage. Unsurprisingly, Trump would also become a bubble blower with his own media company, the Trump Media & Technology Group. I suppose it’s just a coincidence that Favre and Brady are both big Trump supporters (and golf buddies), since Bradshaw was a critic, at least when Trump was in office. But it’s interesting to look at the psychology in play here through the lens of Mary Trump’s profile of her uncle in Too Much and Never Enough. In that book she saw Trump’s narcissism as at least partially being a way of acting out a need for love he didn’t receive from his father.

Are today’s celebrities damaged in the same way? Will too much ever be enough to satisfy their craving for more? More money, more attention, more respect, more love? And how accommodating will supposedly objective media have to become in order to placate these needs?

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