Proxies Replacing Champions

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SYNOPSIS:  Even in sports, celebrity nowadays has as much to do with symbolizing as with achieving.


The pattern of making superstars out of those we find useful as proxies doesn’t stop at the borders of the music world.  The phenomenon is also growing throughout professional sports.

Recently the Fox television network, in laying out its approach to covering major league baseball, opted as a matter of very deliberate marketing strategy to put less emphasis on the traditional statistics and ranking comparisons to the likes of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, and to instead create a few high-interest media superstars with iconic and accessible personalities.

Elsewhere in sports, a comparable process occurs without any such controlling intervention on the part of media companies.

As a prime example, we need only compare the celebrity of Dennis Rodman to more objective measures of his athletic prowess. Rodman is unlikely to be named Most Valuable player of an NBA All-Star Game.   Sometimes he doesn’t even make the All-Star Game.  Yet he enjoys a degree of name recognition that few players have ever attained, or ever will.

More is going on than just Rodman’s "playing to the media."

Rodman’s antics—of which his outlandish hairstyles are only a part—are less than fully dignified, and display something short of full self-respect.  But they also have a way of tweaking the big, all-powerful media.  Rodman knows that the media absolutely cannot resist focusing on him when he does certain things, no matter how shallow or calculated those things may be.

Thus, the very shallowness of Rodman's antics gives him a kind of depth, because of the way he deliberately plays with the media—making an ironic comment on them, which is apparently worth it even if he has to trash himself a bit in the process.

Or to look at it from a slightly different angle:

If his supremely gifted former teammate Michael Jordan belongs in the rarefied iconic realm of People magazine, Dennis Rodman seems more a creature of the old Real People television program—the one where mere mortals achieved media attention by doing something bizarre or ludicrous.

This makes him somebody with whom a lot of us can identify.  Although we consider the media shallow and trivializing, we still inwardly long to be noticed enough by them to "be somebody."


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