The Backlash Against Jeff Pearlman

Why do we throw reason to the wind when it comes to our sports icons? I ask because Jeff Pearlman has come under fire for his comprehensive biography of Walter Payton, Sweetness: the Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, in which the Sports Illustrated writer chronicles the complexity of the Chicago Bears’ great running back.

The book reveals Payton the man. It tells both his good side( philanthropic efforts, his treatment of fans, his sunny public persona) as well as the bad side(he was mercurial, an adulterer who fathered an illegitimate child and a drug user who became suicidal after his career ended). Many of these sensational charges were unveiled in a Sports Illustrated cover story, released shortly before the book’s publication.

Many Windy City figures condemned these out-takes. Michael Wilbon, the noted ESPN personality, condemned Pearlman’s sensationalism of a dead man’s proclivities. Payton’s former coach, Mike Ditka, described the author as “a gutless individual.” Suffice it to say, Pearlman’s book was not well received in Payton’s adopted home town.

But why won’t fans accept that our athletes are flawed people? That’s all Pearlman was trying to get across. The truth is more complicated than the crafted image athletes portray. Pearlman concludes: “Was Walter Payton perfect? Far from it…he was human. As I wrap up this book, that’s what I love most about Payton.”

Yet fans want to live in a fantasy world. Many want to believe our sporting icons are valiant warriors and admirable human beings. And we decry those who shatter this image.

Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” was widely condemned when it revealed the wild lifestyle of 1960s major leaguers. AP reporter Steve Wilstein was shunned when he highlighted a bottle of androstenedione in Mark McGwire’s locker during the epic the slugger’s epic 1998 season. Jose Canseco was mocked when his book “Juiced” told all about steroids in baseball.

Suffice it to say, the sports fans like simple truths and possess a Manichean worldview. They like simplicity: good/evil or black/white. Complexity is not valued.

How come?

Watching sports is an escape. A fantasy. We watch with passion. We put awesome athletes on a pedestal because they thrill us. Who isn’t awed by an Albert Pujols line drive? A Tom Brady spiral? A Kobe Bryant fade-away? We invest in these stars and their performances. It is the ultimate reality television filled with drama and emotion.

And most cannot separate this passion from their judgment making. ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd puts it best: “the two things that make men stupid are their favorite team (and by extension, their favorite athlete) and women.” Men throw reason to the wind. Empirical evidence is cast aside because emotion gets in the way.

That’s why Pearlman experienced fan backlash. The term fan, after all, is short for fanatical. And Walter Payton inspired fanatical passion from football fans across the country. His untimely end made fans all the more nostalgic. They wanted a hagiographic portrayal of this sporting icon. Instead, they got a depiction of the gifted running back-warts and all.


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