A Little Personality Goes a Long Way

by Robert Collins

27 February 2008

If sport is the new entertainment, its stars need to astound, amuse and bemuse us. I’m not asking for the full Bobby Fischer, but an occasional bit of craziness would definitely be welcome.

Goodbye, Bobby Fischer. You psycho.

You were the greatest chess player of your generation. Perhaps of any generation. You hated communism. And Jews. And America. You were nuts. But I’ll always have a soft spot for you, for precisely that reason.

For those not familiar with the strange and frightening tale of Bobby Fischer, allow me to indulge you with a brief history lesson from the most cerebral sport of them all.

From the late ‘40s to the early ‘70s, the sport of chess was dominated by the Soviet Union. That was until a young and charismatic American player, Bobby Fischer, rose through the ranks to challenge the World Champion, Boris Spassky, in 1972. Arriving at the apex of The Cold War, it was the archetypal Soviet-American clash of minds. The product of the USSR’s government-supported chess machine versus the iconoclastic individual. “I’ve been asked to teach the Russians some manners,” announced Fischer, with typical decorum.

And he proceeded to do so. Despite losing the first game and not turning up to play the second game at all, after a spectacular strop before game three, ¬demanding that it be played in a small silent room away from spectators, Fischer dominated Spassky, taking the World Championship by 12½ games to 8 ½. Instantly, Fischer was a sports superstar.

But he never had the chance to defend his title. Fischer’s behavior, always eccentric, veered decisively towards the paranoid schizophrenic. He made a long list of demands to the chess governing body in order to play challenger Anatoly Karpov, and after forfeiting the title, continued to insist that all the major games that followed had been fixed. After years of self-imposed exile, he emerged in 1999 claiming that he had been victim of an international Jewish conspiracy adding, after the 9-11 attacks, that what goes around comes around, and he hoped a coup d’état would follow, leading to the closure of all America’s synagogues and the execution of all its Jewish leaders.

His views were abhorrent. But at least he had personality. Which is something the vast majority of today’s sports stars are sorely lacking.

Of course you can’t expect radical political views from everyone. Not many people have the courage of their convictions to speak like Fischer or, on the positive side, Muhammad Ali. But sports personalities are celebrities in the entertainment business. And once in a while, they should behave like celebrities. Say something offensive. Date movie stars. Get kicked out of restaurants. Dammit, just do something weird once in a while. No one’s asking for criminal activity. Just give us something to smile about.

Under today’s media microscope eccentricity is something to be drummed out of athletes. Despite being in the public spotlight as much as any musical performer or Hollywood star, the accepted standards of behavior for the athlete are frighteningly narrow. Athletic performance, and by extension victory, is everything. The personality, opinions and beliefs of the sports figure (except from the approved, ‘I just thank God for the win’) are deemed to hold little appeal.

The myth at the heart of this sandpapering of sports ‘personalities’ is that these are just normal people who’ve worked hard and fulfilled their dreams. But professional sportsmen and women aren’t like you and me at all. They’re bigger (or leaner), faster (or more limber) than us. They can absorb violence, or exude grace, far easier than we can. And they normally have access to better drugs than we do, too.

Media interviews and profiles repeatedly focus on athletes’ normality. They’re hard-working guys with their feet on the ground, we’re promised. They love their parents, their teammates and their country. They’re taking one game at a time. And right after the interview they’re back in our faces during the commercial break selling us shaving equipment, cars and fast food products. We know the products Tiger Woods, David Beckham and the Manning Brothers endorse, but would anyone actually want to hang out with these guys? They’re icons and role models, but what message are they giving to the kids of the world? If in doubt, keep your mouth shut.  Blandness 1, Personality 0.

Tony Ramo with Carrie Underwood

Tony Ramo with Carrie Underwood

There’s logic behind the grayness. Behave like a normal human being and take your hot new girlfriend away for a couple of days and the press will rip you to shreds, as the Dallas Cowboys’ Tony Romo discovered after his team was dumped out of the NFL playoffs this January. At the same time, so much media coverage is officially sanctioned by teams, leagues, and governing bodies, it’s easy to accept that its sole task is to remind us of athletes’ grace and professionalism. It’s all about the job in hand. Winning the game is the only thing in the world that matters to them, and presumably, it’s the only thing we should worry about too. This is the mantra drilled into athletes by coaches, agents and PR gurus hired to ensure we never get a look inside the minds of the people whose athletic lives we follow every weekend.

“You just dismembered the opposition John, how does it feel?”

“It feels great Dave! We’re just working hard and taking it one game at a time. But it feels good. I’d like to thank coach, my mom and Jesus for the win!”

“Thanks John!”

That’s not the kind of interview you’d ever get from Bobby Fischer – as if he’d let a sports journalist near him. You could dismiss Fischer’s eccentricity as a by-product of the strange world of elite-level chess. World Champion Chess contenders are, by definition, geniuses. So you grant them their eccentricities. And although the phrase ‘genius’ is flung about in the media like a Frisbee, it would be naïve to deny that such a thing doesn’t exist in sports. So if there is a fine line between genius and madness, shouldn’t we expect a little dancing across that line?

Eric Cantona kung-fuing fan

Eric Cantona kung-fuing fan

No one wants to see a great athlete descend into mental illness, but there’s something undeniably entertaining about a wild piece of off-field self-expression. I sneakily enjoyed watching Diego Maradona, the greatest soccer player of his generation, firing a gun at reporters camped outside his home. I laughed when George Best, the best soccer player in Europe in the mid-‘60s, sighed, “I spent all my money on cars, booze and women—the rest I just wasted”. I cheered when Manchester United’s Eric Cantona took a two-footed kung fu kick at the fan on the side of the pitch hurling abuse at him. Ricky Williams of the Miami Dolphins decided he preferred getting hammered chemically rather than physically. Good luck to him. John McEnroe offended pretty much everyone he ever met. He’s still the best and most respected broadcaster in tennis.

If sport is the new entertainment, its stars need to astound, amuse and bemuse us. I’m not asking for the full Bobby Fischer, but an occasional bit of craziness would definitely be welcome.

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