Monday, July 23, 2007

Idle threat of the week

Saturday David Beckham made his US soccer debut for the LA Galaxy in a match against Chelsea -- one of his old Premier League rivals from his reputation making days with Manchester United.

Beckham and his gimpy ankle only logged 13 minutes in the exhibition, but made a much longer appearance the next day at a welcome to Los Angeles party thrown by Tom Cruise and Will Smith.

This discrepancy highlights that, these days, Beckham is far, far more of a celebrity than he is an athlete.

One only has to take a quick spin around the British tabloids to realize there is a different kind of relationship between celebrity and athletics over there than there is on our side of the Atlantic.

The English seem to find the personal lives and peccadilloes of their biggest soccer stars just as fascinating as they do their most famous actors and musicians. In fact, the English cover the WAGs (wives and girlfriends) of top players with the same vigor we focus on our relatively self-made tabloid princesses.

On the other hand, in America, there is a fire wall of sorts between celebrity celebrity and athletic celebrity. Sure athletes are celebrities -- some of the biggest celebrities we have. But American media consumers have never shown anything like a mass interest in the personal lives and drunken antics of our ball players and their wives or girlfriends.

Partly this is because America is a vast country with teams located in all corners -- decentralized further by three and half major sports leagues plus the individual sports. The American athletic landscape is also, generally, a statistical meritocracy. Whereas as our dominant and enormous film and television industry sits in our two largest and most glamorous cities, and relentlessly promotes the style-over-substance personal qualities of its intertwined stars in a way that grabs the voyeurism of the average American.

Another part of this has to do with demographics: To make a sweeping generalization -- with many notable exceptions -- athletes tend to be black and/or from poorer than average economic backgrounds, while other celebrities tend to be white and/or from wealthier than average economic backgrounds. Making the coupling of athletes and celebrities (ala Becks and Posh) not exactly the most fluid of fits.

Once I got past the quarterback position, a certain Yankee shortstop, and the demographically outlying sports of auto racing, hockey, rodeo and tennis, I could only come up with Tony Parker (a Frenchmen) and Eva Longoria as an example of a recent athlete/celebrity couple. (Oh, and Alyssa Milano and a bunch of baseball players.)

It would appear the main reason the MLS threw so much money at Beckham is the hope it can promote their sport through the type of general celebrity Beckham brings.

This wouldn't be the first time the city of Los Angeles welcomed a fair-haired English-speaking foreign superstar with a famous wife and a Rolodex full of A-list names. But just like Wayne Gretzky's much ballyhooed and movie starred entry into LA didn't bring hockey to the next level, Beckham's won't bring Major League Soccer much past the first. And the attempt at a full on breach of America's separation between celebrity and athlete is the Idle Threat of The Week for July 16-22.

BTW, this is also why the award show styled ESPYs on ESPN is always such an awkward watch.


Anonymous said...

In this country, we tend to categorize all of our male professional athletes into one of three buckets:
1) sociopath
2) elder statesman
3) gay

JT said...

The whole way America separates athletic stars from other stars becomes more and more fascinating and prevalent the more I think about it.

Could you even imagine Angelina Jolie dumping Brad Pitt and suddenly linking up with Tim Duncan or Jason Giambi (or Michael Jordan?)

But it would be perfectly natural if Becks and Posh broke up that she would be linked to Jude Law and he Charlotte Church. And the same with Steven Gerrard or Wayne Rooney and whoever their brand new ex's are.