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How Does a Player Become Ridiculous?

I’m thinking about the entropy of character—its tendency, in the sports culture, to degrade into caricature. A player starts out as a rotating constellation of fears, desires, ambitions, fantasies, commitments, memories, and doubts. But the moment he attains a level of accomplishment that ought to make us interested in that real combination, we instead start looking for ways to exaggerate and simplify it, until, before long, we’re left with nothing but iconographic shorthand, a Speedo and a can of hair gel in place of a human being.

The tabloids can’t take all the blame for this; in America at the moment the major purveyors of caricature are precisely the “smart” sports blogs whose major purpose is to critique the media culture that the tabloids epitomize. What Deadspin has done to Jay Mariotti is essentially just a funnier version of what the Sun does to every penalty-winning Paraguayan it meets. The difference is that in the case of the blogs caricature generally has a legitimate satirical object, whereas in the tabloids it tends to graze over everything like a discrete literary technique that escaped from its pen and now wants to eat the whole world.

But in sports, at least, it doesn’t start with the media at all. Supporter songs are absolutely rife with caricature, both negative and positive. (You could argue that the player-as-hero equation, which is probably the most fundamental imaginative drive in fandom, is essentially a form of caricature.) The specific bits of cultural information that stack up into mass likes and dislikes generally dissolve character by their sheer non-uniqueness (“he cheated on his wife,” “he bought a house for his mom”). And there are caricatures that become universally recognized (“Fat Frank”) despite not getting much play in the press at all.

What this means, basically, is that I’m worried about Andrei Arshavin. He arrived in England as an open question, then used the opportunity to make a good first impression by delivering an invective against women drivers, allowing it to be revealed that he’s flying in a hairstylist from St. Petersburg for the rest of the season (even though his hair looks like this), talking about his side career designing women’s clothing, and letting his wife complain on his official website about the “dirtiness” of London and the trashiness of London women. Arshavin seems to be bafflingly innocent of the ways in which these sorts of revelations will affect his eventual characterization among fans. And yet the particular register of caricature that’s most likely to hurt a player’s career is the ridiculous. It’s easier to survive being seen as a thug, a criminal, a cheat, or a madman than to survive being Ashley Cole.

And because the decentralized nature of the caricaturizing process makes it hard to control or to reverse once it’s gotten underway, I’m worried that Arshavin is setting in motion forces that will try to destroy him before he’s even played a full match for Arsenal. Thus, in the hope of at least understanding the math he’s playing with, I offer the following thought about how a player opens himself up to the risk of being caricatured as ridiculous.

A player becomes ridiculous when his ego is perceived as exceeding his ability. As long as he’s playing at a very high level, he’s basically untouchable: a general with a chicken on his head who crushes every foe on the battlefield will ultimately make the chicken-hat seem like a fearsome accessory. Manchester United is full of players who are repeatedly mocked for their absurdities (Ronaldo, Rooney, Rio Ferdinand) but who never seem all that absurd because they just win so much. (If Ronaldo seems more ridiculous this year than he did last year, it’s not because his behavior is stranger but because he hasn’t played as well.) By the same token, a player who keeps his head down is safe no matter how he plays: Dirk Kuyt can miss a million sitters and scowl a million ways, but whatever else seems inherently comic about him, his basic demeanor is too shoulder-to-shoulder with striving anonymity for him to seem really ridiculous.

It’s the player who lets his ego—which for mass cultural judgment purposes basically qualifies as anything that draws attention to him or sets him out as different—get ahead of his success on the pitch who really has to worry. There’s a basic hydraulics of resentment at work that can be crudely summarized this way: Anyone who tries to be special will be punished unless his play makes it impossible. This is, again, almost completely a matter of perception. Steven Gerrard may be a boa-loving freak in his free time, but he presents himself as so submerged in Liverpool F.C. that even assaulting a DJ in the company of Colleen Rooney’s brother hasn’t made him noticeably more ridiculous. Frank Lampard may be a humble, upstanding man, but something in his eyes seems to suggest an irresistible combination of arrogance and fear—some awareness of this basic calculation of caricature and an imperfect struggle to conform to it—and so the moment his play suffered at the 2006 World Cup he became instantly and overwhelmingly ridiculous.

This isn’t just a matter of talent; it can be managed to some extent. The career of David Beckham is an astonishingly well-constructed model of how a footballer without transcendent ability can lead a flamboyant celebrity lifestyle with ever being seen as ridiculous. Balance every outlandish gesture (the underwear ads, the hairstyles) with a boring, retiring interview, never say anything arrogant or surprising, deliver for your team at big moments, and marry a wife who has the skill of a professional celebrity rather than the desperate self-assertiveness of an ambitious amateur. Play a solid, selfless game on the pitch and you can wear a pashmina off it. Play a flair game and advocate banning women drivers and unless you have some massive store of natural charm you will have to play very, very well to avoid becoming a joke.

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How Does a Player Become Ridiculous?

by Brian Phillips · February 24, 2009

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