It’s apparently hard for some athletes to fake politeness

Most of today’s professional athletes grew up with ESPN. Teams have become increasingly savvy about the use of social media and have entire public relations departments to help spread good will in the community.

So how is it that the likes of Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco don’t understand how it sounds when they get defensive about their own team’s draft picks?

In a radio interview, Roethlisberger questioned the Pittsburgh Steelers’ decision to draft quarterback Mason Rudolph with a third-round pick:

“Nothing against Mason — I think he’s a great football player. I don’t know him personally, but I’m sure he’s a great kid,” Roethlisberger told 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh on Friday. “I just don’t know how backing up or being a third-[stringer] — well, who knows where he’s going to fall on the depth chart — helps us win now. But, you know, that’s not my decision to make. That’s on the coaches and the GM and the owner and those kind of things. If they think he can help our team, so be it, but I was a little surprised.”

On the other side of the NFL’s biggest rivalry, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco said even more by saying much less, opting not to answer questions after his team nabbed Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in the first round. The Ravens were complicit in his silence.

Professional athletes, like top performers in any field, need a competitive edge that most people don’t have. Beyond that, anyone who has done excellent work for their employer for several years wants to enjoy some measure of job security. But unlike most people, Roethlisberger and Flacco routinely get microphones shoved in their faces for comments on their job.

It isn’t hard to know exactly what to say here. Any of the following will do:

  • “Everyone we draft has the chance to make us a better team.”
  • “I’m looking forward to playing with [GUY THE TEAM JUST DRAFTED TO TAKE MY JOB]. I’m happy to share what I’ve learned during my time in the league, and I bet I could learn something from him, too.”
  • “Hey, I’ll do anything to help the team win. I’ll start, I’ll line up at wideout, I’ll kick, I’ll carry water, I don’t care as long as we win the Super Bowl.”

It’s not hard. Boring? Sure, but the fans love that. Derek Jeter spent two decades feeding boring to the New York press and they practically built a golden idol of him outside Yankee Stadium when he retired. (He’s had some interesting times in Miami, and interesting isn’t going so well for him.) The New York Giants brain trust of coach Ben McAdoo and General Manager Jerry Reese benched Eli Manning last year. While it was obvious Manning wasn’t a fan of the decision, he wisely remained relatively quiet after it was made. Of course, he didn’t have to: Everyone who followed football knew the move was idiotic and said so.

Squeaky wheels don’t always get greased, either. Neither Reese nor McAdoo finished the season with the Giants; Manning is locked in as next season’s starter.

Come to think of it, the only time Manning had real controversy in his career happened on his own draft day, when he very publicly made it known he wasn’t interested in being a San Diego Charger. Notably, though, Manning himself has always refused to give any reason for what prompted his trade demand.

Typically, the less an athlete says (or implies), the better. Maybe that’s boring, but boring is a much better look than the defensive jealousy brewing right now in Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

A politically incorrect moment with Apu

The Simpsons invited controversy last week by responding to criticisms about their Apu character and racial stereotyping. The accusations are both accurate and 30 years late. As The Simpsons has progressed, Apu’s character has, as well; He isn’t the common stereotype he was in his first appearance in February 1990.

My favorite Apu moment is the final question on his citizenship test:

That scene seems like something television couldn’t get away with today – not because of Apu, but because so many are so willing to put the same effort into historical literacy and nuance as the test taker.

Modern media doesn’t have a lot of room for nuance, which is one reason I argue The Simpsons’ producers will have trouble resolving their Apu problem.

The benefit of fanboys and fangirls

Last week I posted something on Medium about how Walt Disney World blows other theme parks away – not by being the best theme park, but by telling the best stories. Toward the end, I made a passing reference to Disney re-invigorating the Star Wars franchise.

Maybe that comes off like a dig at George Lucas (not like he would care). It’s actually pretty common for a good media franchise or a political movement to enjoy success beyond its originator.

This year marks the Star Wars franchise’s 40th anniversary. It’s easy to pretend like that has been four decades of uninterrupted cultural significance. That isn’t the case. Sure, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Star Wars built an empire (ironic) of movies and merchandise. By the late 1980’s, though, the franchise flagged; Star Wars looked to have run its course. Something else would surely dominate the 1990s, the 2000s, the 2010s.

Then came Timothy Zahn’s book, Heir to the Empire – the first of three books which would form the closest thing to a sequel trilogy until, well,  2015 kicked off a sequel trilogy. Zahn invented characters, planets, and concepts that felt at once new and wholly consistent with the original movies.

People forget just how fringe Star Wars was circa 1990. Zahn’s novels set the foundation for a library of books, comics, video games, and other media that made Star Wars a marketable commodity again.

All of this was done with the guidance of creator George Lucas – but, notably, without his direct control. That was before the dark times. Before the prequels.

Years after that unsatisfying, CGI-heavy 1999-2005 prequel trilogy, Lucas again turned over the keys – this time to Disney. And it all happened again. The Force Awakens and Rogue One were box office hits. The Last Jedi will be released this coming December, but not before fans examine each trailer release the way Moon landing conspiracy theorists watch video of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bouncing around in that southern California sound stage.

The Star Wars franchise is invigorated again and, just as in the 1990s, someone else is leading the charge.

It isn’t surprising that Star Wars fans connect better with the works of fellow fans.  Translating this to another industry: What images spring to mind when you think of Barack Obama’s historic 2008 campaign? Maybe Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” graphic or the “Yes We Can” video. Neither was produced by the campaign itself, though the campaign was happy (and smart) to reap the benefits of their influence.

Why does this happen?  Here’s a theory: Fans have enough detachment to see what makes their obsession interesting. George Lucas might have built an excellent story explaining Darth Vader’s motivations for his descent into evil; he forgot how much the likable characters, practical special effects, and witty dialogue had to do with drawing viewers in. Obama’s 2008 campaign was known for it’s “hope and change” rhetoric. The campaign spoke about “change,” but it was the supporters who started talking about “hope.”

 

 

Hawk Harrelson: The Donald Trump of Sportscasting (in a good way)

On LinkedIn, I just put up a post about retiring White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson, and what those in political communications can learn from him.

When I was 17, my birthday gift was the Major League Baseball package on Extra Innings. This was before the late-1990s Yankees dynasty and the run of World Series contenders that stretched into the early 2010s. It was also before YouTube, and I had never lived in an area where the local cable company carried WGN out of Chicago.

So when the Yankees played the White Sox that year and I first heard Harrelson calling a game, I wanted to throw things at the TV.

He was unprofessional. He openly rooted for the White Sox. He pathetically used terms like “us” and “we” as if he were part of the team and not just their announcer. It was like they let a fan into the booth.

More than two decades later, I appreciate Harrelson a little more. He’s part of a generation of sportscasters who got into the game exactly as the fans do. After all, it’s only a game; maybe a fan in the booth isn’t such a bad thing. (And yes, maybe it helped that shortly after my introduction to Harrelson, the powerhouse White Sox of the early 1990s became less dangerous while the Yankees’ run of excellence started.)

He wasn’t that much different than the likes of Phil Rizzuto, Harry Caray, and the Seattle Mariners’ Dave Niehaus, all of whom managed to echo the passion of the fans without taking the game (or themselves) too seriously.

Today, the sports media industry seems to reward bland, interchangeable announcers, When he hangs it up after 2018, Hawk Harrelson will be missed.

Dumb politics

Last week the Boston Globe quoted me in their story about young conservative activists (despite the fact that it has been more than a decade since I organized campuses for the Leadership Institute). Reporter Dugan Arnett picked just about the perfect quote to sum up our discussion:

“There are always people who are going to say, ‘This is my ticket; I’m going to make sure my campus burns down, I’m going to be on Fox News a bunch, and that’s going to be my path to the spotlight,’ ” says Jim Eltringham, formerly of the Leadership Institute and currently a Republican campaign consultant. “The problem is: That’s a spotlight that burns out quick.”

Our discussion centered on how some campus activists welcomed controversy for controversy’s sake, provoking outrage on purpose to gain attention with little substance behind the actions. It seems like a lesson some in Washington need to learn, too: In a piece on Medium, I argue that there’s a direct link between this type of superficiality and last week’s Republican failure on health care .

Embracing chaos

Matt Lewis likened President Donald Trump’s White House to the “Bronx Zoo” New York Yankees of the 1970s and 1980s, and there is a fair amount of merit in the comparison. By now, the hand-wringers so worried about the chaotic Trump Administration should understand: This is a feature, not a bug.

As President Trump prepares to  launch his policy agenda in a congressional address, don’t expect the chaos to dissipate. But, as I wrote in a post on LinkedIn, that represents a big opportunity for anyone laying groundwork for the 2018 elections – or, for that matter, future policy battles that come up before .

Obama doesn’t have to go to Nancy Reagan’s funeral, but I wish he would

Vice Presidents are supposed to be U.S. Government’s designated funeral attendee. There’s no reason President Obama should feel obligated spend his time there. The demands that he drop everything to pay respects to Nancy Reagan, and before that Justice Antonin Scalia, are shrill and senseless. They delegitimize the numerous valid criticisms of the President.

With all that said, don’t you wish he had gone?

After winning the 2008 campaign with soaring rhetoric of ushering in a new era of cooperation in Washington, Obama promptly reminded Congressional Republicans, “I won” when they expressed concern over his policies. His reelection was far from a rousing national endorsement; his campaign’s groundbreaking GOTV efforts squeezed every ounce of support from an electorate with mixed feelings.

This is the current President, but it could just as easily have been our former President. The left despised George W. Bush just as the right despises Obama, and W similarly squeaked through a close reelection relying on base voters. The man who claimed he was “a uniter, not a divider” saw a more fractured Washington in his rear view mirror when he left office than the one he had found eight years prior.

It adds up to 16 years of acidic national politics, and the choices for 2016 don’t appear likely to end the cycle.

With his days in the White House slipping into history, a warm gesture by the President to the other side would offer some glimpse of the idealistic young Senator we got to know in 2008 – and, perhaps, bandage some of the wounds. Scalia was beloved by thinking conservatives; Reagan was the First Lady to the man who, as more time passes, may prove to be the last pinnacle of post-World War II Republican Party success. Showing up at these funerals would have symbolized more than condolences; it would clearly tell the other side, “Hey, nothing personal and no hard feelings.” President Obama probably didn’t understand the significance of these two figures to his opponents across the aisle; otherwise he might have rethought his schedule.

(From a calculating, partisan perspective, it would also give the digital cheerleaders and opinion leaders within his base some motivation. “Look how magnanimous our Dear Leader is,” they could crow on Twitter.)

With eight years of sins on his record and almost two decades of political acrimony as a backdrop, surely these overtures would be rejected by some and ignored by still more. That doesn’t make them any less right. Eight years later, it would be nice for the President to go the extra mile and stand up for real change – especially because he doesn’t have to.