We talked in class this morning about disgraced NFL star Michael Vick’s speaking engagement at a Philadelphia high school, at which he warned students against falling victim to peer pressure. When you’ve been jailed for illegal dogfighting, the path to redemption is uphill – but it has to begin somewhere, and it would appear that Vick is working on it.
As Vick’s imprisonment illustrates, pro athletes don’t necessarily get free passes for bad behaviour. They have to pay the legal price, and they have to do penance with their fans, too. The length of the penance depends on the sport’s audience and the athlete’s reputation before the incident; a “bad boy” playing in a rough sport like football might get more slack than, say, a top performer in the gentlemanly sport of tennis.
A tale of two Johnnies
Tennis’ best-known “bad boy,” John McEnroe, knows what it’s like to be vilified and admired at the same time. A fixture of the pro tennis circuit of the 1970s and 1980s, McEnroe thrilled fans with his brilliant play and his unpredictable antics, and embarrassed line judges, chair umpires, and tournament directors along the way. He served as a polarizing figure in tennis – and whether fans found his tirades entertaining or shameful, he generated a lot of interest in what had previously been considered a rather staid sport.
There are many McEnroe tantrum videos available on YouTube; I’m posting this one for old times’ sake, because it contains that iconic line which, incidentally, he used as the title of his 2002 autobiography.
Over the years, McEnroe says, parenthood has mellowed him; and he has re-habilitated his image to a great degree. He has been actively involved with charity work for a number of organizations, and – perhaps most importantly from a public perception point of view – he has made it clear that he recognizes his on-court tirades were inappropriate. He has made ads (like the one below), endorsements (for example, the "Visine Mac Cam" which was used at pro tournaments to second-guess line calls), and at least one feature film appearance (in Adam Sandler's Mr. Deeds) playing on his “bad boy” behaviour, all of which serve to gently ridicule it. The resulting perception: John McEnroe can laugh at himself; he must be a good guy.
Yesterday’s villain, today’s hero?
Serbia’s Novak Djokovic, the fourth-highest ranked tennis player in the world today, is known for his uncanny imitations of his fellow pro tour players. The players have been polite about Djokovic’s imitations, which delight audiences – it's all in good fun, right? But when Djokovic had some trouble taking some ribbing from Andy Roddick about his multiple calls for trainers during last year’s U.S. Open in New York, his “fun guy” image took a bit of a beating.
Djokovic became the guy who can dish it out but can't take it, and has worn the mantle of “bad sport” ever since.
Fast forward to this week, and the early rounds of the 2009 U.S. Open. During his on-court interview after a win, Djokovic kissed up to the crowd, and then challenged John McEnroe, now a well-respected commentator for ESPN, to come down to Centre Court and hit with him. The crowd went wild, and as McEnroe made his way down from the broadcast booth, interviewer Darren Cahill asked Djokovic to do his best McEnroe imitation – which he did, to the crowd’s delight.
Earlier in the evening, the announcers had discussed the need for Djokovic to shake off that "poor sport" rap. Given that chatter, the unusual length of the post-match on-court interview, the ready involvement of McEnroe (who has a special empathy for young guys whose mouths get them in trouble), and the unexpected opportunity for the crowd to see Djokovic laugh at McEnroe’s imitation of him, I had to wonder whether the whole thing had been set up in advance... and whether McEnroe was behind it.
If not, that was some truly great unplanned PR.