Saturday, February 28, 2009

On Plaxico

Here is something I wrote a few months ago, in the wake of the Plaxico Burress mess. It got killed, and rightly so, by my editors, because they had already published approximately 37 other Plaxico columns that week. But I think the general idea still applies, and I still think Plaxico could become a metaphorical symbol for the age when American "overkill" died, both within and outside of sports. I guess this is the way I think about a lot of things--within the moment, I'm constantly wondering how we're going to look at a certain situation in, say, 20 years. I am so nostalgic that I cannot help but project nostalgia upon myself.

Can we talk about the Applebee’s alibi for a moment? I don’t know about you, but when I heard that Plaxico Burress had allegedly attempted to disguise his potential crime by claiming he’d been hanging out at the epitomal casual-dining chain of middle America, well, the irony nearly made my head explode.

Now, you may be tempted to dismiss this whole unfortunate tale of Burress and his lack of marksmanship as merely another example of an athlete wounded (literally, in this case) by his own hubris. You may ask yourself, What does this have to do with my life, and you may be right in answering this question by saying, “Unless I have a Glock tucked into the waistband of my Hollister sweatpants as I dig into a plate of Riblets at this very moment, absolutely nothing.” And yet I cannot help but think there is something strangely important about this whole thing, about the dizzying series of leaks and pseudonyms and over-the-top tabloid headlines and perp walks that will ensue for at least the next few weeks. I cannot help but think that, fairly or unfairly, Plaxico Burress has now become the unwitting metaphorical embodiment of all that is wrong with the modern professional athlete.

I will leave the moral hand-wringing to others. But even if you somehow believe that Burress is merely an innocent victim here—even if there is evidence yet to be revealed that may somehow rationalize his decision-making—this is still a public blunder worthy of Marie Antoinette. It’s all about timing, see, and Burress’s timing could not have been worse; in the midst of a collapsing economy and pre-holiday layoffs and billion-dollar bailouts, a star wide receiver who accidentally shoots himself in the leg with an unregistered firearm at a New York City nightclub becomes an outstanding scapegoat. Especially when you hear the details: That after allegedly cruising for a hospital where he could leverage his celebrity for silence, he tries to cover it up by apparently claiming that stars are just like us!--that he was merely eatin’ good in the neighborhood when he fumbled his piece, as so many of us have done while scraping the excess cheese off our house sirloin.

I mean, who can’t relate to that?

Of course, I recognize that we are long past the point of expecting to relate to most star athletes on any level at all. That concept died at least two decades ago, when television contracts and overall revenue ballooned to the point that sports became essentially recession-proof. Now, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, we have become accustomed to rooting for laundry, accustomed to lamenting ridiculous salaries, accustomed to reflexively criticizing greed whenever a free agent skips town—but we don’t expect anything to change. It is more of a vestigial instinct. These days, there is no reason for someone like Plaxico Burress to comprehend what is happening in the rest of the country, because he does not live in that country; he can spend his entire life in a gated community with a golf course, both literally and metaphorically. He exists in a bubble, and unless we choose to stop watching National Football League games altogether this weekend (and, um, you can go first), that bubble is in no danger of bursting.

Such is America. There will always be CEOs making too much money, and there will always be greed, and there will always be Paris Hilton. But here is where Plaxico’s true problem arises: Like Michael Vick before him, he seems to have accomplished something so ill-advised that he can no longer shield himself from real-life consequences. Except that unlike Michael Vick before him, Plaxico Burress A.) Accomplished this feat in New York, where at least two newspapers and several hundred television and radio talk shows and approximately 13 million bloggers live for this sort of stuff, and B.) Burress did not manage to physically injure any living things beyond himself, which makes his offense even more ripe for ridicule.

Such are the consequences for Plaxico, now that blogs like Deadspin have officially melded sports and gossip: As that bubble shielding athletes from both the public and the media has grown ever larger, fantastic stories like Plaxico’s take on a greater weight. They become both symbolic and fascinating. They appeal to people who could not care less about sports—to people who read, say, US Weekly--because they are really stories about class conflict. Every twist drives the media economy; the whole thing becomes like a shared inside joke (I believe it took approximately 38 seconds before fans began trying to order Giants jerseys with Burress’s supposed hospital alias, Harris Smith, on the back). In the midst of perhaps the most miserable economic slump of our lifetime, Plaxico Burress has become a classic example of how money and talent and a Super Bowl ring cannot buy common sense--of how stars are, in fact, nothing like us at all. And that is something he will never be able to overcome.

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