“It’s no secret that I love pigeons.” —Mike Tyson
1. Every era of sports history has its own ways of caricaturing famous athletes. Caricatures of famous athletes generally have some relation to the actual personalities of said athletes (Michael Jordan really is an asshole), but they’re equally influenced by the needs of the eras that create them. This is no different from saying that sports is a mirror of culture.
2. For example, try this thought experiment: How would David Beckham, Muhammad Ali, Walt Frazier, Babe Ruth, or Joe Namath have been perceived if they’d played 30 years earlier or later? In the World War II era, Joe DiMaggio’s easy grace made him the icon of a kind of lyric patriotism. If he’d played in the ’80s, it’s easy to imagine how that same quality could have been translated into a very different category of cool.
3. The defining sports caricature of the moment is probably the “crazy” athlete — the athlete who’s so wild, unpredictable, unfiltered, and potentially destructive that he seems to be literally insane. This isn’t the only sports caricature of our era — and there are some caricatures, e.g., the Inspirational Pocket Passer, that seem to be essentially timeless — but it’s the one that’s most distinctively ours.
4. Examples of the “crazy” athlete include Ron Artest/Metta World Peace, Mario Balotelli, Dennis Rodman, Mike Tyson, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Milton Bradley, Randy Moss. Emmanuel Frimpong, the 20-year-old Arsenal midfielder, has excellent potential as a “crazy” athlete, but was recently set back by the revelation that his “Dench” clothing label was inspired by a slang term pioneered by the Ghanaian-British rapper Lethal Bizzle, and not by Academy Award-winning actress Dame Judi Dench.
5. For an athlete to qualify as “crazy,” it has to be plausible that he would attack someone for no reason. But violence by itself doesn’t make an athlete “crazy.” Ndamukong Suh isn’t “crazy.” Joey Barton wasn’t “crazy” back when all he did was beat people senseless in the taxi queues outside nightclubs. But he has since become “crazy” on the basis of his mournful spirit-quest posturing, his constantly quoting Nietzsche, and his Twitter advocacy of a fat tax.
6. Other athletes who aren’t “crazy”: Ricky Williams (too bashful, too dreamy), Andrey Arshavin (not dangerous enough), 95 percent of jabbery wide receivers who are ultimately just looking for attention.
7. Obviously, current media conditions give athletes more opportunities to influence fans than ever before, creating an incentive for athletes who might otherwise be overlooked to establish their own brands by whatever means possible. Chasing that incentive doesn’t automatically make you not “crazy.” But you can’t be “crazy” if you’re just cannily exploiting a business opportunity. “Crazy” is not a tactic. To be “crazy” while trying to build a self-consciously “crazy” brand, you have to pursue your brand-building in a way that is itself “crazier” than you realize, so that the “crazy” of the brand you’re trying to build is actually only a subset of the larger “crazy” that you represent. Dennis Rodman is the gold standard here. Chad Ochocinco is little more than a commentary on the cultural relevance of other “crazy” athletes.
8. Clearly, there’s a lot of complex racial and cultural cross-wiring that goes into the perception of what constitutes “crazy,” which is one reason an international sport like soccer, which is full of 20-year-old Ghanaians landing in European cities where they can interact/found clothing labels with the local expatriate hip-hop scene, produces “crazy” at a higher rate than a relatively localized sport like American football. This is a delicate area. A lot of “crazy” is inevitably going to include some element of misunderstood ethnic coding, but real “crazy” has to be seen to come from a deeper, more individual place. Allen Iverson was never “crazy.” Making white people nervous doesn’t mean that you aren’t sane.
9. The “crazy” athlete is the athlete who does or says whatever comes into his mind, for whatever reason, without regard for either consequences or social norms, whether that means dressing up as Santa Claus and driving around an English city handing out money (Balotelli), wearing a wedding dress (Rodman), or biting someone’s ear off (Tyson). His actions are the diary of his id. He’s so utterly absorbed in his own weirdness that if he shocks you, it’s a coincidence.
10. The assumption here is that faced with any given situation, the “crazy” athlete contains all possible human responses; the one that comes out is selected by a roll of the dice.
“Pigeons are man’s first feathered friend.” —Mike Tyson
11. Here are six things I learned in around three minutes on the Internet:
i. During World War II, “Project Pigeon” was American behaviorist B.F. Skinner’s attempt to develop a pigeon-guided missile.
ii. Also during World War II, an American dental surgeon named Lytle S. Adams formulated a plan to strap time bombs to the legs of bats and drop them over Japanese cities from 5,000 feet in the air. Franklin Roosevelt approved the plan and the military spent $2 million developing a “bat bomb,” including staging a full test in a mocked-up Japanese village somewhere in Utah.
iii. The Soviet Union trained dolphins to attack invading frogmen using harpoons strapped to their backs. The dolphins could also go kamikaze and carry explosives against enemy submarines.
iv. In 12th-century China, armies dressed monkeys in oil-soaked straw jackets, set them on fire, and released them in enemy camps.
v. During the siege of Megara in the third century B.C., flaming pigs were unleashed to frighten enemy war elephants.
vi. An American homing pigeon named Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre for heroic service in World War I. He delivered messages for the Allies during the Battle of Verdun. After dying of wounds sustained in battle, he was mounted by a taxidermist, and is now on display at the Smithsonian next to a dog who was promoted to sergeant in the 102nd Infantry.
12. The Internet has given us access to every weird thing in the world while simultaneously taking away the last vestiges of the “exotic.” You can see pictures of a manatee smoking a cigarette, but you can’t say “far Timbuktu” when you have a Flickr photoset about Timbuktu saved on Pinterest.
13. Most of us will, of course, still never get close to the real Timbuktu in our lives.
14. One consequence of this is the tone of burned-out overstimulation that, for no particular reason, I’ve taken to calling “whaff.” Whaff, in its simplest form, is semi-sarcastic exaggerated praise for the bizarre, the cute, or the stupid. If you’re on Twitter, chances are you’ve encountered whaff within the last 10 seconds. “OMG THIS IS THE GREATEST THING EVAR,” followed by a link to an animated GIF of a baby owl falling into a hot tub, is the elemental template of whaff.
15. Whaff is never, however, entirely sarcastic. The attitude it projects is somehow both despairing and celebratory, without really occupying any of the middle ground between those two extremes. Whaff is nihilistic (because the world is so arbitrary and nonsensical) but also full of wonder (because the world is so huge and surprising and strange). At the same time, whaff is always both self-mocking (since you’re admitting that you actually like reading fanfic about Stan Van Gundy’s sweater collection) and self-congratulatory (since you’re smart and interesting enough to have undertaken the online odyssey that led you through the emotional arctic of the various fuckyeah Tumblrs to Stan Van Gundy fanfic in the first place).
16. Whaff is the tone of explorers who have been given more maps than they could ever use and who never have to leave their own rooms.
17. Whaffy link dissemination obviously thrives on social networks and other decentralized platforms. But the fact that people like reading really weird shit online has also caused a noticeable migration of whaff into corporate media. Think of the way the “James Cameron is going to descend in a submersible to the bottom of the sea” story was reported last week. Or think of the News of the Weird-type stuff that dominates CNN.com, all of which is pretty much unreconstructed whaffbait, one important lesson of the Internet being that, shockingly, people are more likely to click on the words “red-hot sexpocalypse” than on the words “relevant information.”
“You’re going to see some dirty guys with pigeon shit on them, working the real deal.” —Mike Tyson
18. One important point about the caricature of the “crazy” athlete is that the “crazy” athlete is never seen entirely as a villain. Invariably, a lot of people hate the “crazy” athlete, in the same way that a lot of people hate New York City or Facebook. But the “crazy” athlete also has fans, and many quasi-fans who cheer on the “crazy” athlete’s antics in a way that is neither exactly glorifying nor exactly mocking. In a way, the moment that cemented Ron Artest’s legacy as a “crazy” athlete — the Palace brawl — was also the moment when he was least “crazy,” because the perceived seriousness of the incident made it too hard to mock/glorify his role in it. That wasn’t a problem when, say, Craig Bellamy attacked a teammate with a golf club, or when Mario Balotelli was stopped by police for robbing his own house.
19. It goes without saying that the soft-focus cults of “crazy” athletes are generally strongest online, and generally operate in a very whafflike register. It’s probably not a coincidence that, historically speaking, the “crazy” athlete emerged as a viable caricature in America during the mid-to-late ’90s, the heyday of Rodman and post-prison Mike Tyson — roughly the same moment the Internet became a ubiquitous feature of American culture.
20. The pre-Internet version of the “crazy” athlete: Deion Sanders.
21. Another important point about the caricature of the “crazy” athlete is that it’s just that, a caricature, and never exactly reflects the real personality of the athlete. Athletes marked as “crazy” often complain that the stories told about them are false, or that everything they do is misinterpreted and exaggerated because of their reputations. This is also no different from saying that sports is a mirror of culture.
22. “Crazy” athletes who try to challenge the way they’re depicted tend to be unsuccessful at convincing the world that they’re sane, either because they’re genuinely bad at it or because the world isn’t open to persuasion. Example: Mario Balotelli gave an interview to the BBC last week in which he denied most of the weirdest reports about him. However, he (reportedly!) only agreed to give the interview because it was conducted by Noel Gallagher, the former lead singer of Oasis.
23. A couple of weeks ago, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the “crazy” Swedish striker who plays for Milan, released his autobiography, I Am Zlatan, as an iPad app. I Am Zlatan is an unusual cash-in sports bio in that it’s (a) terrific, and (b) fairly unrelenting in its portrayal of Ibrahimovic as a self-deluding asshole,1 which is to say as a plausible human being. You can read I Am Zlatan in all sorts of fascinating ways: as a case study in the ways extreme poverty and extreme wealth both distort a person’s worldview; as an illustration of the isolating effects of fame, even among teammates; as a sustained attack on middle-class hypocrisy; or just as the gripping story of a kid from the wrong side of the tracks (of Sweden!) who rises to the point where he can have obnoxious opinions about cars.
Random sample: “A lot of guys in the team had crashed their cars in the storm, but nobody did it quite as massively as I did. I won the crashing-your-car tournament.” And yes, he’s kidding around here, but then that’s kind of the point.
24. However, I Am Zlatan also came with a lot of “crazy” trappings. There were multimedia breakdowns of the author’s back tattoos.2 There were wacky intertitles — the first chapter was printed under the enormous heading “When I get angry the red mist descends.” (Again, that was Chapter 1.) The book/app’s website was festooned with unbelievably high-stakes blurbs from important-sounding, but suspiciously Scandinavian, reviewers.3 The book/app was translated into this ultra-shitty ersatz British supermarket lad-lit vernacular, all “blokes” and “mental” and “rubbish.” There was so much weirdness around the book/app that it was easy (for me, anyway) not to notice how interesting it was. It felt like the accidental fulfillment of every stereotype of Ibrahimovic’s loopy egomania — a sort of unintended sequel to Cirkus Zlatan, the documentary in which he rode around answering questions about his parents from the back of a gold stretch Hummer. The Internet freaked out about it for half a day, whaff was bandied about with a fury, and then everybody moved on to the next thing.
His five Buddha faces “stand for the five elements, water, earth, fire, and so on.”
“A future classic which will change Sweden” (Lasse Anrell, Aftonbladet); “Epic proportions, like a film by Spike Lee; a merciless reckoning with the middle class” (Lars Trier Mogensen, Politiken, Denmark); “This is dynamite!” (Simon Bank, Aftonbladet).
25. In other words, rather than seeing the coherent human being — smug, angry, and entitled though he was — that Ibrahimovic and his ghostwriter had constructed for us, we fell back on the idea of Ibrahimovic we’d already constructed for ourselves. He wasn’t a person so much as a random scramble of comic data, one that was purpose-built for the way we kind of saw the whole world.
26. In other other words, it made sense that the title of the book was I Am Zlatan. Because so am I.
“I’m just a dark guy from a den of iniquity.” —Mike Tyson
27. Here are two things I learned in about four minutes on the Internet:
i. Reuters, the international news agency, was founded in the mid-19th century when Paul Julius Reuter realized he could use pigeons to bridge a 76-mile gap in the telegraph network between Brussels and Berlin.
ii. The world record for the largest jigsaw puzzle ever completed is 551,232 pieces. When assembled over 17 hours by 1,600 students in a sports stadium in Ho Chi Minh City, it depicted a lotus flower with six petals, each representing a branch of human knowledge.
28. Generic Conclusion No. 1 (Mainstream): Technology, which is continually bringing us closer to athletes, is also making it harder to see them as real people. We know what Dwyane Wade ate for breakfast, but there’s too much fragmentation, maybe too much information in general, to resolve everything we know into a meaningful picture of a human being. We should resist this. We should try harder to have sympathy for other people. Whaff is the Internet equivalent of lighting bats on fire.
29. Generic Conclusion No. 2 (Contrarian): We’ve never seen athletes as real people. The whole apparatus of sports has always worked to prevent that from happening. In the 1920s we saw them as larger-than-life heroes, villains, and clowns, and we do so now. The only thing that’s changed is how we define those words. Whaff serves a social purpose! Sports is supposed to be a mirror of culture, and culture is @Horse_ebooks.
30. But you know what? The pieces don’t go together that easily. This isn’t a case where you can say, “Everything is disintegrating, but look, a pearl of wisdom.” That’s not what happens when everything disintegrates.
31. It may be that the most you can hope for in the case of the “crazy” athlete is they’re getting a laugh out of it and you’re getting a laugh out of it — that it isn’t a one-sided pantomime. There are probably cases where it’s terribly destructive, but there are also, hopefully, cases where everyone does what they’re not supposed to do in a satisfying, even creative, way. Even if that just means parking a Ferrari on someone’s front steps and then making jokes about it. Birds flying over battlefields probably like being in the air, whether or not they know they’re carrying messages, or whether or not they realize there’s a war.