A kinda recent post on kottke.org sparked an interesting discussion on the webernets. Kottke cited director Mike Leigh’s description of the processes employed by actors he’s worked with. In Leigh’s opinion, the most successful actors are those who think deeply about and make studied, considered decisions regarding a character, but still make it seem like they’ve done none of these things. In the performance, the actor is able to make the character seem not studied or considered but totally spontaneous and organic and alive.
Kottke wondered something similar happens in the sports world. A professional basketball player in the Netherlands responded that he did in fact adopt an on-court persona, one that, like his jumpshot, he had cultivated through years of practice and could now slip into and out of effortlessly.
These personae* seem central to high-level athletic success in a couple of ways. First, it invests the games with greater significance. In the heart of every competitor is the nagging doubt that, in the end, it just doesn’t matter what the outcome is. This sort of nihilism is 100% fatal to professional sports, and the few times a player has expressed it, he is quickly pilloried by his teammates, the media, and fans. Developing and committing to a persona creates a sort of ironic duality**, allowing players to erect a psychic barrier that keeps them from having to examine these doubts too closely.
Second, they create a kind of perceptual feedback loop. Check out Jacksonville Jaguar defensive tackle John Henderson’s pregame ritual, or as the Youtube poster calls it, “getting crunk in his system”:
It’s important to Henderson that he be fearless and invulnerable and dangerously unhinged…and so he does things that make him appear fearless and invulnerable and dangerously unhinged…and pretty soon he is thought to be fearless and invulnerable and dangerously unhinged…and this strengthens his commitment to being fearless and invulnerable and dangerously unhinged, and so on and so on, etc, with the hoped-for result being that Henderson’s actual self and his desired persona become indistinguishably merged.
Third, they extend the narrative beyond the field. A lot of the above statements could just as easily be said of LARPers–they sustain what would be an otherwise absurdly pointless fantasy world through some pretty heroic commitment to their appointed roles. But LARPing doesn’t attract a devoted fanbase separate from the participants themselves, a fanbase that pores over box scores and buys clubhouse tell-alls and whiles away workhours on blogs. Partly it’s because LARPers are geeks, sure, but maybe it’s also because LARPing is explicitly a form of escapism, an alternate reality, something that only takes place at a set aside time and place. When the Battle for Darkon ends, you’re not in the Bloody Axe Mercenary Company anymore, you’re a periodontist.***
When the game ends, an athlete’s persona persists. The drama of sports doesn’t only happen during the game, and off-field stories are as central to our fascination as the action itself. Check out this NFL Films feature on Philadelphia Eagles safety Brian Dawkins (and be forewarned if you watch this: it is 10 minutes long, it is awesome, and you will probably cry):
There are so many things to comment on in that video. Speaking in tongues? Conversing with the football?! Like Michael Jackson before he went crazy?!? The focus is on Dawkins’ gameday transformation into his alter-ego, the animalistic Weapon-X. But in setting up this dichotomy, the video also points out Dawkins’ other persona, the thing from which he transforms. His mild-mannered, clean-living “true” self is, in every way, as important to the story of his transformation as the thing which he becomes. Without it, he’s just John Henderson–with it, he’s something else entirely. As the long-time reader who sent me that link ably put it,
I think it’s true that he’s able to be as good as he is by creating a superhero for himself to inhabit completely unselfconsciously. But what I respect most about him and the whole act is that he has a meta understanding of his role in the larger narrative of sports and the lives of fans – something that seems to elude 99% of athletes who are not professional wrestlers. That it does fans a disservice for our characters to be bland cliche-machines – and that even villains like T.O., whether he takes the role intentionally or not, are completely necessary to enhance our enjoyment of the game.
I agree totally, though I’d guess that Brian Dawkins doesn’t view what he does as an act, which makes it all the more awesome and also brings us to my final point. It strikes me that one way to measure an athlete’s greatness is to measure the commitment to his or her persona. Like, for instance, Andy Kaufman was so utterly devoted to maintaining his persona of never revealing what was real and what was a joke that to this day, going on 25 years after the fact, some of his friends think he faked his own death, and he’s just hiding out somewhere, waiting to make his hilarious return. Similarly, Jon Stewart often claims he’s only a comedian and shouldn’t be expected to hold public figures to account; Stephen Colbert would never admit this, because the character “Stephen Colbert” fully believes that he is a legitimate political pundit.
Which athletes show this level of commitment? Michael Jordan was not only the best basketball player ever, he was also also was totally convinced he was the best basketball player–absolutely nothing could ever lessen his commitment to that view of himself. You could probably say the same about Sam Cassell, despite the pretty incontrovertible fact that he is not the best basketball player. Chances are Kobe Bryant believes he truly is a cold-blooded assassin, while it might take a pre-game pep talk in front of a locker room mirror for Vince Carter to convince himself of that. Maybe this is the difference between the merely gifted and the truly great.
*I debated just going with “personas” here, but the more pretentious version suits my own persona better.
**I’m talking like romantic, Germanic Irony here, a la Schlegel, who wrote, “(Irony)contains and arouses a sense of the indissoluble antagonism between the absolute and the relative, between the impossibility and the necessity of complete communication.” Ironically, Schlegel was kinda chubby.
***There are those who would argue these are one and the same thing. Rimshot!