There's a concept in defamation law known as the "vortex public figure." Basically, this is when a private citizen voluntarily injects him or herself into an issue of public importance. When this happens this person is considered a public figure in regards to this issue - which means they must prove a higher standard if they wish to bring a libel lawsuit (they have to show actual malice, which means the media had knowledge of falsity or acted with reckless disregard for the truth. This is a very high standard, one private citizens don't have to reach). I thought of this when reading some of the reaction pieces to the Rashard Mendenhall-Bin Laden Twitter controversy. Jason Whitlock, as well as Ty Duffy and Jason McIntyre at The Big Lead both criticized the traditional media for criticizing the Steelers' running back. Duffy writes: "Rashard Mendenhall’s job is to carry a ball forward. He’s not trained to handle weighty topics. He and other athletes will make ignorant and possibly ill-informed comments." Whitlock writes that a 23-year-old is an easy target for comments made in a medium that doesn't lend itself to deep thought. "LOOK WHAT A FOOTBALL PLAYER SAID ABOUT FOREIGN POLICY!"
Now, I think Mendenhall deserves to be criticized. I don't think he needs to be punished, or suspended, or kicked out of the league, or tarred and feathered or whatever. He said some dumb things on Twitter. He apologized (very eloquently). It's done. It's a story, but it's a small story.
But I'm having trouble reconciling the attitudes of Whitlock and the guys at The Big Lead. Two reasons:
1. The whole vortex public figure thing. In this case, Mendenhall voluntarily put his opinion out there to be read by the public. This wasn't a case of a reporter calling him up and saying "hey, what do you think of the US killing Bin Laden." (That would be problematic) Mendenhall, of his own free will, put his opinion into the marketplace of ideas. When you do that, you open yourself up to criticism from people who don't agree with you. The fact that he's "just 23 ..." Well, he's a 23-year-old man who is a public figure and a multimillionaire. He's an adult.
2. The "Why should we care" question. To me, this is a very dangerous slippery slope.
Why should we care about who an athlete is dating? His job is to carry a ball forward.
Why should we care about whether or not a pro athlete sends pictures of his penis to a team employee? His job is to carry a ball forward.
Why should we care if an athlete used performance-enhancing drugs illegally? His job is to carry a ball forward.
Why should we care about an athlete's poor upbringing? His job is to carry a ball forward.
Why should we care about an athlete's charitiable work? His job is to carry a ball forward.
Why should we care if an athlete wants to work for or fight for equal rights? His job is to carry a ball forward.
Why should we care that day in the near future when a prominent athlete inevitably comes out? His job is to carry a ball forward.
Why should we care? Because athletes are people. People are complex. That's what makes storytelling so wonderful - showing the fans the human being behind the jersey and the helmet. For too long in sports media, the players have been portrayed as two-dimennsional interchangable cogs. They've been reduced to a series of statistics and stereotypes. One of the great advances in sports media in the last 10-15 years has been the work of writers like Dan LeBatard, J.A. Adande and those who give us more of the players' perspective (this is often called being an apologist, which is a study I want to do in the future)
To say why should we care is to ignore the messy humanity of the players. Which is one of the most fascinating things about sports.