Plaxico Burress and the Culture of Celebrity

I committed a cardinal sin of manhood today.  I, in a bout of frustration and disappointment, turned off SportsCenter.  This, to the stereotype that has come to constitute “man” in America, is unacceptable.  The American man, if he watches no other program on television, still watches SportsCenter religiously.  I typically fall into this demographic, but as of recently, I’ve started to become put off by the way in which sports is presented in today’s culture.

A friend of mine used to be a sports reporter for a local sports radio station here in Denver.  He had a press pass to the locker room for every home Rockies game and Broncos game, and would spend his days at work hanging out with professional athletes and coaches talking sports, and getting paid.  This, to the stereotype I previously described, is the ideal career.  But when I pressed my friend to tell me more, he said something to me that has changed the way I view the sports media:

“Honestly, Andy, I got tired of it really fast,” he said to me. “Covering sports, when it’s all said and done, is really only about one thing: criticism.  These guys go out and lay everything they have on the line every day, they’ve been playing this game since they were little kids, they’re living out their wildest dream, and now I go in there and pick at all the things they do wrong?  That’s not something I want to do as a career, and that wears on you, physically and emotionally.”

I thought about this as I turned off the television today during hour 122 of the great Plaxico Burress watch.  This saga, in case you aren’t familiar with it, involves a scenario in which a star wide receiver from the New York Giants took an unregistered and thus illegal weapon into a nightclub and proceeded to accidentally shoot himself in the leg with it, ending his playing season in both the physical and legal sense.

This, admittedly, is news.  It also is news that pertains specifically to the sports world, which makes it the perfect fodder for the number one sports news program in the country.  So why was I upset enough by the perfectly logical covering of this news to turn it off?  Well, quite simply, I don’t care.  I couldn’t care less about Plaxico Burress’ legal troubles.  And when you put something on television that I don’t care about, chances are I’m not going to watch it.

Please don’t misunderstand my apathy.  This doesn’t mean I don’t care about Plaxico Burress all together, it just means that I don’t care about this particular aspect of his life.  To put it quite simply, Plaxico Burress provides a service for me, that service being that he catches a ball on television while I watch and am entertained.  My interest in his life both begins and ends there.  What he does outside of that is of little to no interest to me, because that is all I pay him to do (and yes, I pay Plaxico Burress.  I pay my cable bill, and part of that money goes to the various networks that broadcast the NFL.  Those networks pay the NFL for the rights to those games, and the NFL takes that money and pays its players, ergo, Plaxico Burress is, in a convoluted way, providing a paid service for me).  I wouldn’t want to hear about my dentist’s custody battle, I just want him to clean my teeth, tell me to floss more, and send me on my merry way.  Now, if I have a relationship with my dentist, something that extends beyond him putting a metal hook in my mouth and me paying him for it, then I might be interested in hearing about his legal and family troubles.  But I do not have a relationship with Plaxico Burress, so quite frankly, his life is his business, and I don’t care to hear about it.

And herein lies one of the greatest conundrums in American culture, that being the question of why we care about celebrities beyond the roles that they play in movies, or music, or sports.  I spent a great portion of one summer in college picking up and putting away stray magazines in a bookstore, and that summer, just from reading magazine covers I could tell you more than I’m comfortable to admit about what celebrities were dating, cheating, having babies, getting married, getting divorced, shaving their heads, or anything else.  Following the everyday lives of famous people is a multi-billion dollar industry, and yet the people who primarily pay for this news, who buy the magazines and read the gossip columns and watch Entertainment Tonight, have never met the people they seemingly admire (or despise).  It says a lot about me (and arguably, about the culture in which I live, but that’s passing the blame) that I know the name of Tom Cruise’s baby, but I don’t know the name of the guy who lives downstairs from me.

The somewhat fascinating part is that I didn’t actively seek out any information about Tom Cruise’s baby, I just gained it by participating in everyday American life, by standing in line at the supermarket or by reading the newspaper.  Logic and free market economics tell us that no product is going to exist if there isn’t a market for it, so the question that I have is about the existence of that market, and the people that allow it to flourish.  Grocery stores exist because people need food to survive, the post office exists because of the need people have to mail things.  Every industry fills a need, so what need does the gossip industry meet?  Why does ESPN think it’s a good idea to spend hours and hours talking about Plaxico Burress’ personal life?

There’s a number of possible answers, but none really satisfy me.  The first is that the average person needs an escape from their actual life, that they don’t see their own life as thrilling, but they see the life of Plaxico Burress, or Britney Spears, or whoever else as exciting, and thus they somehow attempt to live vicariously through those people by following their lives.  Another possibility is pure schadenfreude— that somehow people are better able to deal with the stress in their lives by watching the lives of those who are far more stressed than they are, i.e. gun-toting wide receivers with impending court dates.  It this twisted yet plausible scenario, people somehow take joy from watching other people (people they specifically do not know personally) fail.

Both of these may be explanations, but to me, they aren’t logical or sensible explanations.  If I have two apples, and someone gives me three apples, it makes sense that I now have five apples, which is more apples than I started with.  But if I am feeling stressed or depressed about my life, and I look at pictures of celebrities in unflattering swimwear, or watch three hours of Plaxico Burress walking to a courthouse, nothing about that equation should sensibly equal me feeling better about my life.  Nothing in my life has changed, other than the fact that I have less time left in my day.

This is why I say this question will baffle me the rest of my life.  There is simply no logical explanation for anyone to watch or discuss the personal life of someone they do not personally know, and yet there is no doubt in my mind that the trend will continue, and grow exponentially, as it has over the past few decades, with absolutely no sensible explanation.  As long as there are famous people, there will be non-famous people who care too much about them, and I will remain confused.


6 Responses to “Plaxico Burress and the Culture of Celebrity”

  1. December 4, 2008 at 11:09 pm

    I agree with you. It’s really just a lynch mob and another Pacman-esc/Michael Vick type story and I’m just sick of hearing about it. Lets talk sports already and forget about personal lives off the field, right?

  2. 2 Bryan
    December 5, 2008 at 2:31 am

    If you ask me…..then I would say being a celebrity is a matter of responsibility because other people look up to you.. whether you’re a film star, sports star, TV actor or whatever.. but you have to showcase a good example not an exploiting one that Plaxico did…I really think that Plaxico doesn’t deserve to play as Giant.. not as Giant but he doesn’t deserve to play..

  3. December 5, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    My question really isn’t whether or not people look up to celebrities, it’s WHY. Why look up to an actor or athlete and not look up to a lawyer, or a plumber, or an orthodontist? Besides exposure, what’s the difference?

  4. 4 Beau
    December 7, 2008 at 7:48 pm

    I’m reading Donald Miller’s more recent book and he had an interesting perspective on this point. We are in a ‘lifeboat’ culture where the point is to prove who needs to get shoved off the lifeboat – primarily by proving our respective coolness. Even though we might get ‘voted off’ after Plexico, we still all want to be voting.

  5. December 7, 2008 at 8:40 pm

    So are you saying that by deriding Plaxico Burress and focusing on his failures, we’re trying to prove that we’re better than he is, or that we deserve more than he does? If that’s the case, I guess I can understand the motivation, but I still think it’s stupid reasoning, and my point still remains… why try and prove you’re cooler than celebrities specifically? Why not prove yourself cooler than your fourth grade teacher, or the guy who bags your groceries? The real question that I’m asking is who decided that the profession of actor or athlete is the one to endure such scrutiny, or be rewarded with fame?

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