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Tim Duncan, Johnny Manziel and life in the fishbowl

Whether it be something they do in public, semi-public, or in private, athletes live in a fishbowl for all to see and critique their actions. They are expected to embody values on the playing fields that transfer into everyday life, but few can handle this kind of 24/7 scrutiny. With the rise of social journalism and social media, our society intrudes into every detail of an athlete's lives. Can this continue without ripping the fabric of the fan-athlete relationship?


Every morning, we wake up and live our lives, tending to our family, job and responsibilities. Most of us go online at some point in the day, read about other people's lives, getting access into their thoughts and actions, and possibly adding to it all by commenting or posting our own tidbits. With the invention of social media, everyone has at least dipped their toe into the waters of the fishbowl.

Most live in a fishbowl that's slightly tinted (if not outright opaque) because of how few people there are trying to experience their lives along with them. They can protect themselves behind closed doors and not worry about others trying to catch them in damaging situations. They can listen to the music they like, eat the food they prefer, dress in whatever clothes they want, and engage in whatever behavior they consider appropriate, within the bound of the law.

But for professional athletes, the bowl is crystal clear, allowing anyone to examine their lives, thoughts, actions and most importantly (and career crushing), their mistakes. Their taste in music is critiqued, their food choices analyzed, their attire mocked, and anything they do that we don't completely approve of is punished accordingly.

Our society is so quick to judge others, while simultaneously ready to put an athletes on pedestal at a moment's notice. The current culture celebrates fame and fortune so easily, all the while lying in wait for yesterday's hero to mess up gloriously so that today's downfall can be trumpeted at least as loudly as their triumph.

In this environment, where media's default mode is permanently set to INTRUDE, it's routine to encounter images, articles and videos detailing the personal problems of the everyday life of athletes. We are now a society where nothing but complete transparency is sufficient, and yet the details obtained through that level of access are treated with utter carelessness.

Philadelphia Eagles wide-out Riley Cooper

One evening while completely inebriated at a Kenny Chesney concert, Cooper was filmed (by a random concert attendee) using a derogatory racial comment in a violent context. This 10-second clip was quickly sold to and then distributed to all media outlets. There's no doubt that the comment by Cooper was unacceptable and ridiculous, but the fact that someone filmed it and profited from it is just as unacceptable and ridiculous. In essence, the creation and capitalization of the video solidifies the notion that anyone with a camera phone is a journalist, empowered to report news.

Social journalism, as it is being called, can be used for good, in weather and emergency situations. But the status quo is an activated public, an army of mobile videographers, sanctioned to be the ubiquitous eyes and ears of mass-media. This opens a Pandora's box of privacy issues. Are we all just waiting for the moment when we can ruin someone while they are "off the clock?" Is there even such a thing as being off the clock any more? In our society, a single alcohol-enabled verbal indiscretion can overshadow, and even nullify, a lifetime of sportsmanlike behavior.

Cooper's own behavior is certainly the central issue in the firestorm that immediately sprang up around him, but the media-accelerated conflagration never happens outside of a news-ified populace and a culture ready to accept the premise that any moment in an athlete's life is suitable for character evaluation.

San Antonio power forward Tim Duncan

Earlier this year, as Tim Duncan was in the middle of one of his most intense NBA playoffs, news surfaced that his wife had filed for divorce. Rumors raced across San Antonio and the media, making all kinds of assumptions, without hearing anything from Duncan himself. Articles begin reporting infidelity and the realities of the "boring" life of the Duncan family. And still, nothing from Duncan.

He knows to stay out of it. He knows that this issue is between him and his wife. He knows that the media has no role in the divorce. However, because Duncan is a public figure and our society is extremely nosy, the details must be known. Or so we think.

Why can't we leave it alone? Why can't his personal life stay personal? Why does our society need to know everything about everyone? We want our own lives to be private, yet we want to know the details of everyone else's.

Then rumors about Duncan's sexuality began to pop up in the local media. Not only was this the most ridiculous allegation possible. But who cares? Should a sports figure's reputation be based on the performance on the court, or should life beyond the bubble of athletics influence his public standing? If someone is perfection on the court, but falters in real life, should that matter? Again, are public figures on all the time?

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel

Manziel is currently the big fish in the bowl of college football, but not always for the reasons he would like. Most are familiar with the story of high school star, turned college star, turned Heisman Winner, turned Twitter ranter, turned NCAA trouble-maker. I read a story arguing that we should feel sorry for him, and Manziel himself told us that in order to understand what he was going through, we should "walk a day in my shoes."

Thanks to social media, we have read the real thoughts and opinions of this college athlete, including every rant and quick apology. He has utilized social media for its true use. But he has also wielded it to kill his reputation.

It's true that he is just a 20 year-old living the college life, and it's a valid point that the world should understand that he's not as mature as a professional athlete. But he is in the spotlight. He asked to be in the spotlight, has fueled his image in the spotlight, and basks in that spotlight.

If you want that life, you must take the bad with the good. Manziel can't just pick and choose what he wants from the fishbowl. He can't pick the courtside tickets to the NBA Finals, or VIP seats with Drake at a club, but then opt out of the media's scrutiny of his actions and posts. It doesn't work that way in the fishbowl. He has to accept the responsibilities of life beyond the field.

While Riley Cooper may have been undone by his behavior in front of the ever-present camera, Manziel relishes the attention and takes the opportunity to do an impromptu dance to entertain the masses, to mixed if not overtly critical reviews.

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So, are professional athletes on all the time? Is there any dividing line between their performances in front of the cameras and their lives beyond the field or court? Living in the fishbowl means the world is constantly watching and judging. They can try to stay private, like Duncan does, but our society isn't satisfied by silence.

While we are quick to judge based on lifestyle or beliefs (a tendency our society constantly gets itself in trouble for), there is a grey area that will forever be debated and argued. We adore and worship our athletes, always wanting more from them, labeling them heroes who epitomize ideals and virtues we admire and aspire to.

But with social media and social journalism, the everyday lives of athletes are becoming more and more open and controversial. We know too much about them which forces us to, in an instant, turn our heroes into villains. Our society loves to tear down people who are at the top. When an incredibly successful person messes up, the culture sits enraptured as the pedestal falls. And if that pedestal only teeters, the vicious tear-down begins immediately as media personalities and commentators rush to be the one to strike the finishing blow. As Drake says, "You gonna hype me up and make me catch a body like that."

I imagine that life in the fishbowl is hard, and I wouldn't want to walk in a famous athlete's shoes. Their every move is watched and critiqued. Their every word is analyzed and debated. They can't visit a CVS without someone tweeting about what they buy. They can't attend a concert without someone videotaping their drunken stupidity. They can't illegally sign autographs without someone photographing the evidence. No, being an athlete in the spotlight (professional or amateur) isn't easy.

But do they deserve privacy?  Can they expect to live a life beyond the court to do what they please? Or is it a packag deal that when you sign up for the life, you sign up for everything that comes with it? Regardless, everyone must grow up sometime and understand that expectations are placed up us based on our profession, and expectations for professional athletes are high.

To me, it's how one lives the fishbowl that is the real issue here.  Duncan ignores the whole thing as much as possible, which irritates the heck out of many. But his silence is often greeted by admiration and respect, which gives him the room he needs to live as he chooses. He doesn't poke the beehive, he walks around it (see also Kawhi Leonard and Mark Ingram). Those who go out of their way to stir up the bees are the ones who are asking for the scrutiny, the ridicule, the attention.

If athletes in our society want to be viewed as superheroes then, as all superheroes know, "With great power comes great responsibility."

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