It’s been nearly twenty years since Charles Barkley’s ground breaking I am not a role model commercial. Chuck caused quite a stir back then but the dirty little secret of the faux controversy was that Charles was right. Maybe the American public is finally ready to listen.
Now yet another role model has been exposed as being…well human. This time it’s Walter Payton who finds himself in the crosshairs of the buildup/teardown media culture. There’s just one problem, Payton isn’t here to defend himself.

Until recently Walter Payton had been a shining example of what an athlete could be. So revered is Payton that the NFL’s man of the year award bears his name. Payton had the good fortune to have played in an era that predated the explosion of ESPN and the internet. That changed last week when Sports Illustrated published an excerpt from Jeff Pearlman’s upcoming book. The book alleges that Sweetness was a drug addicted philandering depressive who spent his final years in misery.

Last Friday on the Dan Patrick radio show, Pearlman confessed his undying love for Payton and was shocked by the blowback from the SI article and impending book. Pearlman’s claim is that his book is really a love letter to his flawed hero. The excerpts were only a small part of the book.

The question I’ve asked myself is why? Why is this being written years after Payton’s death? Who gains from this? Furthermore what’s the point? It would easy to say that this is a money grab. but that conclusion is too easy.

We live in a TMZ, Real housewives, HBO 24/7, Hard knocks world. We feel it’s our right to know everything there is to know about our heroes. There are no secrets; we strip everything away until we see our heroes naked and very ashamed.

Again the question I ask why. Pearlman sounded genuine in his desire to chronicle Payton’s life for the historical record. Excuse me? I’m sorry is Walter Payton now Bill Clinton or JFK? He was an athlete, nothing more nothing less. We worship our athletes, we give them platforms that they are not worthy of and are unprepared for. In the end they are no different than any other powerful man with a bank account full of zeroes.

Sweetness provided us with entertainment, not a cure for cancer or Middle East peace. Why do we need to know about his personal life? The same reason I searched couldn’t find a copy of Time magazine on the newsstands at convenience stores. . We don’t care about substantive things anymore. I couldn’t find an issue of Time, but I was inundated with US Weekly, The Enquirer, and OK magazine. We’ve either become so bored, or stressed that we’d rather follow the lives of the rich and famous than live our own.

I want to know what Sofia Verga looks like naked, but it doesn’t mean I should wait for her to step out of the shower and snap a picture. Pearlman is nothing more than a peeping tom looking into blinds that should stay closed. Worse, Pearlman takes a picture while he’s there and posts it on the internet. It’s a violation of privacy and decency and in a truly civil society there wouldn’t be a market for a book of this kind.

Pearlman doesn’t shoulder all of the blame. Pearlman is a product of a voyeuristic culture. Writing, like music is often a reflection of the times an artist lives in. In a world where Snookie and not so real housewives can parlay reality shows into B list stardom, is it any wonder Pearlman would be inspired to write a tell all about Sweetness?

Most disturbing of all these tarnishes Payton’s legacy more than it would the average sports hero. Payton’s legacy is Chicago, his brand as it were, was built on hard work, character, and perseverance. Payton is beloved in Chicago not because of championships but because of the years he slogged on bad teams, turning in heroic performances while surrounded by futility. He’s the everyman who wakes up every day punches the clock, goes home and gets up and does it all over again the next day.

If this were MJ no one would care. In fact this happened to MJ and no one cared. The Jordan legacy is built on accomplishment. Accomplishments can’t be taken away. But you can take away a man’s integrity. You can attack his character by exposing his foibles and failings.
If Pearlman had written this book with Payton’s permission this would be a different story. It would be the tale of a flawed hero reflecting on his life, his triumphs and mistakes. Instead we have a man’s most private moments that he never intended to share. It’s one thing for Hope Solo to appear half naked the cover of a magazine, it’s another to have yourself recorded the way Erin Andrews was.

Pearlman’s claims don’t ring true because he has knew exactly what was going into SI, in fact his claims were so eye popping, it grabbed the cover.. If his true desire was to give a complete portrait of the man, then those quotes would not have been included in SI. Pearlman wants to see his name atop the New York Times best seller list. Seduced by his own self importance he allowed SI to publish an excerpt that he claims is not indicative of the book as a whole.

Pearlman is pulling a Deion here. During his Hall of Fame speech Prime shielded himself from critics by claiming that all of the criticism that he endured was a byproduct of trying to provide for his mother. Pearlman is no different really; he uses his purported love and admiration for Payton to shield himself from the fact that he robbed a dead man’s grave. Instead of stealing jewels he stole memories, forever tarnishing a man’s name. In the end that’s all any of have left.

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Price: $19.57

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