I recently set out to find Diego Maradona‘s missing synthetic penis. The task looked daunting. Several years ago, when internet still dialed up and you browsed with Netscape Navigator, Diego donated his infamous whizzinator to a local Buenos Aires museum. This artifact’s historical significance cannot be overestimated: while playing for Napoli in Italy, he had used the fake appendage to beat random drug tests. However, to the world’s dismay, a thief stole the penis from the museum, a police report got filed, and the internet exploded with dozens of identically worded articles. Then, a silence ensued that would span several years. I scanned for updates and combed through indexed search engine pages for details, but no dice. The penis thief remained at large and nobody cared.
My search yielded little fruit, but a bigger question lingered: what does this production and exchange of information say about our society? And what does that mean for the bad celebrity of today, Mario Balotelli?
Mario Balotelli is a month away from his best season yet as a professional athlete. He has scored eleven goals as a winger/striker. His team is in the hunt for the EPL title for the first time in decades. Yet, everybody hates him. In the game against Arsenal, his late lunge earned him a red card. Did he deserve a straight red for his tackle? Maybe. He did nick a bit of ball, and, GIFs aside, in real time it didn’t look like malice aforethought. Still, he left his studs up and the ref, soundly within his discretion, gave Mario his marching orders. Mancini issued his oft-spoken “will never play again” threat. The Balotelli effigies quickly burnt into flames. Yet have we overdone it?
Mario exemplifies the bipolar relationship of the “bad boy” athlete with his infatuated public. We, the viewer, view him in two lights: as person and as professional. If he performs well as a professional, like, say, Dennis Rodman grabbing fifteen rebounds in a playoff game, then he can blow all the coke he wants and we’ll eagerly form a line around Borders to get his signature on our copy of his ghostwritten autobiography. For Mario, his fireworks and strip clubs are mirthful episodes of “boys being boys” so long as he scores on Sunday. Yet when his professional exploits dip, the magnifying glass hones in on his personal life. Pepe can stamp every single finger on Messi’s two hands for the next five clasicos, yet he won’t get half the ink as Super Mario’s next personal life misstep because he’s been red-carded in the past week.
How did we get here? Why do we love to hate to love Balotelli? On the one hand, the easy thinkpiece goes like this: yellow journalism has existed since the days of William Randolph Hearst. The adoring public wants all the seedy dirty it can get. We wanted to know Clark Gable’s underwear, and now we want to know Balotelli’s post 11pm club preferences. However, so the argument continues, celebratory worship is vile and, allegedly, the internet has worsened it. Today, twitter has opened up a new portal between fans and players – we see them valiantly struggle to fill 140 characters coherently in real time. We also get first dibs in gossip when they go off the rocker or drink a bit too much. We’ve always had good access to their professional exploits: TV telecasts and history books. Now, thanks to social media, we like to think we can keep decent dibs on them as persons. And, as the argument goes, this is misguided.
On a general level, the internet has superficially expanded information and access. However, hierarchies have developed to deal with info overload. Folk follow certain blogs or twitterers because the internet demi-gods help us sort through the crap. Some are glorified librarians, but paid even worse. Also and often overlooked, the internet has created a variety of information consumption options. For folks that want a full meal, read some long-form journalism. Just want a snack? Try a tumblr. Dessert? Perhaps a blog post, a cappuccino, and a cigarette. Those who criticize celebrity worship (and the internet’s role in promoting it) often confuse dinner for dessert. We don’t read about Maradona or Mario to be enlightened like a 10 page NYT article on women in Iraq post-invasion – we read to be amused for a few minutes. They are small injections of humor, consumed with the care of a hurriedly shaken whip it.
However, my question and concern is this – what does that desire for a two minute chuckle say about us?
Well, some degree of celebrity worship is inevitable in an atheist society. With no stars to gaze upon, we project greatness onto the best of the species. Yet why we worship is an important question. If we worship because we confuse wealth, comfort, and success for happiness, then we are wrong. Don’t let MTV cribs fool you. However, I assert that many folks enjoy celebrity anecdotes for another reason: they are a mirror into our own flawed selves. If this was a magazine article, then this is where the sentence about “frail and inner humanity” would be used. In their own ways, whizzinator meme and soccer icon Diego Maradona and Mario Balotelli reflect their respective generations.
Diego Maradona was and is the baby boomer that lives beyond his means. Granted, his means were and are exorbitant. Still, the last time he went to Napoli, he had his jewelery confiscated by the tax man, and what baby boomer doesn’t secretly fear a phone call from the IRS and a few questions about foreign trusts? If Diego had not lived in Cuba during his extended rehab, you know he would have re-financed every inch of worth out of his Argentine estate.
Importantly, Diego did not use the fake penis to conceal performance enhancing drugs (Oh so 90′s), but rather to hide that ubiquitous party dust known as blow. And we all know that the only folks who didn’t use coke in the 80′s were and still are cryogenically frozen. Maradona and the baby boomers are not malicious financial wizards, they just lack the capacity to balance a daily checkbook. Diego reminds them of themselves every time he pops up on Dirty Tackle.
Jump a few decades forward, and Mario Balotelli is the disinterested exurban youth of the new millenia. Supreme talent cased in a Faberge egg, his spurts of genius alternate with bouts of boredom. For example, Mario’s cousin’s friend allegedly set off fireworks in his house. Would you expect nothing less from kids who grew up listening to Prodigy’s “Fire Starter”? Mario dressed up as Santa Clause and handed out money. The media disregarded the historical first Black Santa angle and criticized his immaturity instead of praising his charity. Fools. If Mario was not a super star athlete, he would be a disgruntled Ivy League reject that graduated in five years from a prestigious state school, currently lives in his parents’ house, and alternates between emailing resumes to jobs he is not qualified for and playing Angry Birds on his iPad. In sum, he is you.
Mancini attempted to harness his talent by recognizing the medicine needed for all millenials: a legitimate kick in the ass. Still, we millenials smirk and label his shoulder goal “condescending” in our latest condescending blogpost. If you dare to disagree, we delete your comment and cry ourselves to sleep. In the best light, Mario is just misunderstood. People rush to judge him because of his poor taste in ice and lack of punctuality (especially to Inter press conferences). Deep down, he’s all right. Just like us. Or so we say.
The stark reality: to our eyes, celebrities are and probably always will be caricatures of persons. And we have created this caricature. A lack of solid evidence taints our impressions as we evaluate the moral failings of athletes. Yes, we feel close to Dwayne Wade because we can read his 140 character brain farts on twitter, but that closeness is superficial. Twitter, blog posts, newspaper interviews, and the rest show us a fraction of a frasction of the picture as to who they really are. Technology now feeds our instant gratification yearnings and the press rushes to dig up dirt, but always remember – how many news stories run ads on simple acts of human decency? Will the Daily Mail run a headline that “Balotelli loans spoonful of sugar to needy neighbor” anytime soon? Maybe, but unlikely.
We worship celebrity athletes to compensate for the lack of (or dwindling belief in) a divine other and also because we can relate to them. However, we’ve let technology and the yellow press deceive us into believing that the superficial snapshot we receive is who they really are. Yet we continue to ask for and crave more snippets. We continue to pass judgment on suspect and circumstantial evidence. We also forgive any and all discrepancies if they “perform on Sunday.” Case in point: Carlos Tevez’s golf swing celebration. John Terry still playing for and probably captaining England a few more times in his life.
The current athlete celebrity information complex is neither neutral nor objective – it reflects our preferences. And that includes a desire to pass snap judgments. So yes, Super Mario got a red card and suspension for a studs up tackle on Alex Song. However, don’t go all Mancini on him just yet. Filter through the fog of celebrity worship to see the pains of adolescence and the steps toward professional competence. And yourself.
Why Always Meme by the supremely talented Erik Ebeling. Check out his mad skills at ErikEbelingArt.com