Sports and American Society

How sports affect American culture

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Representation and Image: The Role of Media in Influencing the Public

Terrell Owens played his first NFL game in over ten months last Thursday, marking his debut with the Dallas Cowboys. Fans gave his performance a standing ovation, a stark contrast to the drama and questions that have followed Owens since signing with the team in March. Owens was in the news again last week when he missed practice because he “overslept.” This marked the 20th practice that Owens has missed this early into football season, leading to a fine of $9,500 from the team. Often the media is blamed by players and teams for blowing up situations into something bigger than they are. Clearly the media plays an important role in portraying athletes a certain way to the public, but when is their representation considered accurate and when is it exploitative?

Owens’ career has been dominated by his controversial comments and actions that he has taken against his former teams, most notably his much publicized fall-out with the Philadelphia Eagles that led to his suspension from the team. But despite all of the negative press he has received, Owens remained the top free agent this off-season, landing a three-year, $25 million contract that even included a $5 million signing bonus. Instead of working to rebuild his reputation as a dependable wide receiver, Owens has fallen plague to the same criticisms he has faced in the past. In case anyone is questioning how much time Owens is actually spending exercising on a bike to heal his hamstring, T.O. took it upon himself to wear a Tour de France racing uniform as a reflection of his commitment to rehabilitation. The media is looking for a perspective that will attract readers and keep them entertained. When you say something stupid, it makes a bigger headline. When you dress up to say something stupid, you risk looking like an idiot.

The media has tremendous influence over who’s going to dominate headlines, with personality now as important as talent. Sponsorships and advertising contracts continue to be a huge generator of revenue for individual athletes. Players must hold universal appeal in order to get large companies to pay them millions of dollars for an endorsement of their product. In the NBA, athletes like Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James are much more likely to head a campaign than Tim Duncan or Steve Nash. O’Neil has built a reputation within the media that allows him to say outrageous comments while still maintaining overall likeability. On the other hand, an athlete like Kobe Bryant isn’t given the same freedom when addressing the public through the media. As a result of his own circumstances that have been played out by the media, Bryant only this past year finally filmed a commercial with Nike in which he used his relationship with the media and his public image as the concept of the “love me or hate me” ad.

Regardless of what eventually gets printed, Terrell Owens’ strong debut against the Minnesota Vikings and public reception emphasizes the power balance of media control. In sports, physical performance will always indicate the value of an athlete. So as long as T.O. continues to make big plays and Kobe Bryant keeps hitting big shots, fans will consequently show their support and pay to see them perform.

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