For the second time in the past two months, my colleagues and I at FOX Sports Radio (Nate Lundy & Peter Burns) veered from the normally light-hearted fare and addressed the death of an industry icon.
The first instance occurred with the passing of former Penn State head coach Joe Paterno. As you recall, there was a 24-hour period replete with reports of his death and family denials. Official word of his passing hit the wire in the middle of our national show and immediately changed the tenor of the show. We had addressed the reporting side of the story, journalistic responsibility and such in the early portion of the show, but suddenly the talk turned to legacies, history and reignited the discussion about the Jerry Sandusky allegations.
This weekend, the world learned of the death of Whitney Houston. The blogosphere and Twitterverse ran amuck with discussions about the possible circumstances of her passing. Naturally, it became a hot topic of discussion on sports radio. While Houston obviously wasn’t a sports icon, we’re all well aware of the mash-up that occurs between sporting and pop culture at large in this medium.
We approached the topic by contrasting the outpouring of love and celebration of the lives of artists who succumbed to drugs and alcohol against the vitriol reserved for athletes. Our phone lines were chock-full for the entire show (thanks, Freak Nation), and that passionate fandom came through on-air.
The sense of community and, on some level, the “ownership” of sports teams within a city contributed to that separation.
• Movie stars and singers are held up as “the other,” “the elite.” You see them on the screen or stage, be it weekly or annually. They are set apart on red carpets and their lives dissected in the tabloids. The “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll” tag still applies and bleeds through all forms of media stardom.
• Sports stars belong to the community. Even in the face of the worst allegations and accusations, the hometown fans and beat writers staunchly support the accused. Think of the coverage of Joe Paterno and the volatility of that situation. Think back to Barry Bonds and the chase for home run glory. Ponder the careers of Doc Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Ken Caminiti and the countless others tied to drugs (recreational or performance-enhancing). Do I need to remind you of the white-hot coverage of Tiger Woods from two years ago?
• There’s anger and a sense of being let down associated with sports. Part of your team failed to pull his weight and dragged down the collective, robbing you of a win or a playoff appearance or championship. You and your friends put your lives through the lenses of sports seasons. There’s an identity at stake. You may be a fan of a singer or band, an actor or actress, but it’s just not the same.
Houston’s death was a topic that consumed the media world coming out of the weekend, punctuated by the Grammy tributes on Sunday night. I saw the news on Saturday and then followed the explosion of heartfelt Twitter updates and citations from favorite songs. Occasionally, there was a derogatory comment related to Bobby Brown, the foray into reality television and discussions of her professional timeline.
I stopped and wondered, “Why does somebody have to die for the good memories to flow?” But, we do it in our own lives as well. Everyone has witnessed a strained family relationship with that dynamic was at play (uncles, aunts, grandparents and such). They don’t speak for months or years at a time over some perceived slight, but the vitriol melts away in death and suddenly the survivor is back to telling tales of schoolyard tomfoolery and good times of the past.
So, play your “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” “I Will Always Love You” and belt out “Greatest Love of All” with all of the power that you can muster. Just put the Twitter timelines and tributes into perspective. Strip away the money and the glam and recognize that the daily lives and struggles may not be so different.