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Back, but from what?

The persistent redemption narrative in sports

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There’s nothing more enduring than the redemptive athlete narrative. Usually, on a Sunday morning, on your TV or in the newspaper, there is the story of the athlete who was either injured or had recently gone through a personal problem – a death of a family member, a divorce, trade rumours, a suspension, et cetera – and who has come back and is playing well again. The athlete speaks somberly of their troubles, the music gets brighter, and then we see them recover and get back to – or rise above – their previous playing ability. It’s the opportunity for every reporter to bust out the soft-focus lighting and the tinkling pianos in order to tell a story that will warm your heart. Reporters have made their careers out of telling these stories, week after week. Problem is, sometimes they have to keep telling these stories, and so we get the stretches.

As Deadspin’s Samer Kalaf pointed out in his post “Riley Cooper Hasn’t ‘Been Through’ Anything,” this sort of narrative arc has been applied recently to Riley Cooper, a National Football League (NFL) receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles who was caught on camera this summer, at a concert, shouting a racial epithet and offering to fight any black person there. Controversy ensued, and he had to go to sensitivity training as a result. A couple of weeks ago, he caught three touchdown passes in a game, and, somehow, some were claiming that Cooper had “been through so much” and had just somehow triumphed over his adversity. As Kalaf pointed out, Cooper hasn’t been through anything besides being an asshole.

Somehow, the narrative of redemption has become more about playing well again than actually becoming a better person. As long as the athlete provides canned quotes about how much they’ve learned, and starts producing athletically, the media will immediately jump on the redemption bandwagon.

Tiger Woods’ return from scandal is a particularly good example of this narrative. In 2009, Woods was caught in a very public divorce scandal, and withdrew from all golf competitions for five months. Since then, the main narrative about Woods has been whether he can return to his previous status as golf’s top player. Every time he wins a tournament, the story becomes “Tiger’s back!” There have been countless somber interviews with Woods since his infidelity about how he’s become a better guy, and how his play will soon match that. In essence, once he wins another major, he will have overcome his entirely media-created adversity.

The same goes for LeBron James, the National Basketball Association’s best player. After he chose to leave his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to join the star-studded Miami Heat, the media and many fans eviscerated him for his perceived dishonesty. After a season where he seemed to embrace being a villain, the narrative the next season was about how James had learned from his mistakes and was now more humble. James’ poor reception by fans became part of this redemptive story, in which he was hated for a year, came back apologetic, and then was able to succeed.

Deadspin’s Kyle Wagner wrote a column entitled “Pot Isn’t Life and Death, and Tyrann Mathieu isn’t a Redemption Story” last Thursday denouncing how Tyrann Mathieu – whose career was in trouble because of marijuana use – has received the same treatment by the media. Mathieu didn’t do anything especially bad – depending on how you view marijuana use – but now that he’s been through rehab, and plays in the NFL, he’s been cast as this inspirational story. All because of moralist objections to marijuana use by young athletes.

The hero narrative is simplistic and boring, and confounding in so many ways. For one, it casts human redemption – one of the richest, and most layered stories someone can tell – as a simple matter of playing sports well. Seriously, there have been long novels written about someone atoning for past misdeeds, but in sports, all it takes is a sorry-sounding interview and improved play for sportswriters across the country to cast the athlete as an inspiring story.

Perhaps worse is how far writers will go to cast anything as adversity. The Onion probably said it best when they released the satirical video “College Basketball Star Heroically Overcomes Tragic Rape He Committed.” Of course, it’s an exaggeration of the truth, but it’s scarily not far from it. Cooper has come back from yelling a racial epithet; last year, Nick Cousins, a hockey prospect, was touted as having overcome the adversity of a sexual assault charge (the charges have since been dropped). It doesn’t matter what kind of adversity you face – whether it is increased media scrutiny, a suspension, what have you – all that matters is that it can be fashioned into a story.

I guess this kind of comes off as “you should do redemption stories this way, not that way.” But there are compelling stories out there, of players who have come back from injury, or a death in the family – a true problem for the player, an outside event, that they overcome personally, that allows them to play at their previous level. Players can recover and truly be changed. I also think that truly great stories are rare, and fleeting, and that the result of change isn’t just canned quotes or good statistics. True change takes time. In the rush for their story of the week, something that will hit readers right in the heart, sportswriters have blanketed the sporting world for anything that they can construct as a redemption story. It’s a comforting story, a way to inject the magic of movies into the everyday sports website.

Recently, the NFL has been overtaken by a conversation about bullying. Jonathan Martin, an offensive guard for the Miami Dolphins, abruptly left the team after being incessantly bullied by his teammates. Richie Incognito, another guard, was singled out as the ringleader, and was subsequently released from the team. I imagine that Martin will come back to the NFL, probably for a different team, and will be the subject of hundreds of puff pieces – and for good reason: he went through something of a psychological hell. If Incognito comes back to the NFL – it’s up in the air at this point – I fear he’ll get the same treatment by some writers, of how he learned his lesson and became a kinder guy, no matter what actually happens. Because it just sounds better.