An interesting thing to do with your brain is spend some time observing the intersection of sports and personal branding. Like, divorce those two things, temporarily—baseball is a sport, full stop; Derek Jeter (for example) is a man who played baseball, full stop; Derek Jeter is a famous and marketable personal brand, full stop.
The world is nowhere near like this, of course: Jeter’s fame is owed to his time and success as a baseball player, along with certain other circumstances (playing in New York City, for one). It would seem to easily follow that Jeter’s marketability as a personal brand flows also from this success, but that’s sort of a half-truth—if being good at baseball were the sole prerequisite for crafting a public image as prominent and nearly-bulletproof as Jeter’s, we’d pay a hell of a lot more attention to, say, Miguel Cabrera, or Barry Larkin.
It’s evident, also, that being marketable, in one way or another—handsome, or articulate, or the right kind of controversial—will not make a person more valuable as a player of their sport, but, again, that’s a degree of disassociation of marketability from American pro sports that toes the line of disingenuousness. What makes Derek Jeter good at baseball is slightly different from what made him successful as a pro baseball player.
Jeter’s a handy example, because at least some of his marketability is based upon the extent to which we think the attributes we’re observing of his baseball acumen can also be identified in his person: a certain cool, understated confidence; unpretentious, blue-collar relatability; steadiness; presence of mind; and moment-to-moment adaptability. These and other characteristics became definitional of not just the baseball player but also our sense of the man himself. And most of what Jeter did to facilitate this personal branding was done simply by staying out of the way and letting the narrative write itself.
Jeter’s image as a paragon of baseball’s moral code never really made him much of a defensive shortstop, but it hugely increased his value to Major League Baseball and the Yankees, and at least some of his longevity as a player, on the downslope of a deep decline, was owed to his importance as a symbol. However much of this useful persona was constructed without Jeter’s explicit participation, it bought him a little time and latitude there at the end.
Maybe this is unavoidable. It’s certainly common. Michael Jordan’s mix of cold-blooded, grim-faced on-court domination and meticulously and slyly juxtaposed brand marketing gave us a picture of a balanced, full-grown, and spectacularly self-sufficient modern hero, while, say, Chris Webber’s loose and reliably flamboyant play mixed with a couple of broadly-interpreted one-off events in his basketball career to construct a picture of an immature, mildly dysfunctional head-case.
Fans don’t consciously aid in the construction of these personas, but we do accept them, and, to varying degrees, we even act upon them. The latitude and benefit of the doubt extended to someone with a broadly heroic persona isn’t usually extended to someone whose reputation skews more human, because, like, duh. But this shit doesn’t necessarily work like it should, and it gets us into some trouble—Michael Jordan, we learned, was and is a goddamn head-case, a nasty, bitter, domineering creep hellbent on advancing his own supremacy at every turn, whereas Chris Webber is a thoughtful, gregarious, impressively well-adjusted dude, certainly by comparison.
Branding itself has undergone a certain rebranding. It’s a concept that uncoupled itself from corporations and consumables and infiltrated the way people talk about themselves. It seems like there was a time when seeming to willfully craft a public-facing version of yourself might have been lame, even creepy, even while everyone was quietly and subtly doing it all the time. Who the hell knows when exactly it became acceptable to publicly administer your “brand” for personal profit, but Darren Rovell is a living testament to the reality that doing so is basically safe. We are meant to understand that personal brand management ends with the mostly inauthentic association of oneself with things for sale—personal branding is at least as much about flaunting one’s access as it is about demonstrating any particular taste or craft—but the glaring truth is, to varying degrees, everything, from mannerisms to political beliefs, is subject to tweezers.
The cultural cost of a misdirecting public persona, like Jordan’s, is hard to pin down, as are the benefits of its dismantling. Jordan’s mythic hero status was fun! Uncovering the grimy truth was also darkly fun (for those of us who’d invested none of our psychic well-being in Jordan’s pristine public image), but, beyond that, it’s hard to account for the cumulative effect of whatever fun or disappointment. What’s apparent, though, is that his beloved persona was hugely valuable to the man himself and allowed him to continue to amass wealth and influence even once his value as a basketball player had virtually vanished. That’s what the person—not the athlete, not the player, but the person—captures from all that unimpeded association of athletic traits with personal ones: the opportunity to bring something marketable and valuable into their post-playing years.
Kayfabe, hilariously, is probably the least cynical version of this process. It’s basically transactional—fans are knowingly guided to like certain wrestlers, the wrestlers are allowed to “win” because they are liked, the arrangement gives fans the good feelings they want and the wrestler a persona and reputation that is valuable and marketable, even if it is, literally and in all other ways, a construct. And it’s all relatively frank and tidy, within the ritual and spectacle of pro-wrestling. The performer can be whoever the hell they want to be in private, so long as they play a compelling hero in public. It’s as above-board as an unspoken arrangement can be.
This gets confusing, though, in the case of someone like Terry Bollea, whose narrative self escaped the orbit of professional wrestling decades ago, and the ensuing muddiness brings his brand into the realm of the Jeters and Jordans: his fame has persisted at least in part on the residual impression of him as embodying some or all of the relatable blue-collar decency of his kayfabe character. Hulk Hogan, even after a couple heel-turns, is mostly remembered as a lovable hero of his era of professional wrestling, and Bollea has been granted the benefit of the doubt as his post-wrestling career has veered into a mostly sad C-level Kardashian knock-off.
The man’s gotta eat, just like everyone else, and so no one will blame him for riding the goodwill and lingering curiosity earned (I suppose) by a long career playing a compelling hero, but here’s where we are: Hogan, Jordan, Jeter, Hillary Clinton, Nick Denton, the mayor of your town, your mailman, you—everyone is presenting to the world a version of themselves that incorporates some of how they want to be known grafted onto who they really are. Bollea is just an extreme case of this, his true self having been basically subsumed, as far as anyone knew, by his public persona as The Hulkster.
OK, so, if you walked into a big party full of people and everyone in attendance was wearing a balloon hat, it wouldn’t take you long to figure probably you, too, ought to be wearing one. This is the balloon hat party, you would think, and you would seek to fit in. If you walked into another big party full of people and some people were wearing balloon hats, your personal feelings about whether or not you’d like to be wearing a balloon hat would kick in more strongly, as would the part of your brain that looks for a pattern in who is wearing balloon hats, and why. You might decide to join the people wearing balloon hats, or you might decide to skip it.
Celebrities, in American culture, sort of juke that process—if you walked into a party full of people and only a few of them had balloon hats, but among them were, like, Beyoncé and LeBron James, you would probably covet one of your own a little bit more than you would otherwise.
That’s because celebrities are granted a kind of implied approval (and, incidentally, this is also extended to the very wealthy). That approval is itself part of a continuous cycle: the approval comes because they are cool, and they keep their coolness because everything they do gains cultural approval. This is how celebrities wind up with influence. It is, for that matter, how they find themselves on the power end of a preposterous lawsuit against a media organization—Bollea’s popularity as Hulk Hogan in Florida is strong enough to potentially overpower a straight-ahead case of freedom of the press to a hometown jury.
It’s unclear why, exactly, this is a feature of our culture, but it is. Does it benefit us to grant status, to feed marketability, to reward branding? It seems, now, as I think about this, that our use for celebrities is archetypal—we require visible representations of cultural standards, the simpler the better. And it’s tempting to think any expression that springs organically from our collective subconscious must have some intrinsic value, but, as America moves through another round of painful but absolutely necessary enlightening of our cultural standards, it’s possible to see that the very practice of exalting existing cultural standards can be and has been and also is destructive. A danger of having heroes is their unattainability as standard-bearers, and what that means for the rest of us.
This would matter less if our heroes were literally superhuman—that would be a hard-and-fast reality to reconcile daily—but they’re not. Mostly, what they are are normal, human, sometimes deeply-flawed people who are allowed to coast, in a way that almost none of the rest of us ever are, on a charitable impression we’ve taken from incomplete and compromised exposure to their constructed, narrative selves. Terry Bollea, all along, has been stomping around inside a Hulk Hogan suit, and he’s been growing fat doing it.
To my knowledge, it is no one’s expressed mission to tear down these facades, but it could be and maybe ought to be. In Bollea’s case, the cynicism of his routine is breathtaking. He’s a nasty racist who selectively and misleadingly flaunts a make-believe version of his personal life for his personal enrichment, based upon the assumption that access of any kind to his aura will and should have some monetary value in the world. He’s a hateful creep who’s been selling to his fans their own vague worldview, wrapped thickly around his softening frame. In Jeter’s case, he is most probably a phony dickhead (judging by The Players’ Tribune) whose gargantuan benefit of the doubt managed to reframe even his cold, sneeringly boilerplate media interactions into a kind of square-jawed professionalism. Maybe Jeter’s a great guy, maybe he’s the scum of the earth, but his cachet and wealth and influence warrants a lot of sniffing around, if not outright skepticism. It should be someone’s job to yank back whatever curtain there might be that protects his profit center, so long as his profit center is a pristine reputation.
Why? If for no other reason than that the rest of us have to reconcile our whole selves to the world around us and work hard in it to churn something meaningful and lasting from it. The tiny percentage of Americans who get to be wealthy and live in luxury should not also be able to construct hero personas without, you know, being heroic. Otherwise what it is is a fucking lie, and a grossly transactional one, where Terry fucking Bollea gets to be a hero as long as he keeps pretending to be one, and our economy keeps tossing money at the guy for nothing more than that. He stepped away from pro-wrestling’s kayfabe and into a bigger, yuckier, and corrosive one. And so the story of the world around us, as we understand it, is made incomplete and false. And people should not be able to grow fat on fictionalizing that story.
I bring all this shit up because Mark Lamont Hill of Huffington Post Live asked A.J. Daulerio if, and why, he thought the Hulk Hogan sex tape was newsworthy. It was a bullshit question, posed mainly so that Hill could make a show of being too cool and enlightened for such things and thereby distance himself from the millions of people who watched the video. Here is a more comprehensive version of the question: Why is a candid video of a massively famous person—whose celebrity is built entirely upon a carefully constructed persona—cuckolding his also-famous buddy and launching into a racist tirade newsworthy? And the answer is because it demonstrates that Bollea is transacting a lie in exchange for wealth and influence. As is the case with Bill Cosby, his entire existence in the public eye rests upon the persistence of a constructed and wildly, wildly false persona. And a person is not entitled to the protection of a lie. He has benefited tremendously from the goodwill generated by his lie, and it’s time for that lie to go away.
Practically, it’s about empowering Americans to more carefully determine who gets cultural status around here. Of course it’s newsworthy that Terry Bollea—whose personal life and reputation are his profit centers—is, in fact, a creepy shitheel. The rest is whether or not you want to watch the guy have sex. But that the tape exists—and that it contains what it does—matters and is newsworthy as part of an important effort to penetrate and dismantle the heaps of total bullshit surrounding us, and expose those who make their living by peddling the stuff.