Sports

Sheehan ’12: Gambino, Gronk and a self-aware generation

By
Sports Columnist
Friday, April 6, 2012

With all due respect to the Walkmen and my sophomore year of high school, the must-see act of this Spring Weekend is without a doubt Childish Gambino. With all due respect to Cam’ron and the Internet meme “you mad!” he started with his epic taunting of Bill O’Reilly, the most pop-culturally significant act will definitely be Gambino. I’m not exactly the most objective person when it comes to this subject. I’ve gone on record in this column before discussing how excited I would be if Gambino were our Spring Weekend act. I was horribly disappointed when I found out he was playing Coachella and similarly ecstatic when I found out he would be our Spring Weekend headliner.

This is all fine and dandy, but what does Childish, real name Donald Glover, have to do with sports? An excellent question.

In today’s day and age of the Internet, knowledge and information are in abundance. It’s relatively easy for some guy in his basement to sort through minor league baseball statistics and discover who his team should call up to the big leagues. As I’ve written about before, the exposure of sports is at an all-time high, as the plethora of sports bloggers, “analysts,” and reporters who prod and poke at every possible angle of every possible story attempt to produce a story. I’m doing it right now. I’m attempting to establish some sort of credibility with you, the reader, by pretending that I possess the unique ability to step away from the sportswriting world and look down my nose at the invasive scavengers who flit about the feet of athletes, praying that a scrap of original perspective falls to them. In reality, I’m just another one of the vultures, pushed to the outside of the circle due to my lack of access and forced to vomit back up anything I notice from thumbing through John Hollinger’s advanced statistics.

The truth is that this type of exposure is absolutely crushing to the modern athlete. They can’t hide any aspect of themselves from constant scrutiny in a system where it’s someone’s job to give continual updates on someone’s life to an audience that can never be satiated. For better or for worse, we as fans want to empathize with and understand our favorite professional athletes because they represent us collectively on a grand stage. Boston wants to know how remorseful Josh Beckett is about drinking and eating chicken in the clubhouse last year. New York wants to know what Jeremy Lin and Carmelo Anthony think of each other. Chicago wants to know if Matt Forte feels betrayed by the Chicago Bears.

What’s an athlete to do? There are two options. The first is to be yourself. This is a risky maneuver. When you are a sports star, everyone loves you for the physical gifts you have on the court, ice or field. But this has nothing to do with who you are as a person. Someone who is a fan of you could totally hate your views on politics, your type of work ethic or even your sense of humor. Rob Gronkowski, Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett are three of my favorite athletes. I’d probably push a couple of six-year-olds down just to shake their hands. But if these guys didn’t have their athletic ability, would I want anything to do with them? Rondo has been described as moody, Gronkowski is a notorious partier and Garnett is so competitive that even his friends hate to be around him sometimes. I’d be totally embarrassed if I went out to trivia night with these guys and Rondo sulked in the bathroom all night, Gronkowski ran up a $300 tab and Garnett constantly screamed at the other teams.

The other, more common option for athletes is to be exactly who their fans want them to be. This is usually a pretty smart move because you can help your “brand” by becoming incredibly popular. Dwight Howard is exceedingly aware of how everyone views him, and his decisions on whether to leave Orlando this past year have been indicative of that. Dwight saw firsthand the backlash LeBron James faced leaving Cleveland. So, with the care of a minesweeper, Dwight carefully navigated the pitfalls of the press, trying to say exactly what he needed to in order to garner the public’s affection and remain his happy, smiley giant self. An athlete either needs to be absolutely confident in himself and his decisions or possess a high level of self-awareness to survive the constant media exposure of larger-than-life celebrities.

Now, back to Gambino. What makes him so perfect – and why I am certain he is destined to be a huge success – is that he possesses a perfect mix of both of the aforementioned attributes. So much so, that he reminds me of another exceedingly confident, intelligent, aware rapper – Kanye West. The similarities are so striking that the Pitchfork writer who reviewed Gambino’s debut album went on an unmistakably emotional tirade, frustrated that anyone would dare share attributes with one of the most transcendent musical talents of our time.  Gambino’s image is built on the marginalization he feels about being caught between the rap world and being, as he says in one of his songs, “the only black kid at a Sufjan concert.”

Successful fame in our generation is produced by being talented, hard-working and able to properly wield self-awareness to survive the white-hot scrutiny of today’s information era. This is going to be the legacy of our generation. Gambino – like Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Derek Jeter, Peyton Manning and other universally popular athletes – is self-aware and knows what he must do to be liked. He’s just up front about it. That’s why I and so many others love him.

In today’s society of information, we penalize the ignorant. There is a weird protection that comes from calling yourself out on something that didn’t exist a generation ago. This entire column is a giant example. Here I am playing psychoanalyst to men I’ve never met in my life, throwing my fellow sportswriters under the bus and making sweeping accusations about how our generation sees the world, when really I’m just protecting myself from someone being able to email me and point out something that I might not know. I have to tell everyone that I’m aware of that possibility.

I just did it again.

That’s what sports are moving toward, and that’s the place where all of our information and exposure are pushing us. Pretty soon, we will be left with perfect little athlete robots that all act exactly as we want them to. But until that happens, I’m going to enjoy Gronk being Gronk.

 

Sam Sheehan ’12 is now rethinking it, and maybe he wouldn’t mind Gronk running up that tab. Call him out by emailing him at sam_sheehan@brown.edu or follow him on Twitter @SamSheehan.