It was once conventional wisdom, at least in the entertainment world, that the only bad publicity was no publicity. Gossip magazines, back in that day, were called “scandal rags.” It was considered a good thing if word got out that the star of a new film had an affair with his co-star, because it helped sell tickets. As coverage increased, however, and the scandals became increasingly scandalous, that conventional wisdom began to grow some cracks. Jane Fonda’s scandal was all too public and powerfully harmed her career. She became, to vast numbers of movie-goers, “Hanoi Jane,” after publicly supporting and posing with the North Vietnamese while Americans were at war with them. And many of them followed a simple rule — if Jane was on the screen, they weren’t at the theater.
Today the 24-hour news cycle has paved the way for instant headlines across multiple platforms. Today, some of our most beloved entertainers are not actors, but athletes. The money, the celebrity and the adulation we pour on the young men who carry our banner every Sunday are, honestly, far out of proportion to the importance of what they do. It is, after all, just a game. Over the years, before branding was even a thing, there were a few athletes who already understood the concept. Joe Namath was “Joe Cool,” but he adopted this persona on purpose. Now, however, everyone has to have a brand. Big Alejandro Villanueva, the patriot, James Conner the survivor, JuJu Smith-Schuster the charming kid from next door, and Antonio Brown, the last surviving member of the Young-Money Crew.
The trouble with image and branding, however, is that it’ll catch up with you. I’ve seen multiple tweets of one of Antonio Brown’s sons doing his daddy’s end zone dance after a touchdown. It was cute until I realized that AB has multiple children by multiple women, none of whom he’s married. Just like the babys’ mommas are simply the means to AB’s ends, so is his son’s cuteness just another tool in his branding box.
Then comes the lawsuit. I’m a strong believer in innocent until proven guilty. For all I know, AB was feeding orphans in India when furniture rained down from his rental in south Florida. I have access to no information that would shed any light on what happened. I’m not going to consign AB to some rogue’s gallery of self-absorbed and dangerous prima donnas. Neither, however, am I going to believe his real life is nearly as joyful, calm and centered as the image he presents. Image is image. Reality is reality. Wisdom is keeping these two separate.
The bottom line? I’m not buying his schtick. But I’ll continue to cheer him on come game day. I’ll also cheer for him in his off-the-field life. The real one, not the contrived one.