Athletes Who Are More Celebrity Than Athlete?

Several weeks ago, I wrote that John Daly and Michele Wie were no longer competitive golfers but they were celebrities and that’s why anyone bothered to pay any attention to either one of them. Neither has been seriously competitive in a pro golf tournament for quite a while now; neither has a recent athletic résumé that commands any attention from sober sports fans; nevertheless they are in the headlines. As you might imagine, I got a lot of e-mail telling me that I was negative about Michele Wie because I was jealous that she was a better golfer than I could ever be. So let me address that point before proceeding here.

I do not play golf regularly; in fact, it has been about ten years since I actually played an entire round of golf. The best round I ever shot was more than 30 years ago when I shot 102; normally I would shoot somewhere in the 125-130 neighborhood. So, if I were prone to be jealous of people who were better golfers than I would ever be, I’d have to be jealous of about 50% of the people on the planet at the moment. And I’m not.

It just seems to me that these two golfers are now far more into the celebrity ambit than they are in the realm of competitive athletes. It’s sort of like Paris Hilton and the world of film actresses. Paris Hilton may be more famous and garner much more attention than most if not all film actresses in the world, but that doesn’t mean she can act. But recall that she did star in that one film that was widely viewed and acclaimed…

This situation got me to thinking about other people in the sports world whose fame is now based as much on celebrity status as it is on sporting achievement. And that thinking created this listing – one that will surely cause someone to tell me I’m jealous of so-and-so’s accomplishments because they dwarf anything I might ever do in the same competition. So before those folks hit the send button, let me say this:

    I’m not jealous of anyone on this list.

    I do not pretend that I could do as well as they have done or might continue to do in their sport.

    Nevertheless, their sporting accomplishments pale in comparison to their “image” or their “celebrity status” and we need to recognize these folks for what they are now.

In no particular order, please consider:

Anna Kournikova: She has never won an open professional tennis tournament anywhere. Now she doesn’t even pretend to try to play tennis. I’m sure she could beat Bobby Riggs in a three-set match because Bobby Riggs is dead. Other than that…

Danica Patrick: Like Anna, she needs to actually win something in the sport she has chosen as her profession to be taken seriously as an athlete. At the moment, she is an attractive young woman competing in a sport where attractive young women are rare indeed. Other than that…

David Beckham: If he were really still at the peak of his game, would Real Madrid have let him go? And if he were really still at the peak of his game, would he have sought out MLS as his next milieu to showcase his skills? Recall that a British publication described the talent level of MLS prior to Beckham’s arrival here as that of a bunch of pub league teams. Someone – and I forget who so I can’t give proper credit here – described Beckham as the best player on crutches since Grant Hill.

Takeru Kobayashi/Joey Chestnut/Any Other “Competitive Eater”: Gluttony is not a sport; it’s one of the seven deadly sins. These people derive fame in a manner similar to the way sideshow freaks at the circus derived fame a hundred years ago. Their achievements are meaningless outside the hype and freak-show atmosphere of their competitions. When was the last time anyone you knew or anyone you invited over for dinner decided to eat 2 lbs of butter? Normal folks just don’t do things like that.

Roger Clemens: He is a sure-fire first ballot Hall of Fame inductee. He has had only one losing season in a career that began in 1984. Nevertheless, he is now most famous for dragging out his annual decision making as to whether or not he will choose to play one more season and then cherry-picking the team that will give him what he wants – which is not to have to pitch for an entire season. In the past two years, he is a combined 13-11, which is pretty mediocre; he threw only 113 innings last year and projects not to throw significantly more this year. Since the 2000 season, he has had exactly 2 complete games. At the moment, he is more famous for his deliberative moments in the off-season than he is for his pitching. He is the modern day baseball version of Hamlet.

Mike Shananan: He has been the strategist and the tactician in charge of the Denver Broncos for a long time now but ever since some guy named Elway retired, the Broncos haven’t exactly torn things up in the playoffs. And that was about a decade ago. Currently, he is in a division where his rival coaches are Lane Kiffen, Norv Turner and Herman Edwards. If he can’t out-duel those folks on the sidelines, maybe it really is time to pay attention to the man behind the curtain…

Billy Beane: He’s supposed to be smarter than everyone else in baseball and he’s supposed to be light years ahead of everyone in terms of putting together teams that can win. Except, they don’t. The glory years of the Oakland A’s are not those where he has been at the helm. But he did accomplish something that other GMs haven’t; he had a book written about him and his “system”.

So, whom might you nominate to be on this list? Does Brett Favre belong in the list for the same reason Roger Clemens is here? I left him off because he doesn’t seem to be angling for a way to play only half a season while doing his annual retirement/non-retirement dance. Is Michael Strahan auditioning for the role once Clemens and Favre actually choose to leave the scene? Does Joe Gibbs belong in this list for the same reason Mike Shanahan is here? How about Andy Roddick? Mike Tyson?

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports…

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