One odd debate in sport (I’m referring to perception in the media) revolves around the question of whether you are born with a proclivity for a particular pursuit, or whether it is something you can learn and develop. It seems that any sporting genius of our time is the former. Take Michael Jordan for instance. Read any comprehensive chronicle of his life, and one thing is clear: Jordan was born to play basketball, and basketball was born to harbor Jordan. He had the perfect, potent combination of shark-like incisiveness, tactical brass, work ethic, and sinewy athleticism to become the greatest ever. He was Einstein in the early 20th century, Washington at the Delaware, Hemingway in the Spanish Civil War. He won championships, and it made sense. No one was surprised, no one questioned him. He had a bad game, and that was it–no one suggested that Jordan was a passing fad.
Joining Jordan are the obvious legends: Gretsky, Nicklaus, Gehrig, Montana, Pele, Navratilova. They were more than athletic. They had something else, a special something, you can’t quite put your finger on it, but they separated themselves, and its there, and its the reason why. Some would call it genius, and I’d agree with them. But no one can really agree on that special something’s physical make-up. Cross the railways, and we (again, I’m referring to widespread speculation in the media) talk in concrete terms. Ryan Leaf was not a good quarterback because he did not possess the intelligence, the football IQ to make the grade; LeBron James has the physical make-up, but he doesn’t have the ability to lead; John Daly is too fat (and crazy); Lomu was nothing but brute force, and he became predictable. Imagine being a professional athlete, perhaps in the top .01 percent of the entire living human race, able to accomplish feats that most of us could only picture in the most vivid of daydreams, and yet a widespread perception exists that there is something innately wrong with you. What is it? Why do we focus on it? What separates the great from the greatest? Can it be overcome?
“I just don’t think he’s got a football brain and he’s going to have problems. Eventually he could play up front but would he know where to run?”
–Chris Waddle in an interview for The Daily Mail, 4 March 2010
As has been noted elsewhere in this blog, American culture values hard work. We like an underdog story. In fact, nearly all of our literary and cinematic expressions of sport involve overcoming adversity. See Rudy, the Catholic pip-squeak with enough heart to force his way onto the heralded Notre Dame college football team. Rudy lacked the physical gifts to make it, but he had enough willpower, tenacity, and courage to repeatedly take abuse, inevitably winning the respect of his teammates. We can’t or won’t make movies about players who are too good, who win everything. It’s tough to depict perfection. Even in a movie centering on perfection–Remember the Titans for instance–where the team finishes undefeated, they still spend large parts of the movie as the underdogs, from a racial standpoint if nothing else. The other side of the sterile storyline paradigm are those athletes that are flawed in some way, who never attain the apotheosis of a Rudy or Titans football team. After all, who would watch a sports movie where the character never achieves any sort of lasting success, where there’s no semblance of a happy ending? Whereas we are largely unable to represent the former, perfection, we refuse to illustrate the latter, even though there are so many athletes who fulfill this definition.
There is very clearly a double standard at play when evaluating any kind of professional athlete. We don’t like athletes who learned their trades late in life. The adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks has veritable sports culture prevalence in this sense. There is an incredibly nuanced difference of perception between an athletically-gifted athlete who plays a sport clumsily (think Zat Knight) and one who is more or less mediocre in his physical attributes, but who has put in the needed hours to ensure that he competes fluidly and intelligently (think Luka Modric). For every LeBron James, there’s a Steve Nash; for every Vince Young there’s a Doug Flutie; for every Theo Walcott there’s an Eric Cantona. We don’t like athletes defined by brute force. Who would take Brutus over Popeye? At the highest level of any given sport, intelligence, or to utilize a phrase recently profiled in Run of Play, nous takes precedent over physical ability. Even in boxing, a pursuit based purely on the ability to pugilistically connect with your opponents head viciously enough to put him or her on the tarmac, we still love to love those players that are quick, nimble, thinkers, or, in the absence of all those qualities, tough and possess a never-say-die-attitude (See Rocky I, II, III, IV and Balboa. This blog takes the position that Rocky V never happened). All this is to say that there seems to be an inherent paradox within our perception of sport in general–the higher the level of perceived play, the more we emphasize traditionally non-athletic qualities and disparage physicality.
“Walcott has been the biggest dissapointment so far. He has not been able to prove anything and apart from one good game here and there he has been a terribly bad guy. He has no plan B only one which at first was ok but now everybody knows what he is trying to do with the ball.”
–Azafargunner, posted on the ArsenalnFriends Forum in response to Waddle’s comments
So what do we do with Theo Walcott? On the one hand, he possesses vastly more footballing talent than the rest of us; has come up through the youth ranks and broken into the first-team of one of the most famous clubs in the world; was taken to the 2006 World Cup based purely on his potential; in the end, has done what so many of us wish we could do, namely, grace the pitches of Old Trafford and Villa Park. On the other hand, compared to other players at the highest level, he is absolutely unremarkable. He doesn’t have the passing ability of Xavi, the dribbling ability of Messi, the inspiration of Gerrard, the fortitude of Terry, the crossing ability of Valencia, or the finesse of Cassano. Everyone can agree that he is fast, but its unclear the extent to which this makes him a great footballer. Walcott has been subjected to a potent combination of polarizing media speculation and spent most of his career in the revolving door of debilitating scrutiny and unmatchable expectations. Does Theo Walcott lack a footballing brain? Why is this something we emphasize? What makes intelligence such a crucial factor for evaluating the quality of a player? Perhaps a better question would be to ask if he could he do anything about it. Can he improve, and turn into the player that might is heralded in the annals of soccer lore, or is he already cemented into the relatively pointless role of a one-dimensional footballer with a lot of hype but no substance?
Jonah Lehrer, writing for Wired Magazine, posited recently that talent and success in any field (sports not the least) is based more on repeated practice than being born with any sort of gene that makes you naturally athletic in one way or another. This jives with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule in Outliers that genius takes 10,000 hours of practice. All this is to imply–to argue even–that the tenor of our criticism of less than spectacular athletes is often hyperbolic or asynchronous with what our expectations should realistically be. It seems that a long time ago we were led to believe that Theo Walcott would turn into a player that he has not become. He is consistently belittled as overrated, and yet it seems more impressive to me that he has come as far as he has picking up the game later in life than most soccer professionals. That doesn’t seem very fair to me, but then again, fairness is not an axiom that is much utilized in coverage of soccer anymore. It is impossible to tell if Theo Walcott will make a giant leap forward in his ability like recent debutants Gareth Bale and fellow Gunner Jack Wilshere. Perhaps, if Jonah Lehrer and Malcolm Gladwell are right, its only a matter of time before this happens. He is certainly already chained to the rock of unfulfilled expectations by the media which tear at his insides. One thing is clear–Walcott presents omega male (see any movie by Ben Stiller or starring Michael Cera). The infrequent occasions he puts in an acclaimed performance only leads to a small amount of time he can escape from underneath the disparaging shoe of our cultural set-up.
All this is not to say that we should ban criticism of Walcott. Every individual fan spends a lot of money, time, and effort on their respective club and should be entitled to their own opinion, come fair or foul. Instead, what I suggest is that we seem to denigrate those players in our culture, who, fantastic in so many ways, seem to lack what only circumstances outside of their control could have provided them. We seize on their history, we hold it close in our minds, and we wait for them to err, to misplace a pass, clumsily stumble the ball out of bounds, shank one into the stands. And then we jump all over them, we assert our own intellectual superiority in recognizing their physical/mental weaknesses. When Jordan missed a shot, we shrugged; when he missed several, we muted ourselves in incredulity. When Theo Walcott flubs a shot, we throw up our hands in disgust; when he has a bad game, we find validation for our theory that he lacks something as a soccer player and tell everyone we know. Personally, I find this rather incredible. As an Aston Villa fan, I get frustrated consistently with players who demonstrate a chronic fault. And yet, is there anything wrong with viewing such a player with some perspective, giving them the benefit of the doubt? Of course, such a stance wouldn’t sell newspapers or up blog hits. I suppose that’s the real point here.
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 He was suspended once from high school for skipping class to shoot baskets, developed a ridiculous basketball specific workout plan with a trainer who went on to implement the same thing with Kobe, Dwight Howard and Gilbert Arenas. When his legs started going he developed his fadeaway, and became a different kind of player.
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 NB, he did have a kidney transplant in 2004, but nonetheless, his impact was diminished after other athletes learned to deal with him.
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 In Walcott’s case, he could have learned the game earlier or possessed some of the footballing know-how the pundits keep carping on.