Recently I was engaged in a discussion with colleagues around the notion of the larger-than-life sports hero in today’s culture. As the conversation went on I came to hold the belief that we may be at the end of the Mythic Hero Era in sports, that they may in fact, be an endangered species. Further, I’d suggest that the mythic sports hero didn’t die out slowly, but rather like the dinosaurs, was felled by extinction level events over relatively short period of time.
To be sure, it was a long run. For roughly 100 years athletes were role models, idols and poster boys – we loved them for their skills, yes, but it was more than that. We don’t venerate Robert Horry (seven NBA titles) the same way we do Michael Jordan (six NBA titles). There were plenty of great players, plenty of Hall of Famers in fact. But the Mythic Hero was something more. They created indelible moments that transcended or defined the sport. Babe Ruth “calling his shot.” Lance Armstrong giving Jan Ullrich “the Look.” Michael Jordan shrugging after hitting another 3-pointer in the Finals. These are the moments that elevate a mere athlete to the level of Mythic Hero.
But that Mythic Hero is defined by something more. They have an aura that is a combination of their on-field exploits and something else – their personality, or perhaps their good looks and more than occasionally, their “off-field” exploits factored in (see: Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, George Best, Joe Namath among others).
And as the times changed, so did the Mythic Hero. From the first half of the 20th century baseball and boxing produced the truly gargantuan sports personalities – with the occasional nod perhaps to horse racing or golf. Over the next 50 years football and basketball were in the ascendancy, giving us both players (Ray Nitschke, Wilt Chamberlain) and coaches (Vince Lombardi, Red Auerbach) of legend.
As social and cultural issues became more complex, the Mythic Hero became a reflection of the times. Mythic Heroes of the 70s, Reggie Jackson and Muhammad Ali, were divisive figures (as was announcer Howard Cosell), but their hold on American culture was undeniable. In the 80s, as corporations entered into the arena of sport at unprecedented levels – led by Nike – the Mythic Hero morphed from anti-hero to spokesperson. Ironically, while this led to the creation of several Mythic Heroes (and the perfectly mythic 1992 Olympic basketball Dream Team), it was also the canary in the coal mine. The end was coming.
But as the 20th century came to a close, giants still roamed the Earth. Jordan, Lance, Favre, Bonds, Gretzky, Tiger. Every sport seemingly had a Mythic Hero. Including NASCAR. And then, in February of 2001, Dale Earnhardt died on the racetrack in Daytona and with him the end of the Mythic Hero era rapidly began coming to a close. Soon after we’d learn that our baseball heroes – McGwire, Sosa, Bonds – were not who we thought they were. Lance would be dogged by drug allegations, Brett Favre’s last seasons were more famous for dong shots than playoff victories, and Tiger, well, you know the story there.
But certainly Mythic Heroes of the past were no saints. Mantle and Wilt were drinkers and womanizers respectively. Babe Ruth was both and George Best once famously said, “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”
It wasn’t the nature of the indiscretion, rather the manner that separated the Mythic Hero of the 20th century from the Tragic Hero of the 21st century.
Or perhaps it was outside forces – the media, both traditional and social. Where once a reporter might look the other way when a player was drunk or with a female companion other than their wife, today it is reported instantaneously. The result? Derek Jeter. A truly great player and a sure first ballot Hall of Famer. But our interest in Jeter is confined to what happens between the white lines of the field. Jeter has never allowed himself to become back page news or tabloid fodder. He is the perfect embodiment of the brand ambassador, which is probably good for Ford and the Yankees, but bad for the continuation of the Mythic Hero.
So as the Shaquille O’Neals, Pedro Martinezs and Deion Sanderses faded into the sunset over the last decade, they have been replaced by whom? Since the death of Earnhardt in 2001 what new athletes have emerged to take the mantle of Mythic Hero? The only one that comes to mind is LeBron James. But even he seems somehow less than those he is compared to. A barely discernable copy of Kobe, himself an imitation of Jordan. Perhaps this ESPN SportsCenter ad epitomizes and illustrates the current cultural truth better than anything else:
“Think we could add a few more defenders, with CGI? That would make me look more like a hero, you know, a super hero.” Hard to image Ted Williams doing a spot like that.
So, who fills the void left by the decline of the Mythic Hero? Who are the small mammals to their dinosaurs? The answer may lie in the changing nature of media and content that has arisen at the same time the Mythic Hero has fallen. The democratization of media has given rise to athletes like Brodie Smith. Smith, who you likely do not know, has three YouTube channels totaling nearly 30 million views and 180,000 subscribers. NBA All-Star? Super Bowl hero? No, Brodie Smith plays professional Ultimate Frisbee. Maybe you have heard of Dude Perfect, a bunch of college kids who execute elaborate basketball-inspired trick shots. If not, here’s the copy from their website:
Listed by Advertising Age as one of YouTube’s hottest brands, Dude Perfect has used its crazy basketball shots to inspire millions with their contagious Go Big philosophy. In the three short years since they exploded onto the scene, Dude Perfect has filmed basketball videos all over the world and worked with Fortune 500 brands such as GMC, ESPN, AT&T, and Southwest Airlines. Withover 73 million views across their online content, (highlight video), they’ve walked the ESPYs red carpet, been featured on Jimmy Kimmel, Regis and Kelly, GMA, CBS Evening News, and other shows around the globe, and even had their work aired commercially during primetime events such as the NBA Finals and the FIFA World Cup. As evidence of their increasing popularity, the Dude Perfect brand recently expanded by launching what has become a best-selling game for iPhone, iPad, andAndroid, and followed that up with the release of their newly published book, Go Big. Showing no signs of slowing down, Dude Perfect has big plans for 2012. Always focused on using their platform for a cause greater than themselves, Dude Perfect is dedicated to working alongside honorable non-profits such as Charity Water and Compassion International.
Not surprisingly, Dude Perfect and Brodie Smith have teamed up for a collaboration video that has racked up nearly 10 million views all told:
Maybe Nike’s next Mythic Hero in the making is busy making video content… for Nike. Casey Niestat, a professional film-maker and agent provocateur shot Nike’s #makeitcount video:
For a new generation of sports fans and athletes, that video provides the blueprint and roadmap for the Mythic Hero of the 21st century. In a world where sports fans have become jaded and disillusioned, maybe it will be a non-athlete athlete that will become the larger than life figure. For the past several years we’ve seen athletes try to leverage their on-field talent into reality shows (Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco) and competitions (how many NFL players have won Dancing with the Stars now?) Perhaps the time is right for someone to leverage their other skills in order to be seen as an athlete and Mythic Hero.