Footballers, celebrites and mind your own business

A really insightful Tweet by a quality journo, Lee Roden, got me to thinking about athletes, life and the work/life divide.

It was about Dembele, and how little we know about him. I remember mentioning something casually about my second wife in a work context. The colleague to whom I was speaking said, “Wait. I didn’t even know you were married, much less that you had been married before.”

“Because you aren’t supposed to,” was my reply.

Football, fandom and celebrity are a weird, delicate balance. The most successful players on the field are the ones that we want to know the most about. They are also the ones that we know the least about, as inscrutable as those Easter Island figures. Think about it for a second: how much do we really know about Messi? Or Michael Jordan? Or Le Bron James?

The larger question is how much are we supposed to know?

Athletes are employees for big companies. Do you know anything about the accountants or lawyers at the company in the building across from the one you work in? Precious little, is the safe bet. Ah, but we don’t watch them on TV every week. Cool, but what does watching someone on TV, or for that matter, on cinema screens or music videos entitle us to? It starts with n, and ends with g.


We know nothing about Ousmane Dembele, and that’s fine. Nobody even knew he had a girlfriend, much less that he was about to marry. The wedding pictures took everyone by surprise. Personally, I was surprised they saw the light of day at all. He strikes me as an intensely private person, choosing only to speak out (via social media) when the shitstorm around him grew to such a level that he had to say something. The something was anger, an emotion evinced that surprised nobody who had been paying any attention at all. He’s just one.

Messi? He has kids, a dog, a lovely wife and a nice home. We know that from the carefully curated — oh, yes they are, don’t kid yourself for a second — social media posts that issue forth from the player’s team. These are calculated to let fans think they are learning something about the player. Hey, look! His dog’s name! Mateo is kicking a football! Squeee! It’s a game that his team has gotten quite, quite good at. We know nothing about Messi.

Michael Jordan was, and likely will always be the most globally famed superstar of which people knew almost nothing. Even in TV commercials, for quite some time he didn’t even speak. Before Chicago Bulls games he whisked into the United Center. After them all you saw was the rear view of whatever expensive sports car he drove to the arena on that day. There were rumors of stuff, unproven. Whisper stream stuff, unproven. And back in that more innocent time before social media and the 24/7 machine that had to be fed, privacy worked.

Athletes control their lives, and you know what? Athletes should control their lives. All we should know and expect to know about them is what they do in the capacity in which we care about them, which is as employees of the club we support. As a grouch, and a private one who cherishes the work/life divide, preferring it be more like a chasm, any athlete who wants to be private, to keep that wall up, has my full support and admiration. Your life is your business. So is theirs.

The dilemma is that lack of knowledge is a vacuum that fans fill with stuff. If they can’t know it, they take rumors and scurrilous things, depending on how the player stands with influential media outlets. What that vacuum gets filled with depends on so much. Ask yourself hard questions about your perception of an athlete or celebrity, and how those notions were formed. Even the many celebrities I had occasion to meet in person as a consequence of my job, I walked away knowing absolutely nothing about. It always surprised me when fans acted like they knew stuff about those people. Still does.

Yet the real problems arise when the quiet ones aren’t also perfect, and media outlets post up stuff, rumors whispered in hallways that are lapped up by supporters, stuff that comes to define a player. The resolve it must take to remain silent even as that kind of stuff builds up is unimaginable. Respect to anyone who can do it, especially as supporters almost get angry when players are unknowable. “What are we paying him all that money for? That comes with entitlement.”

No. It doesn’t, and not only because you aren’t the one paying them. You aren’t entitled to any more information about a star athlete’s life than you are to the life of your favorite coffee shop barista. Privacy is a rare and wonderful thing in this day and age. As people get more famous, privacy becomes increasingly complex. Celebrities hate paparazzo because they’re intrusive. They sunder that work/life divide. If a pop star wants to have a private dinner, why shouldn’t they be able to? Why is some person with a camera allowed to intrude upon that star’s life?

In the golden days of Hollywood, silver screen stars were creations. Clothes, hair, lives, pets … the studios controlled what fans saw and knew, and people loved it. At the top level, athletes and celebrities are the same way today. You know what they want you to know, which is, in essence, nothing. Yet today, at a time when everyone’s privacy is illusory, it seems that our demands for knowledge about stuff that isn’t any of our business increases to a level that can only be described as insatiable. But to whose benefit is that knowledge and of what value is it?