When you have agents and hangers-on handing you money and naked women and Escalades from the age of 14 on, it’s bound to swell your head. Some athletes just get a worse case of it than others. BY MATT TAIBBI
When you have agents and hangers-on handing you money and naked women and Escalades from the age of 14 on, it’s bound to swell your head. Some athletes just get a worse case of it than others.
By Matt Taibbi
According to a new report by the United Nations, global narcissism rose 4.9 percent in 2009, the highest one-year leap since the Great Self-Importance Wave of 1991, which featured career years from the likes of Saddam Hussein, Michael Jackson, and Oliver Stone. And while the secondary research isn’t in yet, we can guess that pro-sports figures played a big role in the statistical surge, as athletes like Tiger Woods, A-Rod, and Kobe Bryant have continued to take the lead in teaching children that true love doesn’t always have to involve other people.
Pro sports and narcissism have always been a natural match, and it’s no wonder. For all sorts of reasons — mainly, distracting the masses from their dreary lives of cubicle labor and haggard late-night internet masturbation — the world needs its infallible, triumphant, oversexed heroes, and sports does a great job of creating them.
That’s why what we call sports journalism is most of the time a kind of mechanized admiration society, where panels full of breathless ex-jocks team up with human thesauruses to furiously burnish the legends of genetic lottery winners.
EX-JOCK ANALYST NO. 1: Look at the way he darts through the hole! Look at the power! Look at the acceleration! Those arm tackles just aren’t gonna work on Adrian Peterson!
EXCITABLE HOST: Whoop! He…could…go…all…the…way!
EX-JOCK ANALYST NO. 1: I mean it, Boom. If Peterson were here right now, I’d suck his cock!
EX-JOCK ANALYST NO. 2: Oh, me too, Jaws. I mean, I bet he’s got a schlong like a parking meter.
[The whole panel laughs.]
This is all fine, one of the less toxic varieties of media horseshit, but it has one drawback: The players in question often actually believe this stuff, which is why some of them go completely over the self-regarding edge, never to return to our planet. It doesn’t happen all at once but in steps, and in hindsight, we usually should have seen it coming.
Stage One: Dustin Pedroia
The Red Sox’s Munchkinland escapee is a good example of an athlete who’s managed to remain in that first stage of gentle tadpole narcissism, on the correct side of a spectrum that stretches to, say, Benito Mussolini. When it comes to sports bragging, the laws of physics as described by Roger Rabbit apply: It only works when it’s funny. In other words, as long as it’s a 5-foot-nothing guy puffing his chest and raving about how “shredded” he is, calling guys twice his size “meat” and telling his teammates to “bring your glasses for the laser show” when he hits — it’s relatively harmless. But inevitably, the guy who opts for that Muhammad Ali “I am the king of the world!” clowning shtick goes to the well one too many times, and next thing you know, he’s holding shirtless pressers on his front lawn, or legally changing his name to Super Duper, or pimping a new home-appliance line (coming soon: the Starbury nautical toaster!).
Stage Two: Chad Ochocinco
Chad Whateverhisnameis was once a genuinely funny guy, one who managed to pull off stunts like his notorious “Who Covered 85 in ’05” checklist of torched defensive backs without seeming like too much of a tool. If anything, it seemed at first like Ochocinco née Johnson’s self-directed humor fell short not because it was pathological, but because it might have been contrived, maybe with the aid of some drearily endorsement-hungry marketing consultant. But then Ocho not only went through with his puzzling and mildly annoying legal name change (couldn’t he have picked something catchy à la World B. Free, like Enormous Johnson?) but also named not one but two children after himself (there’s a Chade and a Chad II), the latter a sure sign he had moved into the more dangerous second stage of self-importance.
Stage Three: Rickey Henderson
They actually have a word for what Rickey Henderson is: illeist. The early usage of this word referred to someone who used the third-person pronoun he to refer to himself, but in Rickey’s case, he was insufficiently majestic, so Rickey always used Rickey. His all-time money quote is his legendary phone call to then Padres GM Kevin Towers in search of a job: “Kevin, this is Rickey. Calling on behalf of Rickey. Rickey wants to play baseball.”
A former Mariners teammate reported that Rickey would come into the clubhouse wearing a suede hat and announce, “Rickey got a big ranch. Rickey got a big bull. Rickey got horses. Rickey got chickens and everything.” Lots of athletes make it to the illeist stage (“A LeBron James team is never desperate” is one recent example), but none would have gotten there without Rickey.
Stage Four: Michael Jordan
Joking with teammates in the dugout about how “Rickey got chickens” is one thing. It’s another to deliver a prepared Hall of Fame acceptance speech, an epitaph for your career, and tell the crowd, “Don’t be in a rush to try to find the next Michael Jordan. There’s not going to be a next Michael Jordan.” The awesome thing about His Airness’s narcissism is how completely blunt, humorless, and matter-of-fact it is. He says things that could literally induce vomit if you thought about them long enough, a great example being his not-joking-at-all message to his own children during his Springfield speech: “You guys have a heavy burden. I wouldn’t want to be you guys.” To reach the Jordan stage is to completely believe your own bullshit and move toward the Caligula model of personality development, bored with the society of mere people, or “my supporting cast,” as Jordan would describe them, and feeling close only to the gods.
Stage Five: Tiger Woods
Stylistically, Tiger doesn’t really belong with a lot of the guys on this list — he doesn’t need a self-aggrandizing midcareer legal name change, and it’s hard to imagine him wearing a Jose Canseco–style see-through chemise — but he does ably represent one key element of the self-importance game: the total inability to grasp concepts like empathy, loyalty, and shame. That generally means you need an agent or a lawyer to tell you you’re sorry for humiliating your wife with every fake-titted skank in the Western hemisphere — and if you do issue a public apology for said transgressions, you do so in a way that is actually both self-congratulatory (“I have not been true to my values”) and shifts the blame onto others (“I have been dismayed to realize the full extent of what tabloid scrutiny really means”). It’s no coincidence that Tiger takes his cues from another notorious egomaniac: He reportedly discussed plans to buy a “Kobe special,” a reference to the $4 million diamond ring Bryant bought his wife after his own gash-hounding became public.
Stage Six: Charles Haley
Even supreme egomaniacs like Kobe know better than to just run off the court in the middle of a game and start mounting cheerleaders. Former NFL star Charles Haley, the great car-tossing defensive end of the 49ers and Cowboys of the late ’80s and ’90s, wasn’t quite that bad, but he was close, treating the whole world like his personal Eden, expanding upon Rickey Henderson’s propensity for near-constant locker-room nakedness to the point where police probably should have been called. Haley would wave his Godzilla tail in front of teammates and say things like “You know you wanna suck this!” Or, during team meetings, jerk himself off, to ejaculation, while talking about other players’ wives. Whether this is narcissism or just sociopathic insanity is an interesting question, but regardless, Haley represents a class of athletes who make it all the way to adulthood without ever having to think about anything beyond the simple question, Where do I stick my penis next?
The Final Stage: Alex Rodriguez
The satirist Ambrose Bierce once wrote that there are only two instruments worse than a clarinet: two clarinets. In that vein, only one athlete could be more narcissistic than the one who commissions a portrait of himself in the form of a centaur, and that is the athlete who commissions two: Alex Rodriguez. Now, obviously, A-Rod is an easy target because, among other things, he allowed himself to be photographed kissing his own image in a mirror. But make no mistake, he earned his status as the reigning sports narcissist long before that. He’s issued more insincere, lawyer-drafted apologies than Kobe and Tiger combined, his two daughters share the middle name Alexander, and his breezily humorless self-congratulation easily reaches Michael Jordan levels. (A-Rod on why people criticize him: “I don’t know if it’s [because] I’m good-looking, I’m biracial, I make the most money…”) This is a guy who once picked the middle innings of a World Series game to announce he was bailing on his contract, and you get the impression that he would have passed a polygraph as he lied to Katie Couric about steroids, since he probably didn’t believe he had done anything wrong. Even after signing for $250 million, winning multiple MVP awards, and gorging himself on a veritable mountain of stripper flesh, A-Rod was still so desperate for attention that he felt a need to brag to his mortified teammates about how he spelunkered the elderly pop star Madonna. In sum, A-Rod is the rare person who would ace all 40 questions on the Pinsky narcissism test, and he might get extra points for No. 29: “I like to look at myself in the mirror.”
This article originally appeared in the the March 2010 issue of Men’s Journal.