Elite athletes are trying to wrest control of their media depictions with a slew of tell-all documentaries. Has the public appetite for sports controversy reached a fever pitch?
Earlier this month, when former world No. 1 golfer Jordan Spieth finished 71st at the PGA Championship in San Francisco, speculation about why Spieth’s star had fallen precipitously—from top-ranked in 2016 to 63rd place today—hung over him like a cloud. Several commentators and publications, from the Telegraph to ESPN, had recently asked some version of the question, “What happened to Jordan Spieth?” During the PGA Championship through which he continued to struggle, Golf Magazine published an article tying his “downfall” to a minor adjustment he made to his driving game in the offseason of 2016.
But is Spieth, who’s 27 years old, truly in a “downfall”? Phil Mickelson, after showing young promise, didn’t win a major until he was 33. Lee Trevino won his first five majors, then didn’t win a sixth for another decade. Spieth might be no different, but you wouldn’t know that by the way he’s being covered.
“Sports lends itself to easy narrative because there’s winners and losers,” says J.A. Adande, director of sports journalism at Northwestern University and a former ESPN analyst. “It’s very easy to denote and demark these different points. It really just becomes a matter of where you want to end it.”
Several recent and upcoming sports documentaries, many produced in close cooperation with their athlete subjects, are attempting to rewrite the popular narratives attached to them. These include ESPN’s Lance about Lance Armstrong and The Last Dance about Michael Jordan; Peacock’s In Deep With Ryan Lochte; and HBO’s The Weight of Gold about Michael Phelps and other American Olympians. They join a recent pantheon of sports documentaries like Tyson and O.J.: Made in America that explore the individual rather than just the athlete.
With time on their hands amid the pandemic and new, long-form exposés at their disposal, fans seem keen to take a closer look at elite athletes, especially those who have experienced public embarrassments or scandals. Some of the athletes, meanwhile, appear to be trying to flip the script in an effort to mount their own comebacks in the public eye.
In Deep with Ryan Lochte shows the Olympic swimmer and self-proclaimed “playboy”—who falsely claimed at the 2016 Rio Olympics that he and three other American swimmers had been robbed at gunpoint—spending time with his two children and wife. When asked about his earlier media treatment, including his so-called Lochtegate scandal, he says, “That’s what media does. It wants the biggest headline. They want drama; they want stories.” When discussing In Deep, however, which depicts him more positively, he takes a kinder stance toward the media. “NBC, Peacock, everyone, they were like part of my family,” he says.
In Lance, director Marina Zenovich opens with Armstrong recounting a recent episode where a group of strangers outside a bar verbally harassed him. He called the bar and paid their bill on the condition that their waiter tell them, “Guys, Lance took care of everything, and he sends his love.” The cyclist, who, after years of denying it, publicly admitted in 2013 to using performance-enhancing drugs to win seven Tour de France titles, comes across as wanting badly to be loved again by the public—to be redeemed, even, by a group of heckling bar patrons. A spokesperson for Armstrong declined to comment.
Although these documentaries provide subtler and more humanizing portraits than can be gleaned from a few news articles, participation by the athletes can soften unflattering details or limit the degree to which a scandal is reopened and re-aired. “Getting the full story and the participation of the athletes is a difficult thing to do,” says Galen Clavio, director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University, citing The Last Dance in which Michael Jordan had full control over the archival footage that would be used. “Most athletes—most public figures—are not going to participate in a full excavation of themselves.”
There’s also the question of whether, as viewers, we need to get to know these athletes better as people. “Armstrong had a lot of adoration, and he really went out of his way to squelch any type of challenge to the mythology, going so far as to sue news organizations,” Adande says. But the desire for compelling stories, even about less agreeable characters, is nothing new. “Look at the overall trend for 20 years now in fiction,” Adande adds. “We’ve had the rise of the anti-hero—Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper.”
The media has long been complicit in the creation of star athletes, going back to Melankomas, a boxer, who in 49 C.E. was said to have won all of his bouts without touching an opponent. Contemporary scholars have debated whether Melankomas really won his matches in the way one of the few recorders of his life—the ancient historian Dio Chrysostom—claimed. Many question whether Melankomas even existed. But the tale of impossible skill points toward another truism: for thousands of years, humans have craved tales of athletic greatness at the expense of accuracy.
“The history of sports journalism is very literary in nature. Mickey Mantle was portrayed as this all-American hero,” says Clavio, “and then, only later, did we read about his alcoholism and his womanizing and all these other less savory aspects of his character.”
In the case of Tiger Woods, who was later held in contempt for cheating on his wife, the media’s behavior throughout his early career was a different story. A number of major publications actively sanded down the rougher edges of his life to make room for his rise to stardom. His life is being told in HBO’s Tiger this December, without his participation.
According to the unofficial biography, Tiger Woods, by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, on which the new documentary is based, his father, Earl, told a reporter for People after Woods won the 1994 U.S. Amateur golf championship, “When he gets a little cocky, I say, ‘You weren’t shit before. You aren’t shit now. And you’ll never be shit.’” The reporter sent this quote to his editors, who decided against publishing it, as reported by Benedict and Keteyian. A spokesperson for People says, “The current staff at People has no knowledge of this claim.” Earl also said, in the presence of a Sports Illustrated reporter, “Bobby Jones can kiss my son’s Black ass,” referring to the famous golfer, according to the same biography. SI also chose not to publish the controversial quote, they wrote. Later, in a 1996 profile that SI published on Woods, the magazine included a heart-wrenching story about Woods being tormented by schoolchildren, which Benedict and Keteyian found suspicious in its specifics, wondering whether Earl might have massaged the truth to better endear his son to the public. Sports Illustrated couldn’t be reached for comment.
The flip side, as we’ve seen in recent years, is the media’s ability to dismantle top athletes. The lack of nuance—the building up or tearing down—is what these documentaries attempt to counter.
“Mainstream media—especially in America but really everywhere—they love that feeling of building somebody up because that gives them control over the situation,” says Bode Miller, in The Weight of Gold. (Miller, an Olympic alpine skiing gold medalist, was infamously pressed about his brother’s death on national TV until he broke down crying.) “They pump ‘em up, pump up expectations and then it’s good news—it’s good content—if they chop their legs out from under ‘em and see a hero come crashing down. It’s good for everybody’s ego. Everybody likes to read about that stuff.”
The pressure of the media, in large part, drove Phelps to thoughts of suicide. “I was like, well, this is everything coming to an end in front of my eyes,” he says in The Weight of Gold, about how he felt after being pulled over for driving under the influence a second time. “And that’s where I was just like, why don’t I just end it all?”
Nicole Detling, a sports psychologist who works with elite athletes through her company, HeadStrong Consulting, says that top athletes live under the public’s microscope, whether from in-depth investigations or via social media. “They make mistakes; they make bad choices; they’re doing their best in their life, just like the rest of us are,” Detling says. “The difficulty is their lives are subjected to public opinion. If we all had our worst decisions and our bad days broadcast internationally, we’d all struggle with that too.”
Even seemingly squeaky-clean athletes like LeBron James or Roger Federer attract controversy in the current climate. James recently was called a hypocrite by Joshua Wong, a Hong Kong democracy activist, after the basketball star, who’s known for his social activism in the U.S., said an NBA general manager was misinformed for tweeting support of Hong Kong protestors. Federer was also criticized for musing about a potential merger of the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) and the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals, the major tennis association for men) as well as for promoting his new sneakers on Swiss TV without the customary on-air disclosure. (A spokesperson for James declined to comment; through a representative, Federer couldn’t be reached for comment.)
With fewer sports on TV right now, fans are more tuned in than ever to even the slightest dispute. If a documentary is ever made about Spieth, for instance, blanket claims, like his “downfall,” might get a second look. Meanwhile, the redemptive counter-narratives that Armstrong and Lochte have put forth may or may not overcome the public’s desire for controversy above all else. “People want to see people fail. They want to see them succeed,” says Zenovich, who directed Lance. “They just want to see drama.”