October is a busy month in the world of sports.
With college and pro football in midseason, professional baseball in the playoffs, NBA preseason getting started, soccer in play around the world, and even the WNBA in its finals, there’s many a story to be told among thousands and thousands of athletes.
So when Sports Illustrated’s Oct. 22nd issue hit stands - actually, when its cover story was released last week online - it was pretty shocking to see former LSU football star Tyrann Mathieu on its cover.
“Endangered,” read the headline text. “The perilous road of The Honey Badger,” said the subhead.
And there, clad No. 7 uniform not worn since Jan. 9, was Mathieu, eye-black under one eye, nothing under the other.
It was and remains a provocative cover, surprising as one Mathieu’s trademark turnovers; unexpected as one of Mathieu’s game-changing plays; sudden as Mathieu’s dismissal from the LSU team in August.
So why did SI writers Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans team up for this story?
“To me, Tyrann Mathieu is the most compelling figure in all of college football,” Thamel told WUBR’s Carter Bryant last week.
But here’s the thing: Mathieu isn’t the most compelling figure in all of college football. He’s not even in college football.
Still, Mathieu’s story is a fascinating one. His rough childhood, as detailed in the article, is both a stark contrast to his early collegiate successes and a presage to his later collegiate failures. The writers did a great job digging up Mathieu’s early days as a New Orleans youth, recounting his jailed father and disinterested mother.
It was fascinating, but it was also old news. In fact, Evans wrote nearly the same story for Fox Sports - in January. That story - “Mathieu motivated by family tragedies” - no longer has a live link on Google, as of Oct. 21, but the cached version is still online. And a comparative read of it and Evans’ SI piece reveals no new biographical information.
The only news in the piece was that Mathieu could have violated an NCAA rule while still eligible at LSU by appearing in videos and posters promoting a party at Baton Rouge nightclub The Palace in March 2012. That newsworthy portion, unfortunately, is buried in the middle of the story, earning just two paragraphs.
Certainly, Mathieu’s possible violation of NCAA rules is pertinent, for it could hinder his eligibility if he attempts to return to the LSU team in 2013, as has been speculated. The NCAA doesn’t allow student-athletes to use or permit the use of their images or likenesses to promote commercial goods or services, and Mathieu’s possible running-afoul of that particular bylaw is, by and large, newsworthy.
But “newsworthiness” and “SI cover-worthiness” are two different animals.
That detail of eligibility isn’t even worthy of this week’s Tiger Rag cover, in this editor’s estimation, much less the cover of the most popular sports weekly in the country. It’s too speculative an issue, at this point, because 1) it’s not a guaranteed violation of NCAA bylaws, which can be very gray; and 2) we’re not even sure Mathieu will - or can - return to the program.
And that’s not to mention the horde of ethical issues involving the story. SI is facing charges of harassment from the Mathieu camp (Tyrann and his family sent SI a cease-and-desist after they said the magazine badgered them for access they had already refused) and bribery from The Palace (a club promoter said SI offered him $2,500 to lie about Mathieu’s involvement with, and benefits reaped from, the party).
Yet here we are in October, and Mathieu’s face is plastered on newsstands all over the country, for one hypocritical reason:
To sell magazines.
SI is in the business of making money. And a cover story on a figure as provocative and popular as “The Honey Badger” is a money-maker.
Mathieu’s image, they must have reasoned, will get readers to pick up our magazine.
Just like Mathieu’s image must have gotten party-goers to The Palace.
The difference is that NCAA bylaws allow media outlets to use student-athletes’ likenesses, as long as the content associated with the image is informational in nature.
Suddenly, Dale Brown’s famous quip on the NCAA “legislating against human dignity” suddenly makes sense. God forbid Mathieu, or any other student-athlete, profit in the least from his success on the field.
No, that’s the exclusive right of the NCAA - and the media that cover it.
Mathieu’s image and likeness are unacceptable on a poorly-Photoshopped poster or grainy YouTube video, but it’s okay when it’s in NCAA Football ‘12 or Sports Illustrated.
Pointing the finger at those beneficiaries is too easy, though. In reality, we all share in the blame.
For starters, Mathieu himself made too many bad decisions, and those decisions have consequences - some fair, some unfair.
His circle of friends used his fame for their benefit, allowing its dangers to destroy him.
His coaches couldn’t get through.
His father watched it all unfold from prison.
And we watched it unfold from the stands.
In the days of multi-million dollar TV contracts, we made Mathieu an unpaid celebrity. We - the fans, the media, and the whole of college football - created The Honey Badger, a havoc-wreaking monster, on and off the field.
We shared in that monster’s successes. But we distanced ourselves from his failures.
And there’s where SI got its final cover wrong. They called him “The Honey Badger,” and implied that he is “Endangered.”
In reality, The Honey Badger is extinct. We killed him. All of us.
Instead, it’s the very foundation of college football - of the young men we make celebrities of one day and scapegoats of another - that’s truly endangered.