On the surface, J.J. Watt seems like a hell of a guy, everything an athlete should be both on and off the field. He’s a viable MVP candidate year in and year out — no small feat for a defensive end in the offense-oriented NFL. He’s chronically altruistic and a model citizen who does significant good in his communities.
His name has never appeared on the legal blotter. He’s a team leader. He’s not prone to dirty play. He is not an outspoken figurehead championing controversial social issues. He’s never missed a game in his NFL career to injury. He seems to give an honest effort without taking plays off.
Watt is good-looking guy who worked tirelessly to make it to the top while doing things “the right way.”
So, why, then, is he loathed and branded as an annoying try-hard? Why has he been lumped together with Russell Wilson, another squeaky clean Wisconsin alum, as a fraud? Or, if that language is too harsh, as disingenuous.
The short answer? There’s nothing less cool than trying hard. And Watt tries very, very hard to cultivate this image of an accessible, affable superstar with a heart of gold. That could be because that’s truly who he is or it could be part of his transformation from man into BrandBot 3000 — an unstoppable pitchman who happens to play football.
The notion that some find Watt’s personality grating and suggest it’s part of a paint-by-numbers routine aimed at boosting a Q score will surprise the faction of fans who just enjoy the games and accept things at face value. It must also confuse those who, for years, have heard that athletes should take their status as role models seriously.
Those who noticed the increasingly cynical sports climate we exist in shouldn’t be surprised. Athletes once ran amok with no fear of their personal lives appearing in the newspaper. There was a certain level of hero worship and turning a blind eye was acceptable. Or perhaps a necessary evil in exchange for access.
The tide had been turning the other way, though, as the public grew increasingly interested in the off-the-field exploits of their sports stars. Tiger Woods’ high-profile scandal signaled the death blow for that practice. Once Woods’ sexual exploits became known, we were never going to accept a “great guy” being a great guy without digging in a little deeper.
I’ll be honest. When Watt makes news for doing something positive or plays through a bloody nose or acts like” just one of the guys” by dancing poorly at a basketball game, my first reaction is to wonder if he’s playing it up for the cameras. It’s tiresome and it happens far too often to not have The Gospel of J.J. be an unintended consequence of the good works.
Does Watt do more publicly than other players or do his actions get more press because he’s such a marquee player? It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Does Watt do them for clicks or do they get clicks because Watt’s the subject?
Yesterday, Watt spoke about a broken hand suffered during practice. His comments about playing through pain were interesting enough to capture the blogosphere’s attention. I personally wrote a post poking fun at his tough-guy attitude. Why? Because Watt trends.
He’s far from the only player discussing his injuries this week. He’s also far from the only player doing charity work — and having it scrutinized.
This hardly seems fair. And yet, that’s the reality.
Athletes cannot win. We want them to show personality and then have the audacity to question if that personality is genuine. Cameras follow them around at all times to give us around-the-clock content to consume and then we complain that they’re playing things up for the cameras. It’s the dragon eating his own tail; public demand creating public demand for things to change.
In Watt’s case, it does seem that everything he does is played up. To a casual observer, he must look like a real-life superhero, just traveling the country making dreams come true. Part of this is because he does make dreams come true.
Perhaps being called a phony is the ultimate compliment. People who are selfish and entitled and mean-spirited do not get called phony. There must be an almost unimpeachable facade for cynics to chip away at.
Speaking honestly, I’m not sure what’s more surprising about the anti-Watt movement: that it exists at all or that I find myself buying into it on occasion.
Twenty years ago it wouldn’t have existed. The desire to be cynical and a contrarian had yet to crest. This is not to say diving deeper is not a worthwhile endeavor.
Is the notion that publicly-consumed Watt is not the real Watt actually misguided? How can a factual assessment be made unless a person is privy to the inner workings of Watt’s mind? Questioning Watt’s motives is one thing. Taking the next step and calling him a fraud is an accusation that’s difficult to prove.
Also, if, in fact, Watt is only doing positive things for positive press, is that really a bad thing?
More of this is a good thing, no matter the motivation.
All things considered, Watt is doing more with his platform than most. And handling his high-profile position more capably than most would — including the very people who question his honesty.
That particular truth is not open to interpretation.
[Image via USA Today Sports]