Saturday, May 26, 2012

On Brashness

 In 1994, the Green Bay Packers acquired a forgettable tight end named Reggie Johnson.  He was coming off what would prove to be his career best season with the Denver Broncos, in which he caught 20 passes.  He caught seven passes for the Packers in '94, before moving on to two other teams, finally finishing his career back in Green Bay in 1997, a season in which he was used mostly on special teams and did not catch a pass. For his career, he caught 66 passes in seven seasons, with six touchdowns.

The reasons I remember Reggie Johnson is because after his signing with the Packers, a Wisconsin sports talk show host interviewed a Denver sports talk show host, in order to get a "scouting report" for Packer fans.  Perhaps only in Wisconsin do the fans care enough about a third-string tight end to demand a media-to-media "scouting report."  After all these years, I have forgotten most of what the Denver guy said about Reggie Johnson, except for one thing.  He described him as a "typically brash Florida State athlete."  Since the Packers had drafted the infamous Terrell Buckley out of Florida State in the first round two years prior, I had a good idea of what that meant.  Even though I have no memory of Reggie Johnson ever exhibiting "brashness" in his brief time in the Green & Gold, I implanted him in my memory as indicative of a certain type of athlete.  I don't know that I've ever actually used the word "brash" out loud to describe a person, but any word short for "impertinent, impudent, tactless, hasty, rash, impetuous, energetic, and spirited" works for me as a shorthand to describe this type of being.

And in that era, by no means was brashness limited to Florida State football players.  The 1980s and early to mid 1990s was the era of the brash athlete, perhaps an era of brashness in general.  The dominant music genres of hair metal and hip-hop engendered brashness.  Fashion was brash.  Roseanne became the top-rated comedy on television.  College programs like the aforementioned Florida State and Miami became known for brashness.  And the likes Jim McMahon, Jose Canseco, Dennis Rodman, Deion Sanders, Mike Tyson, Rickey Henderson, Michael Irvin, and Barry Bonds showed that brashness was rewarded with money and attention. 

But a funny thing happened as the millennium turned.  Even as social media allowed individuals to broadcast their brashness like never before, there started to be a backlash against brashness.  An entire generation of athletes was raised with the mantra that "there is no I in team," and it seems like many of them actually believed it.  As 90s relics Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, and Chad Ochocinco faded away, nobody stepped up to take their place.  1980s brash baseball player Ozzie Guillen became a 2000s brash manager, and has ignited public relations disasters in both cities he has managed in.  Jose Canseco is still out there acting brash, but in doing so only draws attention to how anachronistic brashness now is.  Hip-hop and hair metal ceded territory to grunge and then emo. Reality television actors are undeniably brash, but are generally mocked because of it.  Newt Gingrich was defeated by Mitt Romney. Even professional wrestling has become noticeably less brash. 

While cultural trends are cyclical and backlashes are often inevitable, I still think the decline of brashness is curious.  In addition to the rise of social media, the emergence of advanced statistical metrics allows for a better understanding than ever before of an individuals' role in team success.  In other words, a truly impactful individual can substantiate his brashness like never before.  And obviously, the individual nature of player contracts (or player endorsement deals for that matter) would seem to provide incentive for favoring oneself over one's team.  Then again, LeBron James has spent the last two years trying to make amends for showing a hint of brashness (having had the audacity to announce his contractual intentions on television and not on Twitter).  We somehow now live in a culture where brashness isn't cool anymore.

But then again, in the last month two young baseball stars, 19-year-old Bryce Harper, and 22-year-old Brett Lawrie, have made the news for throwing their helmets.  (Harper's helmet rebounded and gashed him in the face, Lawrie's rebounded and hit an umpire).  Both Harper and Lawrie had already exhibited a history of brashness before those respective incidents.  (Harper blowing a kiss to a pitcher he homered off of in the minor leagues last year was straight out of the 1980s playbook of brash).  Check back in a few years.  It will be interesting to see whether Harper and Lawrie mature the brashness out of their systems, or if they represent the vanguard of the return of the Reggie Johnson type.


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