In Defense of Jeff Pearlman’s “Sweetness”

| September 29th, 2011

Jeff Pearlman is taking a beaten from Chicago Bears fans and from seemingly everyone associated even peripherally with the great 1985 team.  Well regarded fans believe the personal life of Sweetness is private business and does not belong in the public forum.  Mike Ditka said publicly he would spit on Pearlman if he encountered him.  The issue even worked its way into the current group’s press conferences, with both Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher – two players who started their own careers after #34’s death – defending the character of the namesake of the NFL’s Man of the Year award.

I understand Payton’s legacy in the Chicago Bears organization and the city of Chicago.  I understand that to an entire generation of individuals he is more than a football player.  He is someone to idolize.  He’s (dare I say it) a hero.

This brings me to Tribune columnist John Kass; a nice guy by most accounts.  Quite honestly I’d never heard of John Kass until Tuesday night when he appeared rather prominently in Alex Gibney’s Catching Hell documentary on ESPN.  In the documentary, Kass attempts to hand Steve Bartman his business card just moments after Bartman’s fateful “mistake”.  Bartman, a devoted Cubs fan, had his life ruined by the Chicago media in the days following Alex Gonzalez’ inability to field a routine double-play ball.  Not by Kass.  You see, Bartman did not take Kass’ business card that day.  Bartman’s never taken an opportunity to speak to the media, no matter the financial gain. This doesn’t mean Kass wasn’t ready to lead off and make someone attending a sporting event the story of the sporting event.

Why do I tell you this?  Because Kass wrote a piece in the Tribune claiming Walter Payton did not deserve the treatment given by Pearlman.  What did Bartman deserve, John?  What made you so willing in the moment to exploit the mistake of a regular guy who’d purchased a ticket and yet makes you so squeamish at the thought of a great player’s off-field legacy being tarnished?  Tarnished, I might add, by what is apparently the truth.

I never idolized Walter Payton off the field.  Walter Payton or any other athlete.  And if Jeff Pearlman’s book is well-researched and accurate, why doesn’t it deserve to be written?  Why doesn’t the information belong out there?  Who decides which subjects are worthy of reporting and not worthy of reporting?

And not to go all Jason Whitlock on everybody but why would this tarnish anything of Payton’s legacy?  Mickey Mantle is still the most celebrated ballplayer in the history of New York City and his nights of carousing while a fifth of scotch took the fast lane to his liver have been the subject of multiple tomes and major film for HBO.  People greet this information with a snicker and sneer and accompany stories of his on-field dominance with a nostalgic, “and we barely woke him up at his locker that morning.”

So maybe Walter struggled with his life after being the most famous athlete in the city of Chicago and one of the most famous in the country.  Maybe he struggled with both the physical tool of all those hits and the emotional toll of no more stadiums full of adoring fans.  Maybe he sought to fill those voids with prescription  medication and the adoring women lingering after speaking engagements.  Who.  Fucking.  Cares.  This does not tarnish a yard Payton gained on football fields across this country.

The response to Pearlman’s book in and around Chicago feels like a natural counterpart to Gibney’s Bartman documentary.  Sports are something we all love.  When we confuse them with actual life, we’ve lost touch with a basic reality.  Walter Payton was a great football player and a flawed man.  What could make him more real than that?