The pioneering piece of sympathy for Harding is a much discussed and powerfully written New York Times op-ed piece by Frank Rich. In Rich's view the culprit is a cultural elitism that made the low-life Harding a hopeless candidate for big endorsement contracts. "Her costumes reeked of polyester. Her choice of skating music was not Swan Lake but the theme from Jurassic Park. She was known for mannish habits: shooting pool, cursing, repairing cars, shooting deer." Long before the Nancy Kerrigan assault, Harding discovered that "though she could win on ice, she never won the expected prize, multimillion-dollar contracts to endorse products." This revelation, says Rich, turned a good girl into a bad girl. "As Tonya Harding, condemned as white-trash lowlife, is tossed unceremoniously into the garbage, it is worth noting that before she surrounded herself with thugs, she played by rules as all-American as Rocky. Imagine, if only for a moment, how she must have felt when late in the game she learned that for her they did not apply."



Imagination is indeed

The people who hand out endorsement money are not just culturally neutral but, often, morally neutral. Witness whiner John McEnroe, who routinely berated mild-mannered, low-paid officials, or skinhead linebacker Brian Bosworth, who signed with Gillette for Right Guard ads after being suspended for steroid use. The most famous case is behemoth hoopster Charles Barkley, noted for barroom brawls, talking trash on the court, spitting at a heckling fan (he missed and hit a little girl) and embarrassing America by beating up on a scrawny member of the hapless Angolan basketball team during the 1992 Olympic "dream team" walkover, drawing hisses from the fans in Barcelona. (" How did I know he didn't have a spear?" Barkley asked.) Nike has a Barkley commercial whose theme is "I am not a role model." Clearly, Nike ceo Phil Knight realizes that Barkley's badness only elevates him in the eyes of poor black kids who pay $150 for sneakers. Meanwhile, by holding Barkley et al. up for emulation, Knight cuts the chances that these kids will ever be able to really afford such things (at least with legitimate income). Talking trash doesn't go very far in a job interview. And that's not just a throwaway line; a big economic hurdle facing inner-city kids is their cultural aversion to a tool that most of us have shamelessly exploited at some point in our careers: the strategic use of humility and, yes, abject subservience. Nike and other morally numb image-makers have one other malign effect: to help create Tonya Hardings. She did what she did because she had learned a lesson of modern America, and the lesson is exactly the opposite of the one Rich thinks she learned. It's that winning is everything and can get you anything. Harding had for some time been proudly calling herself the Charles Barkley of figure skating. Of course, she seems to have gone too far on the badness front; trying to cripple a competitor violates even the loose standards of pop morality (though Nike, playing the populist card against Reebok, has set up a Tonya Harding defense fund). And, for that matter, a few prospective sponsors might have shunned Tonya's image even absent the taint from the Kerrigan scandal. But the reason wouldn't be the things Rich cites--polyester, shooting pool, repairing cars--all of which, to any half-decent ad-copy writer, are value-added; the reason would be that Harding once threatened a motorist with a baseball bat for failing to take a right on red, that police had once handcuffed her after she fired a gun in a parking lot, and so on. Now, there may be, as some have suggested, a kind of sexism here. Wielding a baseball bat menacingly might further endear Barkley to Nike; and, more generally, a bad girl probably attracts less endorsement money than a comparably bad boy. But the question is: Which half of this inequality should we bemoan? Is it really so bad if violent people don't spend lots of time in t.v. commercials inspiring adulation in kids? Or even if smokers don't? Is this culturally elitist, since violence and smoking aren't mainly upper-class pursuits? Or is it obliquely populist, since lower-class kids will, by the same token, benefit most if such moralism succeeds in building character?

Obviously, Nike commercials weren't the prime determinant of Harding's character. There was also poverty, her famously unstable home, etc. Rich rightly mentions these things. And I can see why he doesn't mention the things I mention. Talking about role models, and calling some black athletes bad ones, does leave me feeling eerily like an aging neocon. But the easy thing for liberals to do--preach cultural relativism whenever anyone gets morally judgmental--often ends up harming the people we claim to defend. Surely the big problem for America today isn't that it is too discerning in the bestowal of celebrity.

 

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By Robert Wright