Separating players from their personalities? An overly-romantic ideal 0

Michael Dawson the person is a shining example of professionalism, but Michael Dawson the Tottenham centre-back is a declining force.  Ask a Tottenham fan what he or she thinks of the creaking defender, and any criticism will be tempered by praise of Dawson’s commitment or application.

It’s interesting - yet natural - that the type of person a player is has a direct impact on how we assess his performances and how much patience we have during periods of fallow form. Whilst an Ashley Cole error, for example, will be fed-off virally for weeks, mistakes from players of Dawson’s character tend to be noticed but then awkwardly brushed aside and rarely mentioned again.

A villain falling flat on his face is funny, but a good, honest professional? No, that just makes us squirm.

Beyond Spurs’ defensive fragility, this does have some general contemporary relevance, too. As the end of the season draws nearer, the time for individual awards comes with it - and that’s led to a flurry of recent articles about Luis Suarez and the ability to separate his talent from his many misdemeanours. Martin Samuel is the latest to write on this topic, with his article in The Mail this morning discussing Chelsea’s John Terry and the behavioural asterisk which seems to accompany everything he does on the pitch.

Is it fair? No, not really, but it’s unavoidable.

Back in the 1990s, Nike built an advertising campaign around NBA star Charles Barkley with the famous tagline “I am not a role-model. I am not paid to be a role-model”. From a commercial perspective it was very successful, but of course the logic behind it was deeply-flawed: Barkley’s legacy is underpinned as much by his out-spoken personality as it was his rebounding. Whether he liked it or not, his sport’s popularity meant it was impossible to separate who he was on the court from who he frequently was during press-conferences and in real-life.

The Premier League exists within a different culture to the NBA, but as with any big-market sport it relies on the value of its individuals. Richard Scudamore is generally accredited with being a driving force behind football’s growth in this country, but without the superstar cultivation which the league’s platform provides the broadcasting contract would be a tiny percentage of what it currently is. Fans in Singapore and Malaysia don’t really tune-in to watch English clubs play each other, they want to see the stars employed by those teams face each other on the same pitch. The growth of the Premier League brand has been almost entirely reliant on the personalities, images, and abilities of individuals.

Ironically, using newspaper and website columns to bemoan the lack of distinction between ‘person’ and ‘player’ is in itself a demonstration of why separation is impossible. Football has grown to the point where we don’t just concern ourselves with the actual sport, we engage hungrily with almost every associated aspect of it: the finances, the governing bodies, the wives, the girlfriends, the nightclub incidents. Nobody is to blame for that, because the media really just feed the demand for content, but the way the game is packaged to the general public prevents anyone from judging a player purely on what he does between the white lines.

We will never regress to the point where top-level players’ behaviour isn’t covered extensively, and so what we hear about them during a week will always affect our judgement of what they do on a Saturday. Expecting anything else is overly-romantic and unrealistic.

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