I have long had a theory as to just why so many of our biggest and most successful sports stars are such unrepentant jerks. I think we all instinctively know that this is the case, even if we may try to shield our own favorite players from such accusations. I am a huge fan of both Real Madrid and the Los Angeles Lakers, and I can still readily admit the both Kobe Bryant and Cristiano Ronaldo are absolute dicks. And please don’t come at me trying to argue that this isn’t the case because they donate their incredible athlete blood to needy children in third world countries or some shit when their antics both on and off the field/court indicate just how massive their capability for douchebaggery is.
If you need proof, the examples are endless. I won’t even touch here on the accusations of sexual misconduct, credible or otherwise, because there’s no need when the number of illustrations is so ample. I was introduced to CR7 in the 2006 World Cup, in which he jumped in the referee’s face to help get his Manchester United teammate Wayne Rooney sent off after the English striker stamped on Ricardo Carvalho’s most sensitive bits (itself a jackass move). He topped this off by winking at the bench after Rooney was shown the red card in an act of the kind of supreme arrogance that became customary over the years. For as amazing a player as he was and is, he was remarkably self-centered, clearly prioritizing his own self-aggrandizement over the benefit of the team, pouting when others scored instead of him and generally not celebrating with teammates when they did well.
Two of basketball’s consensus greater-evers from the past 30 years - Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant – have equally ugly histories, even when viewed through the prism of nostalgia that tends to gloss over such flaws. Kobe famously sold out his then-teammate Shaquille O’Neal in trying to weasel out of a rape allegation, essentially throwing him under the bus by referring to Shaq’s infidelities to paint his own in a better light. He was also notoriously awful to anyone he didn’t consider up to his own high standards, including teammates. He once informed fellow Laker Smush Parker, “You need more accolades under your belt before you come talk to me” completely unironically. He has even, by his own admission, made teammates cry before, and when he reminisces about it the take-home message seems to be that the teammate was just “so bad” that he kind of deserved it.
Michael Jordan was arguably an even worse character. He is beloved for his incredible talent, hyper-competitive personality, and, perhaps most of all, his remarkable success; but his nasty streak is pretty much universally recognized in basketball circles at this point. From punching multiple different teammates in practice to using his Hall of Fame induction speech to jab at just about everyone from his past, however cheap a target they were, he always had a penchant for convincingly playing the heel. After MJ and the Washington Wizards brass made Kwame Brown the first draft pick straight out of high school in 2001, His Airness made his return to the basketball court with the Wizards and took to berating the teenager, famously calling him a “fucking faggot” and generally destroying his confidence.
My own belief about why the athletic cream of the crop exhibits this tendency has to do with the level of commitment required to be truly elite. If Malcolm Gladwell is correct in his assertion that the path to greatness in any field is paved with ten thousand hours of practice, then it makes sense that the players who have sufficient devotion to their own improvement are the ones who will truly excel. The willingness to put in that amount of work is exceedingly rare and essentially means that only people with a freakish competitive instinct or insane narrow-mindedness can hope to make it to the highest echelon in their sport. I don’t know about you, but most of the people I know who are highly competitive are also, well, complete jerks, at least during the course of the actual competition. While we laud athletes for their competitive instinct, we tend to forget that this whole other side exists that often gets glossed over when we try to lionize great players and make them into generational heroes.
There are obviously plenty of counterexamples here, one being our own beloved Raul, who certainly had a healthy competitive drive but was able to harness it without being a total twat about it. Tim Duncan will go down as one of a handful of the greatest big men to ever play basketball, but he always kept his head down and focused purely on the game without engaging in any of the unsavory extracurriculars so many resort to. And that is not to say that flamboyant characters are always jackasses, because mere trash talk and show-boating don’t bother me in the slightest if they are done without malice. LeBron James, for all his haters, has always been a stand-up guy, and it was for this reason that I initially questioned whether he could be truly great. Having grown up during the age of Kobe, when his cut-throat personality dominated all, I found it hard to believe that a relatively genial guy like him could ever develop the kind of ice-in-your-veins mentality necessary to perform in the clutch and put a foot on the neck of opponents when it counted. I was clearly wrong about that, as his tenacity has been more than evident even while his asshole meter has stayed relatively low.
It is within this context that I interpret Marco Asensio’s recent comments in a somewhat less negative light than many who have excoriated the young Spaniard for a perceived lack of backbone in passing off Real Madrid’s struggles onto others. The quote that has people most up in arms was when he said, “For me, I don’t see Madrid in a crisis. And I don’t think it’s for me to carry the team - there are players who are much more experienced, have more years playing under their belts and more status than I have and they’re the one who have to lead the team.” This has led many to criticize him for refusing to take responsibility for the team’s struggles instead of stepping up and taking the challenge on himself.
While I understand the impulse to critique his almost flippant dismissal of his own role in the team’s negative string of results prior to Solari’s arrival, I am more inclined to cut him some slack for a number of reasons. First, the context of the question is important here and is never mentioned when his comments get thrown around. The question he was asked was about the crisis the club finds itself in and what the experience is teaching him, and the very first thing he said was, “I don’t see it as a crisis” before continuing on with the rest of the quote as we have all read it. To me, his answer was a deflection more than anything, a diversion away from the notion of the club in crisis and from his role as the one to help right the ship. While I wish he was more willing to take on that mantle for himself, you can’t argue that he’s wrong - there are clearly many older and more experienced players in the Real Madrid locker room whose role it is to steer the team through hard times. A 22 year old Marco Asensio is certainly not one of them, nor should he be expected to be.
The second, and arguably more important, reason I’m not particularly bothered is precisely because he doesn’t seem to be the kind of guy to do that anyway – or in other words, he doesn’t particularly seem like an asshole. That’s just not in his DNA, and I think we have all seen that. He has all the talent in the world, and though I would like to believe that he has it in him to be a top-shelf competitor who will guide teams to victory through sheer force of will, I just don’t see that being his role. And you know what? That’s okay. This is Real Madrid, for Christ’s sake; our club is lousy with guys who are looking to establish themselves in the footballing world by taking the reins and driving the team forward. There is absolutely no need for Marco Asensio to be THAT GUY on a team containing Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, Marcelo… The list goes on and on, but you get the point.
The counter-argument is persuasive though, as it is always nice for your best players to be mentally strong enough to carry the load, and I do think that he is lacking that killer instinct to really push him over the edge into greatness territory. But at the end of the day, on a squad as talented as ours, that is not really needed from him, nor is it even being asked. No one on the team is looking to Marco friggin Asensio for guidance, and the fact that he said it tells me nothing other than that he’s still a kid who’s trying to figure it all out. To be honest, I don’t think we need another personality like that. Too many assholes spoil the pot, as seen in the current situation with the Golden State Warriors, and the standards don’t have to be the same for young talented attackers as they are for veteran central defenders. If he’s going to go that route, though, I suggest he takes the Rock’s advice to “know your role and shut your mouth” the next time. He’s definitely got the first part down; if he can work on the second, he might just be okay.