normally at this time of year, when it comes to soccer, i'm settling into a nice groove of trying to figure out winners: keeping my fingers crossed for the ones i actually like and quietly poking needles into the voodoo dolls of those i hate. while i am certainly doing that, i've been distracted by a seemingly endless string of stories about footballers being naughty in their off time. well, really it's been just one player, with a cameo appearance from another, but it's also resurrected similar stories from the dead. [and a real time update...]
first, it was liverpool starlet raheem sterling smoking a shisha pipe. then it was raheem sterling inhaling nitrous oxide out of a balloon. then it was raheem sterling smoking a shisha pipe again, this time with teammate jordan ibe. this has created a lot of public backlash against the player, who has already been receiving the concentrated stink eye from liverpool fans after holding off signing a new deal with the club. and these images do unfortunately coincide with a rather shocking turn for the worse in liverpool's overall performance, so there has been a tendency to turn young raheem into a debauched scapegoat. [what on earth is a debauched scapegoat? -ed.][see above. -kate]
a number of publications used the story about sterling to remind everyone that arsenal midfielder jack wilshere was caught smoking a shisha pipe earlier this year, which was especially shocking since he'd earlier gotten in trouble when he appeared to share a cigarette with a friend and for an earlier incident where he'd had a cigarette in a bar. [in the time it took me to place the links for the wilshere bits, another story came to my attention about west bromwich player saido berahino inhaling nitrous oxide this week. clearly, the fabric of football society is unraveling.]
reading about this, there were a lot of questions that went through my mind: where do i sign up to get a lung transplant from one of these guys, because i haven't smoked in ten years and i still get winded walking up the stairs to my apartment? are those people who sell balloons at amusement parks really nitrous oxide dealers? why am i supposed to give a shit that these young men smoke and get legally high in their spare time?
with regard to the shit-giving question, i guess the argument is that sport celebrities are supposed to serve as role models for children. since i don't have flesh-children, i don't really know how that works, but i'm deeply uncomfortable with the idea of a role model who is supposed to possess the sort of dedication to one thing that makes him forgo every silly pleasure and indulgence in the name of success. that sounds like a recipe for a nation of thirty-year old serial killers. but like i said, i don't have kids.
the other argument for the public giving of shits about how men in their earlier twenties sometimes have a cig while out with friends, or inhale laughing gas, or do anything of the sort, is that they're accepting a lot of money to maintain their peak physical condition, and that this should be their first priority. ok fine, but by that measure, i should also be offended if these prime physical specimens drive cars, or walk outside when there's ice on the ground, or play with their kids. smoking a cigarette is lousy for your health, no doubt. i don't imagine nitrous oxide does you any favours either, but it's not like invading poland. [and don't start with me about how the fans are really paying these stars' astronomical salaries through ticket and merchandise sales so they deserve better. believe me, there are far worse things than cigarette smoking being done with your hard-earned dollars.]
the press assures me that raheem sterling has "escaped punishment" for his cigarette-and-balloon sins, however his team manager brendan rodgers says he thinks that both sterling and jordan ibe should make better choices about who they have as friends. i'm in complete agreement, although i don't think rodgers would approve. [note :: and rodgers was way nicer than wilshere's manager arsène wenger has been.]
clearly, rodgers means that they should try to distance themselves from other young men in their late teens and early twenties who do things like have the occasional cigarette and toy around with legal means of getting high. apparently it's no longer good enough for athletes to be squeaky-clean, but now they're not even allowed to associate with the reprobates i like to call "normal". [i'm going to go back to my nation of serial killers fear: it seems like rodgers' point is that a professional athlete should not have anyone in his inner circle with whom he can just kick back and be average. nothing good can come of that, brendan. it's an experiment in creating psychosis.]
my point about choosing better friends is this: clearly, these young men have a lot of people around them who think it's hilarious to take videos of their famous friends doing totally normal young man stuff and posting those videos on the internet. raheem, jack*, saido, i want you to understand something: those people are not your friends. those people are assholes and the fact that they insist on using images and videos of you in private moments in ways that are almost guaranteed to get you in trouble gives me the impression that they're likely harbouring some petty jealousy about your success and talent. rather than performing some great mea culpa about having a cigarette, i suggest you use the ensuing media shitstorm period to contact those "friends" and ask them why they thought it was such a great idea to post this stuff where anybody and everybody could see it. i don't have a lot of friends, but i'm confident that those i do have would never put anything on the internet that would get me public or professional trouble. and believe me, i've given them the ammo. [*in the case of wilshere, a lot of his "problem" photos weren't taken by friends but by paparazzi or onlookers. still assholes, but you have less control over them.]
with seasons winding up and competitions in europe going down to the wire, there's certainly lots to follow in the soccer world. however, i will refuse to follow the media histrionics and puritanical rage that accompanies leaked photos and videos of young men behaving like totally average young men. i will continue to file such reports into the "whatever" folder and quietly hope that these guys manage to connect with people who aren't such shitty friends. failing that, if your friends abolutely must post your embarrassing personal moments to the internet...
then i hope that you're at least able to turn the situation into something that just shows that you are still a great player who is awesomely above it all...
and if you'd like to see a few stories that are actually interesting and relevant about the above-mentioned players, perhaps you'd like to check out
... how raheem sterling's story illustrates that the support of family and community, combined with the relatively low barriers to entry for soccer mean the sport really can change the life path for a youth "at risk"
... how jack wilshere had a profound effect on the life of one sick boy [you should probably have a box of tissues on hand for this one]
... how saido berahino is a perfect example of the redemptive potential of the united kingdom's immigration system [so suck it, ukip]
and as for the rest of us, i think we should all pause imagine what life would be like if we had our worst moments posted on the internet.