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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Athletes & Celebrities: Lydia Ko, Michael Phelps & Mo'Ne Davis

Mo'Ne Davis. Photo Credit: J. Puskar/AP
Mo'Ne Davis, the little girl with the fast arm who's leading the Taney Dragons from Philly to what's increasingly looking like a victory at the 68th Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA this week, has grabbed the attention of New York Times sportswriter Jake Flanagin and Glamor's Megan Angelo, among others.  What kind of future, they muse, does "a 13 year-old, 5-foot-4 girl with a mean throwing arm" have as a professional athlete?  Oh my goodness! What an interesting question!  Let's unpack it, starting with a quick look at the difference between professional athletes and sports celebrities.  Or are these categories so overlapped in our culture that there's no difference?

Michael Phelps. Photo
Michael Phelps is a gifted athlete.  Lydia Ko is a gifted athlete.  What kind of future's ahead for a 6-foot-4 guy who's earned 22 pieces of Olympic gold, who has the wing span of a golden falcon and swims like a dolphin?  What's ahead for a 17-year old, 5-foot-5 golfer who made Time Magazine's 2014 list of 100 Most Influential People?  Phelps isn't technically a pro athlete but Phelps and Ko are both celebrity athletes and it seems to me that Mo'Ne Davis is heading down that road as well.

By its nature celebrity is an artificial construct and it's transitory.  I've seen Lydia Ko up close and personal because I'm a golf fan but I've never (to my knowledge) come face-to-face with either Phelps or Davis, although I'd recognize both of them if they were standing in line behind me at the movies.  Celebrity is a creation of the mass media and ours is a culture that values and admires athletic talent and rewards it by exploiting the athletes who demonstrate it.
Lydia Ko.
Photo Credit:

Young athletes age and bodies pushed beyond normal limits break down, and then performance and celebrity diminish and, ultimately, vaporize unless those athletes have forged a path from celebrity to something more enduring.  Michael Phelps is confronting and Tiger Woods is passing through this transitional phase.  Suzann Pettersen, who's made clear her intention to exit competitive pro golf after the 2016 Rio Olympics, is anticipating it.  Annika Sorenstam and Arnold Palmer have successfully made the transition from that transitory life moment of athletic celebrity to a more enduring and substantial period of fame.

So what does the future hold for Mo'Ne Davis, the teenager with the fast arm who's been enfolded and embraced by the boy-dominated Taney Dragons Little League team from Philly?  Or is the real question more focused on Mo'Ne's immediate future?  Do Mo'Ne's prospects mirror the prospects of all those other, less visible little girls who are setting their swim goggles, taking their stances and addressing the ball, and snugging their feet firm against the starting blocks?  On the possibility that they'll be accepted on a high school and then collegiate men's team rather than being consigned to the lower prestige women's teams?  On the probability that they'll be denied the opportunity for a career in the major (read that as men's) leagues?  Will Little League celebrity translate into equality of opportunity at the pro level of athletic competition for Mo'Ne Davis?  Now those are the real questions, aren't they?

Sadly, in the modern world of Title IX and EEOC legislation, gender equity is no more a reality on the playing field than in Fortune 500 Board Rooms and celebrity equity still does not translate into equality of opportunity or financial reward.

But I say to those little girls:
play on, and each of you take away one of the bricks in the wall that blocks your collective path to the the future you want.