“I’m tired of journalists, under cover of painting a complete portrait, deciding the world is a better place for knowing whom public figures are sleeping with. This isn’t news, it’s pandering, especially when the man in question has been dead for 12 years and can’t defend himself”
— Michael Wilbon, RE: Sweetness
I’ve been asked, oh, 20 times what I thought about Michael Wilbon’s ESPN.com column about my book.
Today I finally read it.
In a word: Puzzling. For a journalist—a respected journalist—to write the above sentiment is weird/odd/confusing. To begin with, nobody said the world is a better place for knowing that Walter Payton was a wayward husband. What has been said (repeatedly, by me) is that one can’t write a complete, authentic, definitive biography of a life and ignore key portions. Let’s say, for example, that in 1982 Walter Payton cheated on his wife. One time. A slip. A mistake. Do I write about it? Very unlikely. But if a person peddles much of his image based off of a Family Guy persona, and if that persona is largely fictional, and if you’re writing a biography of that person’s life, well, how do you ignore it?
Seriously, I’d love for Wilbon (a guy I respect) to answer this one. You, Michael Wilbon, have agreed to write a definitive biography of Sweetness. You learn that, for the last 10 years of his life, his marriage wasn’t real. Do you ignore that? Really? And what about the depression? The suicice threats? Again—you’re responsible for a definitive, all-encompassing biography. There was this image of the happy, giddy, eternally cheerful Walter Payton—and it turns out that image was a shield. Do you ignore that, too?
And why? Because, when you were a kid growing up in Chicago, you loved him? Because he’s been deceased for 12 years, and thereby unable to defend himself (try telling that one to the biographers of JFK, MLK, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Elvis, Malcolm X, Roberto Clemente, Jim Henson, etc … etc). I’m just … baffled. Beyond baffled.
Truth is, a person’s weaknesses and down times explain significantly more (when it comes to character) than the highs. How a person responds at his lowest speaks to us on what he represents at his highest.
To ignore the struggle, simply because of guilt, would be to ignore the person.