The Players Tribune published a brief post penned by Derek Jeter addressing the death of Muhammad Ali. The 145-word piece expressed admiration for the way Ali spoke his mind. On its face, it seemed pretty harmless. But it was clearly enough to send New York Daily News writer Ebenezer Samuel into a tizzy.
In a response titled “Derek Jeter honors Muhammad Ali for living the life he never would,” Samuel lays into the longtime New York Yankees captain with rage usually reserved for people not named Derek Jeter.
Never had such eloquent words of Jeter’s PR flaks rung quite this hollow, the most inauthentic athlete of our time celebrating the most genuine. From LeBron James to Chris Paul to Serena Williams, plenty of athletes spent Saturday paying tribute to Ali, but none came off as insincerely as Derek Jeter, “real” personality for hire.
Freedom, Derek? Really? Jeter always had that, from the very moment he landed in the Big Apple spotlight in 1995, a superstar who could have addressed any issue he ever wanted. But Jeter, tone-deaf on Saturday because he never listened to the world in the first place, never understood what Ali really brought, that what he really did was offer a roadmap for today’s athlete to be an activist.
It’s true that Jeter was a polished professional when it came to the media. His ability to say nothing and say it every day could be used in media training classes aimed to create milquetoast superstars.
Calling Jeter “hollow” and “inauthentic,” however, requires a knowledge of a personality that he never shared. More than that, it’s tough to imagine that an individual could conjure up so much rage at another human being expressing an appreciating for what Ali did.
Samuel was not done.
For two decades in pinstripes, Jeter wanted no part of authenticity. He made a career out of not speaking his mind, unless Gatorade or Rawlings or the Steiner Sports memorabilia machine were paying him to speak on their behalf. For 20 years, he stood in front of his locker and addressed the media and stood only for his right to stand for absolutely nothing.
You could walk up to Jeter in the Yankee locker room and ask him about his stance on race issues, or his position on the presidential election, or his thoughts on the way Ken Griffey Jr. wore his baseball cap, but there was always a lot of “what am I supposed to say?” rhetoric.
The argument can be made that Jeter never maximized his position to enact social change. The bigger argument is if that’s now a requirement for a 21st Century athlete to gain respect.
I understand that Samuel’s issue is likely with Jeter paying lip service and never letting his words or actions speak loudly.
But, goddamn man, this seems harsh.
What is the end game here? To set the bar so high that only those with completely flawless legacies are able to honor a man after he dies? Only those that truly lived as the fallen hero will be afforded to chime in?
There are few, if any, athletes who can match Ali’s legacy fighting for social issues. That’s what made him such an important figure.
As a society we honor those who do things better than we can do them. That’s the point.
Samuel could write the same article about any number of the millions of public figures who posted Ali tributes. And maybe he will.
If so, he’d better get writing.