What Is Beckham?

"David Beckham's not here just to play soccer," said David Flores, who wore an England jersey and made a five-hour drive from San Antonio with two friends. "He's here to sell the league. He should have come with the team just to wave to the crowd and everybody would have understood."

"I understand why he's not playing," Jessica [Anderson] said. "But he's making $250 million to be an ambassador. Why can't he sit on the bench?"

- LA Daily News, 7.31.07 (LINK)

Not to get all existentialist on you, but what is David Beckham? A player? A commodity? Or, as Jessica Anderson put it, an ambassador? Just to throw out two answers to those questions, along with another question: not yet; yes; and, well, should he be?

To begin, there’s a kind of genius to Jessica’s point. With the fallout continuing (even Perez Hilton is getting in on this one) after the Galaxy’s (wise) decision to let Beckham stay at home for the Los Angeles Galaxy’s Superliga tie against FC Dallas, she asks a fair question. How many people went to see FC Dallas in the same spirit as they would cruise Rodeo Drive - e.g. rubber-necking after stars? If just seeing the man is enough, what’s the harm in sitting him on the bench and letting him wave, sign autographs, etc. - even if he’s not playing?

Dammit...more questions...time to move to answers.

I think we can judge Beckham as a brand - e.g. a commodity - at this point: he has been a success, even allowing for the short-term disappointment in Dallas. And with outlets as weird as Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight helping to build the brand with a series of fluffy-happy pieces (caught another one last night; don’t ask...OK, we hadn’t switched to Jeopardy yet), that success looks set to continue. But that dives headlong into a familiar question: does that kind of press have Anna-Nicole-style stamina, or is this more of a Paula-Abdul-on-pills flash-in-the-pan?

Given how the size, and, more significantly, the nature of the hype, I’m even beginning to wonder if Beckham even have to play all that well; I mean, will people fascinated by his connection to TomKat even grok when he’s phoning it in? But, I do believe that, at some point, Beckham has to do what he’s here to do - e.g. play the game. At some point, even total ignorance of the sport among the relevant slice of the population won’t cover the fact he’s just standing and waving at the crowd. I mean, even Paris Hilton feels compelled to record a single, right? In some ways, then, I think the ambassador thing is a road traveled for only the shortest distance...and I think, with this weekend’s game in Toronto, we’re as far down there as we want to go.

Turning to the player theme, there’s something about the pressure for Beckham to play that rides the ridge of off-putting and tilts a bit to the alarming side. The day he played in the friendly against Chelsea, a shift in the kind of commodity he was occurred: he went from “brand” to slab of meat. My “mind’s ear” heard echoes of “Dance, Monkey!” That’s kind of the scary side of all this. There are times when I see how Beckham is constantly surrounded by unfamiliar humans doing interviews and photo shoots or being generally pawed, ogled and photographed by the hoi polloi, when I think he’s heard the voice telling him to dance so many times that the response is automatic. He’ll never live up to expectations, so it’s probably lucky that he won’t have to - though that assumes I’m correct on that.

Turning from Beckham “The Whatever the Hell He Is” to what he means to Major League Soccer after he’s gone, one effect already seems in place - though it’s fair to question the extent to which Beckham served as cause. Does anyone remember a year with as many new, mid- (think Juan Pablo Angel) to high- (think Blanco) interest players coming into the league? In a sense, those signings are the red blood cells of professional athletics: it’s the low of a mediocre season trumped by the high of seeing the next New Hope for changing things embodied in this forward or that midfielder. That’s what keeps people coming back: the little changes in personnel, tactics, etc. that promises, if not better things to come, something different at least. Maybe Beckham signing opened the door for all those signings. Maybe Beckham’s less of a player, a commodity, or an ambassador, than he is a lure - though not in the sense I had once believed.

Then again, maybe it was the designated player rule that did all this. I mean, look at all the friggin’ green cards in this league. Maybe all it took was a means of avoiding a massive pay-cut for the apparent appeal of living in the States to pay off.

Any thoughts on this?


Marco said...

It's an interesting take to consider Beckham as mere eye-candy for the supporters... so from that point of view, seeing the man (whether it be on the bench or on the actual playing field) is the same.

Some supporters don't share that view though. From what I've been gathering at Gazzetta.it (Italy's biggest sports newspaper), some Galaxy supporters are complaining (see the article and associated explicit picture at http://www.gazzetta.it/Calcio/Estero/Primo_Piano/2007
/08_Agosto/02/beckham_0208.shtml )

Granted, an Italian newspaper isn't the best source for this kind of info, but it's an indication nonetheless that the LA supporters are getting restless.

laurie said...

Jeff, I just devoted a post to your post -- it will show up late Friday morning.

Marco, Galaxy fans are pretty upset that this is being portrayed in the international press as the Galaxy fans themselves with issues about Beckham. That picture was an FC Dallas fan at Tuesday's game in Frisco, Texas. Dallas fans were upset (and rightfully so, in my mind) that the tickets were marketed (at jacked up prices) as "See Beckham" tickets when he didn't even make the trip.

From what I can tell, most Galaxy fans are still pretty patient and want him healthy before he plays.