Media Circus: Who's bad?

Dennis the Menace meets the Ice Princess: What Oksana Baiul could learn from Dennis Rodman, and vice versa.

Published January 21, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Dennis Rodman may dress like a woman, but he takes his punishment like a man -- which is just as well for him, as the Wide World of Sports is far more forgiving of male misconduct than female trouble. Consider the vastly different reactions to Rodman's latest outrage and to the recent, if not so widely reported, drunk driving incident involving former Olympic skater Oksana Baiul.

I'm not going to recount the whole sordid story of Rodman's Kick, the details of which have by now been driven into the skulls of every living American over the age of three. But the media reaction is telling. Though Rodman is now enduring the ritual abuse of sports commentators and fans (he'd "have to move up several notches to qualify as a fool," NBC's Bob Costas complained), very few believe this suspension will mean the end of Rodman's career. He's reportedly paid off the photographer, and even the NBA fine and the loss of a million dollars in revenue will barely put a dent in his pocketbook.

Sure, a tone of triumphant gloating has seeped into much of the coverage of The Kick, mainly because it's pretty obvious that the well-compensated bad boy is finally paying a price not only for stomping photographer Eugene Amos in what columnist Mark Wolf described as "sports' unofficial Demilitarized Zone," but also for his increasingly formulaic shtick. I mean, it's not as if this is his first assault: over the last five seasons he's head-butted two players and a referee. But his punishment for these incidents was pretty light -- he was suspended for a total of eight games. Now, for one kick, he's out 11 games. What's changed since those earlier suspensions? Mainly that everyone is now thoroughly sick of him. He's being punished as much for MTV's "Rodman World Tour" as he is for the kick. Having watched a bit of the show, I can only say he's getting off lightly. Is there any way we can suspend Jenny McCarthy for something?

Still, Rodman is unapologetic, and he's responded to his suspension a lot like, well, like a black male crossdressing Tonya Harding -- by whining and complaining and blaming the victim. He's accused the photographer of exaggerating his injuries -- a charge echoed by other players on the team, by coach Phil Jackson and by sports writer John McGrath, who says he's been "tempted to nominate the fallen camera-man as the NBA's Best Supporting Actor, but the fewer references here about 'support,' the better."

The reaction to Baiul's spill has been rather different. Concerned skating observers spoke in hushed tones of a catastrophe of major proportions: it seemed Baiul had tarnished not only her own image, but that of figure skating itself. It was almost as if she'd taken up with Jeff Gillooly. "This beautiful, pristine world we see on the ice, if it wasn't dashed by Tonya Harding and her thugs in '94, sadly, it might have been dashed a little bit over the past few days with Oksana Baiul," sniffed Christine Brennan, author of "Inside Edge," a book about figure skating. But the tone was more of sorrow than of anger -- the sorrow of unhappy parents who've just discovered that their little girl isn't acting like a little girl any more. "She's so lost, that little girl," a skating instructor at the Simsbury, Connecticut, skating center near where Baiul lives. "She needs a mom and dad."

Baiul, unlike Rodman, was apologetic for her actions -- even though the main victim of her accident was none other than herself. She released a contrite statement to the press apologizing "to the many people who have supported me in the past" and asking for their "understanding," but even this wasn't enough for many critics -- among them the Chicago Tribune's Philip Hersh, who suggested that "[l]imiting her remarks to this incident may reflect her failure to understand a larger problem."

You see, the 19-year-old "ice princess" is apparently out of control. The evidence? She owns a Mercedes. She's living alone, in a half-million dollar house. She's been seen in the company of professional football players. And last year, she announced to the world that "I am not any more little girl," appearing in the pages of Esquire in hot pants and not much else. Clearly, as Julia Prodis of the Associated Press has pointed out, little Oksana has been "drifting from the structured, disciplined life of skating, the six-hour practices and endless repetition." This "fairy-tale princess," as Hersh describes her, has become "more concerned about being some sort of sex goddess than a skating star."

I can't help but think that neither Rodman nor Baiul will benefit much from the public reactions to their various crimes. Rodman's penalty is far too light; Baiul's too harsh. In basketball, and in most other male-dominated sports, a DWI arrest is about as noteworthy as an endorsement deal. The sport tolerates, even rewards, a certain degree of casual thuggery and personal excess: Rodman's $9 million salary reflects his peculiar brand of showmanship as much as it does his rebounding ability.

As for Baiul, well, it may be that the 19-year-old skater is a little bit out of control -- but what 19-year-old isn't? A life of regimented slavery to coaches, judges and fans isn't really that much better than a life of careless excess. Baiul's obviously made some mistakes, but mistakes are all too understandable given her most peculiar upbringing: trained her whole life to be a pristine, perfect princess in a pretty box, she's naturally having some trouble adjusting to her status as "not any more little girl."

Why does a figure skater have to be an angel, anyway? Well, in part because figure skating is as much a circus as a sport. "Figure skating, like the Miss America pageant, often resembles some peculiar, outdated girls' school dedicated to preparing its students for a world that doesn't exist," Village Voice editor Stacey D'Erasmo has argued. "The code, rigidly enforced, appears to be obedience, inoffensive prettiness, wearing your skirts short enough but not too short, and smiling on bound feet." Sexuality, but not too much sexuality; athleticism, but not strength. That's a recipe for disaster.

We need more bad girls in the world of sports, and fewer bad boys.

EXTRA! If it bleeds ...

It's an obvious enough target: the nightly festival of fires, murders, disasters and fluff known as the local news. But "Six O'Clock News," showing on PBS' "Frontline" tonight at 9 p.m., is only superficially about the deleterious effects of tabloid-style TV journalism. Instead, the Brookline, Massachusetts-based filmmaker Ross McElwee uses the news as a canvas on which to explore complicated and perhaps unanswerable questions about God, chaos and the nature of reality. McElwee is known for quirky, individualistic documentaries such as "Sherman's March" and "Time Indefinite." "Six O'Clock News" follows in his peculiarly personal tradition, offering a sometimes fascinating, sometimes frustrating, glimpse at the realities obscured by soundbite journalism.

By David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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