Thursday, September 29, 2011

Walter Payton and Malcolm X - Biography Dilemmas

There are two books that I have been excited to read this year. One was the biography of Malcolm X by Manning Marable which I bought this summer. The second will be Walter Payton's biography, due in October by Jeff Pearlman.

Both books were praised for their thorough reporting and attention to detail. Both books are vilified for revealing personal information that paints Malcolm and Payton in a negative light. Maybe it's me but I read stories not to find juicy gossip of heroes, but to find the full measure of a man/woman that made them who they are.

I got into an interesting email debate with a friend regarding the Malcolm X biography. I was eager to share with him about how the bio showed Malcolm may have exaggerated his criminal record and why he and the Nation of Islam's split was bound to happen almost immediately. I told him some of the juicier stuff not to slander Malcolm but to just share information and he got upset about it.

He responded by saying that since he held Malcolm in such high regard, what purpose does it serve to speculate focusing on his flaws. Then he said that this is why he preferred autobiographies because he'd rather hear the story from the source, not somebody else.

I'm seeing the same thing now as information and excerpts have leaked from Pearlman's book on Payton. Several friends of mine are outraged at the dirt that was published and I can't blame them. Walter Payton is perhaps one of the finest gentlemen I know from the NFL and his death saddened me in high school.

Yet at the same time, I have little knowledge of what made Payton the hero so many praised besides tidbits. At the time of his death, all I know was he was the all-time leading rusher and Barry Sanders would've passed him had he not retired. I knew Chicago loved him and that he had one of the best nicknames in sports. Now I feel like I have a chance to know the man behind the legend. A man who did so much more than smile and play football.

It's always a dilemma writing about a biography. There's a chance you're going to discover things you didn't want to know or things you know the public will focus on. Authors have to be truthful but not salacious. You need to cover as many angles and talk to as many people as you can while deciding whose voice gets heard.

Autobiographies are the work of one person, one voice. It's easier to see what gets said because the subject has total control and free reign to discuss their lives. But also, I can see why they can have flaws. Some stuff might not be discussed in depth. The subject may not fully be aware of outside influences that affected decisions in their life. Because they control what goes in, they also control what goes out.

The flipside is when autobiographies aren't afraid to discuss it all. Consider Darryl Strawberry's autobiography, one of the best books that I've read in the last few years. Consider Michael Irvin being an open book on his shortcomings. A good autobiography address the good and the bad but ultimately show redemption and insight we can't get anywhere else.

Both have their problems. But both have plenty of advantages. I'd love to hear a person tell their story but I'd also love to know more information that adds a lot of perspective to who they are. Not everything is for public consumption.

I'll never forget when I read this Sports Illustrated piece on Kirby Puckett. It broke my heart because Kirby was an inspiration to me playing ball as a kid and finding out his dirt from his wife saddened me. I'll never forget the picture of a crying Puckett on the first page of the article cause it set the tone for a sad, yet thorough article by Frank Deford. Eight years later, I still cringe reading it and shake my head the whole time. I still admire him even though he wasn't always the guy we were sold.

I know not everyone wants to read about their heroes negatively. It makes me reflect on how I grew up with that. I realized at a young age that using words like "idol" or "hero" were a problem and decided on my own not to use them because the Bible warned against idols and heroes could disappoint you. Instead, I used inspiration/role model. There were only 2 men that I truly saw above others - AC Green and David Robinson.

It proved prophetic as I watched as Ken Griffey Jr. went from superman to an injured guy who I found out may not have been the best teammate. Saw Kobe Bryant let me down then restore my faith in him. Maybe it's sad that I don't bat an eye at Shaquille O'Neal, my favorite NBA player, when I find out more about him I don't like.

This is all while journalism from my HS years to now routinely looked for stories to expose the truth about great players, leading us to this 24/7 media culture that almost eliminates the chance of someone to become like they would have 20/30 years ago. Just look how quick Josh Hamilton was elevated from his depths only to be bashed when he stumbled. I hate it but maybe I've become jaded by it to come up with my own reasons for admiring people.

Yet I still admire Ken Griffey, Shaq, Kobe, LaDainian Tomlinson, Steve McNair and so many other athletes. They may not be perfect but who is? Does their good outweigh their bad? I hope for all of us it does because I believe it for them.

Ultimately, I don't read someone's life story for gossip. I read them for insight into who they are. Malcolm X was not a perfect man but his imperfections make him far more appealing to me than any other civil rights icon. His biography may not be perfect but the information on his split with the NOI and his several Middle East trips is fascinating.

Walter Payton's story may downgrade him from perfect sainthood but I believe God can still use flawed people to inspire others. I hope that whatever anger and sadness we feel from reading this book and these excerpts are also tempered by a better appreciation of what shaped this great man.

Sweetness is still a man I admire for his dignity, grace, how he became larger than life and how he played the game. No book can change that for me but it can certainly add to it by humanizing him to see him persevere.

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