Tarnishing an Icon: the perils of biogrpahy

Walter Payton
Image via Wikipedia

Jeff Pearlman‘s biography of Walter Payton has stirred some controversy. Shocking, I know, in this culture of celebrity and shock marketing.  But I also thinks it raises some interesting questions. Do we really want to know the history of iconic figures?  In particular, do we want to know the ugly details of our sports heroes?  Obviously, there is a market for books that offer salacious gossip about the lives of the famous. But is there something wrong with publishing the unseemly details of the life of a football player that is a hero to many; someone that seemed to represent all that is good about professional sports?

Sports Illustrated writer Peter King weighs in with his thoughts:

When the furor over the Walter Payton biography Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton surfaced last month, I told you I’d pass along my thoughts when I’d read it. Now that I have, I can tell you it’s terrific.

The painstaking detail is what makes this one of the best sports biographies I’ve ever read.


You pass judgment on whether a book about a beloved figure that both glorifies and tarnishes him should be written. My judgment is it should. Payton was a superstar, a public figure of national significance for 25 years. Were we demanding to know he used drugs and philandered and at times was a bad teammate with the Bears? No. But figures of renown are subjects of books all the time, and Payton’s life, as it turns out, is beyond interesting. It’s compelling. It’s most often riveting, particularly the parts about his formative years in the Deep South. It’s real history, not the gauzy stuff.

Oh. And the prologue of Sweetness … The first page of the book is jarring. It can’t get better than Pearlman’s meeting with Walter Payton. But the rest of the book lives up to the promise of the first page. It’s that good.

I am torn. It sounds like a fascinating book and full of great details about both Payton and the NFL, but I am not sure I really want to know the truth at this point. Perhaps I prefer to keep my unsullied view of Walter Payton. Perhaps I want to hang on to my icon rather than the real person behind it (flawed yes, but also compelling and real).

What about you? Do like to read iconoclastic biographies?  Do you prefer to keep your heroes on a pedestal?

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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