Jerry Rice's lament that his MVP-winning performance in Super Bowl XXIII was insufficiently trumpeted by the media speaks volumes, I fear, about the priorities of the modern athlete. Not 72 hours after his team, the San Francisco 49ers, defeated the Cincinnati Bengals in the most exciting of Super Bowls, Rice, who had 215 receiving yards (a Super Bowl record), was on the air with San Francisco sportscaster Pete Liebengood complaining that the press was "not getting my name out there. I don't know if I'll get any recognition in commercials or anything, but right now, the way things are looking, I'm not going to get nothing [endorsements] out of being the MVP." Then, almost modestly, he added, "I really don't want all the recognition, but I feel like I deserve to get some of it. If it were Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, there would have been headlines all over."
Rice intimated but never actually charged that the snub was racially motivated. He said that the lion's share of the postgame publicity had gone to his quarterback, Montana, and his departing coach, Bill Walsh, both of whom are white. By prearrangement, it was Montana, not Rice, who got the chance to make a fool of himself—and $50,000—for bellowing "I'm going to Disneyland" after the game.
An argument might be made that Rice got almost as much ink for griping about not getting ink as he got for what he did in the Super Bowl. His remarks plunged Bay Area newspaper editors into a spasm of soul-searching. The San Francisco Examiner even ran a front-page story quoting the reactions of various editors, writers and educators to this implied accusation of racism. There were mea culpas, sturdy defenses of journalistic integrity and promises of a more enlightened future.
Then came quite a different response from other quarters. What on earth could Rice be complaining about? Why, the guy was all over the newspapers the day after the Super Bowl, and he was on the cover of that week's SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Walsh was news because it was widely and correctly believed that he would quit coaching after the big game, and Montana got a lot of attention because he had come back from an injury and a demotion by Walsh to lead San Francisco in a dramatic final-seconds victory drive. But Rice was hardly slighted. John C. Dvorak, a columnist for the Examiner, painstakingly listed every story and photograph devoted to Rice in both the Examiner and other papers and concluded sourly, "Folks, if this is an example of being snubbed by the media, then we should all be so lucky!" Rice's complaint, he wrote, "trivializes genuine racist issues and hurts the cause of someone who has genuine discrimination complaints."
February 13, 1989
Well, this is lively stuff, but it seems to me that a fundamental point is being overlooked. Why was Rice complaining in the first place? Aren't athletes, particularly those as purportedly modest as he, supposed to be indifferent to headlines? Don't the real rewards come in the form of respect from their peers? That, at any rate, is what they keep telling us. So why does Rice want his "name out there"? He gave us the answer himself: He wants those television commercials. He wants to go out and sell Japanese cars, after-shave lotion and office furniture on the old tube because that's where the real dough is.
The modern athlete doesn't play for la gloire or even a healthy pay-check (and Rice, who earned $950,000 last year in salary and who made another $64,000 in the playoffs and the Super Bowl, is scarcely underpaid); he plays to become a television huckster. Who can blame him? Rice knows that Montana made about a million dollars in endorsements and appearance fees as the MVP of the 49ers' Super Bowl victory in 1985. And he has seen Ickey Woods—a black player—do his shuffle in the electronic marketplace. And how about the Refrigerator? Or basketball's Michael Jordan, who is as ubiquitous now as the Fuller Brush Man used to be? In locker rooms these days superstars are distinguished from drones by their endorsement portfolios. Why not get it while you can?
So Rice has really performed a valuable public service in making his true ambitions so conspicuous. He has stripped away any lingering illusions we may have entertained about the goals of the modern athlete. There may yet be a few among us naive enough to think that being named the Most Valuable Player in the most important game of his life would be sufficient reward for a 26-year-old, but I suspect our number is dwindling. Most of us know—and Rice has helped teach us—that an athlete's proudest moment comes not-when he stands before us holding aloft a glistening silver trophy as the symbol of a mighty triumph. No, it comes when he has got a box of soap in his hand and he's telling us, oh, so sincerely, how clean this stuff will make our underwear.