Yesterday Sean headed off the typical pile-on after an athlete misstep by contextualizing Ryan Lochte as, rather than the preeminent dumb jock of our time, just the latest in a long line of tacky and oblivious athlete-mannequins that have always been around. Not a parable, not a lesson—just another dude that's good at sports and bad at interviews. Which is fair, and probably a healthy viewpoint. Ultimately, it makes a lot more sense to celebrate athletes and challenge media outlets—we like sports, after all, and I'm with Sean when he suggests it doesn't make much sense to rag on the people who play them.
But either Ryan Lochte's the worst or he's got some bad handlers.
If you read about Lochte, you'll encounter as much related to marketing as you will about swimming. Athletes should market themselves; it's practically the only way to make money if you participate in a sport with no professional leagues, and there's nothing wrong with buying branded apparel either. But Lochte's marketing push was, and is, deathly stupid: from a kids' t-shirt with a self-generated hashtag splashed across the front, and another with three focus-group slogans clumsily stacked on top of each other, to cheap plastic sunglasses that say "REEZY" and "JEAH!" in one lens with a sequined American flag in the other, and a website that says "GO BIG OR GO HOME" right under Lochte's name and plays some kind of hype-up music automatically—it, and the shiny grill, and the sparkly shoes, came to stand in for Lochte in a way that was discouraging and strange. A succesful Olympian might reasonably move from athletic dominance to brand spokesperson—somehow, Lochte's material associations preceded him, as if he primarily wanted to be known as the grill guy, or the shoe guy, or the fratty sunglasses guy. Everything about the merchandise in his personal store marries social media jargon with cheap crap, and comes close to debasing any organic popularity Lochte might have had. You hashtagged it—now it's a shirt! Buy it back! Send us pictures of the shirt over Twitter, and if we retweet you, you're entered to win a pair of Jeah™ shot glasses! Post a picture of the shot glasses on Facebook and you'll be the mayor of LocheNation™ on Foursquare! Once you're the mayor on Foursquare, you're an official brand ambassador! Buy some more shirts!
Lochte himself probably played only a minor role in designing the website and the merchandise, but whoever played the central role latched onto Lochte and pushed him as a spokesman in a way that could only have appealed to the lowest common denominator. The presumption must have been that obnoxious jerks would flock to Lochte because he's the obnoxious jerk, which, insofar as it turned out to be true, is sad, and insofar as it turned out to be false, reveals just how misaligned a value system you need to have to frame your Olympian client as King Tool and think, "This'll move the merch!" You can say that Lochte is similar to other dumb jocks and be basically correct, but somehow the sales numbers for these commodities feel freighted with significance. Lochte himself may be innocent, but that doesn't excuse his PR team from taking a piss in the pool of public consciousness and justifying it as a revenue stream.
The trademark thing is what's in the news, and bears mentioning if only because it's the rare athlete that reeks so strongly of their own branding initiatives, but one of the reasons it's tough to care is that we've been aware of this guy for about two months, and it already seems like classic Ryan Lochte. Before the Olympics, Lochte said, "I just want to be done," to a New York Times reporter while "steering his white Range Rover with his knee, sitting far down in the bucket seats, [and] blasting Lil Wayne," on his way to a commercial shoot for a cellphone company that only required him to pose shirtless. He may have been training his ass off for years—he definitely had been, in fact—but that's still not a great time to complain about your workload. Now, he seems to have infringed on the intellectual property of two different rappers while trying to claim for himself, and therefore profit from, a word he knows he took straight from Young Jeezy. "Jeah," yells Lochte, into the void. And the void throws back a wad of bills! Good grief.
Lochte is just Michael Jordan saying, "Republicans buy shoes, too," except without the shamefully appealing nihilism. If you've ever been disappointed with an athlete for ceding their share of the spotlight to something corporate, something inane, or something inanely corporate, Lochte looks like more of the same—maybe even worse. Whatever he's like when you actually meet him, his public persona is a walking .gif that hits every BuzzFeed reaction tag, a meme with a store on his website, and a guy whose best moment from the recent Olympics was a brief spate of aggregation-friendly kookiness that prominently featured a plug for Mountain Dew.
Cosmically, Lochte's salesmanship and intellectual property missteps are, indeed, meaningless, like almost everything, and they come up pretty well short of significance even within the daily news cycle. Still, if you're the type of person who naturally has strong feelings about the way athlete-celebrities contribute to culture, don't hold back. The idea that anything in particular is meaningless—whether a public figure's banal capitalism or a private slight from a high school quarterback—creates an infinite regress of meaninglessness that you have to push aside if you want to stay tethered to the real world. If love and happiness can keep you focused, good. But hating stuff is not necessarily worse than waving it away. Lochte's made himself a target a thousand times over. Take your best shot and move on.
Earlier: What To Make Of Ryan Lochte