OP-ED: Fortune Magazine’s 'MisFortuneate' Power List

Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon

By Arthur Solomon

The United States has many things going for it:

A society that includes a media almost free from government censorship, and freedom of speech and beliefs denied to most citizens of the world.  

Of course, the United States also has a checkered history of American companies harming and killing millions of Americans by doing environmental damage to our rivers and forests, by manufacturing faulty consumer and medical products, by promoting unhealthy foods, tobacco products and alcoholic beverages, by pricing medicines out of the reach of those needing it, by fighting government regulations of  Wall Street, despite the damage it has done to the U.S. economy, and by decimating our manufacturing base, causing massive unemployment in the U.S. and hiring low cost labor in foreign countries.  (At least government action, but not much, is trying to fix these problems.)

The U.S. also has millions of citizens who live in shoddy housing, receive substandard education and health care, cannot afford to feed themselves without the little help provided by the government (that the GOP is always attempting to reduce) and citizens that have to clothe themselves in charity provided, second hand and worse clothing. But these problems can be fixed by government action. (But don’t hold your breath.)

A great caring, rich country that the U.S. proclaims to be can do better for its citizens.

 Sadly, too many Americans also live in a fantasy land, one that is seemingly impossible to cure -- the universe of sports fanaticism. Only psychologists might be able to explain why otherwise rational people think that the athletes, teams and sports organizations care about them as individuals.  Don’t they realize when they see a fan they see them only as $$$$$?  

Fortune magazine, which I’ve read for years without taking its financial advice seriously, -– I can lose money in the markets without reading “expert” advice on how to do so -–  seemingly has now entered into the dream world-like trance that sports has on way too much of the American psyche.  It actually included athletes on its list of the greatest world leaders.

Despite my beginning as a journalist, whose first beat was the sports scene, and as a public relations practitioner, who during my almost 25 years at the global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller and after managed or played key roles on the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs, I have long believed that the idolization of athletes and sports is detrimental to our society. 

Athletes, like other entertainers, are fun to watch but do nothing to make the U.S. a better country. In fact, worshipping athletes might have a negative affect on society as so many are in news stories, not for their skills, but for their misconduct off-the-field, on-the-field and in the locker room.  

 Participating in sports is great.  But living and dying about a team’s performance, or caring if an athlete is underpaid or overpaid, makes about as much sense as believing that the New York Mets will win 90 games this year or that the Giants and Dodgers will soon come back to New York because their owners suddenly have guilt pangs for deserting the fans who faithfully spent their money supporting the teams until California offered a sweeter deal. 

But as long as athlete worshipping was limited to fanatics, those who make a living from writing and talking about them and by sports entities and their sponsors, there was hope that some day Americans would relegate sports to its rightful position as nothing more than an entertainment vehicle, especially after the sorry Sochi Olympics, where the International Olympic Committee and its partner sponsors (with the exception of AT&T) kept mute about the human rights violations in Russia before and during the games.  Even after the public horse whipping of Pussy Riot members, when they attempted to protest against the totalitarian Putin regime, and then when the new czar ordered Russian troops into Ukraine right after the “flame of hope” was extinguished, the Olympic family remained disturbingly quiet.  

Sports journalists have always extolled the importance of an athlete’s leadership skills on the field and in the club house. But I’d be willing to bet an expensive dinner that the great majority of coaches would rather have an outfielder who can hit 30 home runs, drive in 90-plus runs and bat .320 than a player batting .260 with great leadership skills.  That’s not to say that leadership in an athlete isn’t a positive attribute. 

But when athletic leadership is deemed so important as to be included along with religious, government and business leaders whose activities can shape the world, it’s time to consider if the sports craze has damaged the DNA of the U.S. to the extent that many in our country can’t tell the difference between what is really important and what is a fairy tale weaved by the media, public relations and advertising agencies. 

I now fear that the hope for more rational thinking when it comes to athletes and sports is doomed.  And the cause of my waving the white flag is the April 7, 2014 issue of Fortune magazine which ranked  HYPERLINK "http://money.cnn.com/gallery/leadership/2014/03/20/worlds-best-leaders.fortune/11.html" \t "_blank" "The World's 50 Greatest Leaders."

Among the 50 were, I kid you not, Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees, who was ranked the 11th greatest leader in the world, Duke head basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, San Antonio Spurs basketball coach Gregg Popovich and University of South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley (HYPERLINK "http://money.cnn.com/gallery/leadership/2014/03/20/worlds-best-leaders.fortune/20.html" \t "_blank" who all tied for 20th), and Johns Hopkins University swim teams coach George Kennedy (HYPERLINK "http://money.cnn.com/gallery/leadership/2014/03/20/worlds-best-leaders.fortune/36.html" \t "_blank" No. 36). 

If this was an April Fool's Day joke, I could understand it.  If it was a public relations prank to gain publicity for the magazine, I could appreciate it.  But to include athletes and coaches, who might be leaders within the little boxes of their special universe, on the same list with people who can decide war or peace, or prosperity or economic disaster, is a nightmare that I’ve long had come true: the glorification of sports eroding our culture, exemplified by the vast popularity of television sit coms, the propaganda-laden cable network political commentary that is accepted as news, and reality shows being more appreciated than traditional performing arts. 

Add the decline of teaching the classics in our schools, newspapers on the wane as people rely on TV sound bites, talk radio or satirical TV news shows to get the news, along with sports teams consistently being honored by our presidents. Include  people watching a football game to see the commercials and the media going ga ga over it, which is the surest indication of a U.S. in cultural descent.  

Athletes and coaches as world leaders?  Not by a long shot. Not even a majority of people in the United States (with the possible exception of Jeter) know who those people are, much less in other countries.

There have been many great athletes and outstanding coaches but, in my opinion, only one individual from that realm deserves to be considered a great leader, baseball’s Jackie Robinson, whose leadership actually helped change American society.  The others are just proficient at their jobs. 

If we’ve reached the point where Fortune ranks four people from the sports world among  HYPERLINK "http://money.cnn.com/gallery/leadership/2014/03/20/worlds-best-leaders.fortune/11.html" \t "_blank" "The World's 50 Greatest Leaders,"  I give up.  I’m canceling all my subscriptions to serious publications, including Fortune, with the exception of one -- the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.  At least those models can momentarily take our minds off personal and world problems, even though others might think that is another sign of a culture in decline – and they might be right.

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Arthur Solomon was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at  HYPERLINK "mailto:arthursolomon4pr@juno.com" arthursolomon4pr@juno.com