Athletes are often criticized for being too guarded. Agents and public-relations handlers shroud their personalities from the public. That's why we flock to their Twitter feeds and personal blogs, to try and catch a glimpse of who they are as actual people.
But in the last few weeks, the candor we've seen from some top athletes helps explain why their public personas are tightly managed. Watching Tiger Woods curse loudly and fling his driver into the weeds or hearing Michael Jordan attempt to settle 30 years of petty, personal scores in his Hall of Fame induction speech taints the experience of watching them excel athletically.
The most shocking instance of boorish behavior came Saturday night when Serena Williams, in the process of getting thumped by Kim Clijsters in the U.S. Open semifinals, profanely threatened an umpire who had the nerve to call her on a foot fault.
Serena is more than an athlete; she's an international brand. Her first name, along with her sister Venus', is instantly recognizable to millions. She's a powerful and glamorous black woman who excels in a sport dominated by whites. She's also sponsored by Nike, the company that has done so much to turn Woods and Jordan into global icons.
Some quickly forgave Williams, excusing the incident as a heat-of-competition thing. But in her post-match remarks, Williams opted for glibness over contrition. "It was what it was, and that's basically all it was," she said.
That non-apology, coming after Williams had time to calm down and consider her actions, ended up being far more revealing than the on-court rant.