Never Trust ‘The Brand’

Monte Dutton

Monte Dutton

Once upon a time, a kid could trust his priest. An athlete could trust his coach. A kid could look up to the guy who won the Tour de France every year. He could believe the inspirational story of the All-America linebacker, the record-breaking slugger and the player they called Charley Hustle.

I guess it’s always been this way to a certain extent. After all, the kid saying, “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” dates back to 1919.

Out of all the awful realities of 21st-century life, is there a worse one than the fact that parents now teach their kids to trust no one? Trust is a necessary ingredient in a happy life. The young Michael Jackson once sang that “one bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch of girls.”

Oh, wait. How’d that turn out?

In some ways, it’s a consequence of the Rise of Images. Once upon a time, Joe DiMaggio was just a guy who played baseball, albeit admired widely for a natural grace. Johnny Unitas was the simplest of heroes. Babe Ruth was a lovable galoot with a wandering eye and a taste for beer. It’s popular now to say that these heroes were protected by the sportswriters of their day, but I don’t buy it. I think the image of these athletes was basically accurate. All had flaws that their fans accepted. They didn’t make megabucks, at least when compared to the excessive salaries of today, and they weren’t as separated from their fans as much as the landed gentry of today.

They didn’t get above their raising. They didn’t tower above their fan bases. They were human beings, not brands. Now they’re like the products in infomercials. They never live up to “the brand,” and for the most part, it’s because it’s contrived and invented.

It’s a brand. It’s created not by the athlete’s (or celebrity’s) actual character but by publicists and marketers who raise the standards far beyond that which is reasonable or even human. There’s so much pressure to be a phony that most succumb.

Unfortunately, most people forgive sins but not hypocrisy. They don’t like being played for a fool by Lance Armstrong, or Jim and Tammy Bakker, or John Edwards.

Dale Earnhardt had many flaws. He was mean. He was ruthless. He could be rude. No one ever worked harder to hide a heart of gold. He had a contrarian bent and took amusement in talking to no one at precisely the time everyone wanted to talk to him. Yet his fans loved him because they saw themselves in him. A guy who worked at the cotton mill admired Earnhardt for the same reason he sang along with Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It.” Earnhardt often figuratively sang that song with his actions.

Like him or not – and not long before his tragic end, he had as many detractors as fans – Earnhardt was the real deal. Wealth and power changed his life but not his soul. He didn’t sell it for wealth and power. He became one of NASCAR’s great figures because he was, in fact, great. When he died, the legend grew and now, 12 years later, it still towers over the sport he loved and which, in turn, loved him back.

Sometimes people ask if I knew Earnhardt, and I say yes, and they ask, “What was he really like?” and there’s not much I can tell them that they don’t already know.

Nowadays, we see more of our heroes than ever and know them less. When a glimpse of reality escapes, it’s a shock to the system.

Appreciate the greats for what they do. Don’t assume that just because they can hit a curve ball or jump out of the gym, they are just as great playing human beings.

Everyone needs a hero, though, and my advice is look for him (or her) closer to home. Look up to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your preacher, your coach, or maybe the classmate who takes you under his wing and shows you the ropes.

Trust someone you really know, not the one whose image comes from a Nike commercial.

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About Monte

For 20 seasons, I mostly wrote about NASCAR. I'm still paying attention, but I'm spending more of my time these days writing novels and songs. I try to blog regularly on whatever happens to strike my fancy.
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8 Responses to Never Trust ‘The Brand’

  1. Arlynda says:

    The answer, in a word, is authenticity. Dale pioneered the branding of NASCAR drivers, but was (to borrow a biblical phrase) part of that world but not of it. He retained his authenticity. Too many athletes think they have to “become the brand,” change who they are to fit the brand. But in Dale’s case, I always had the feeling that “brand Earnhardt” was like an overcoat he could put on and take off at will.

  2. Charlie Anderson says:

    Maybe I’m showing a bit too much provincialism here, but after reading these comments I now realize that Nick Saban and Dale Earnhardt have a lot in common.

  3. Mike Ray says:


  4. geek49203 says:

    The times I’ve talked to Jeff Gordon (which is “not as many as you but more than the average fan”), he struck me as a good guy, still the small town Indiana guy I used to watch on Thursday Night Thunder. Or was it Saturday Night Thunder when he ran — Jeff would zing me if I got it wrong.

    However, Jeff was the first major winning driver that was the “corporate spokesmodel” brand of athlete. In a time when sponsorship was finding NASCAR in huge numbers, Jeff showed the way, winning races AND being a great pitch man for “God and my sponsors”.

    IT all was sickening to Earnhardt fans, and for good reason. You see, Dale Sr. wouldn’t have had a shot breaking into NASCAR under those new rules. Bill Elliott wouldn’t have gotten past the on-camera portion of “Driver X”. It signaled the beginning of the end of the deep southern accent in NASCAR, as the Burton brothers demonstrated.

    Later, when CART died and most of the teams came to NASCAR (Cal Wells, Ganassi, Penske expanded, Toyota, etc etc), the thing was done — NASCAR was neither a “southern” thing nor a “working class redneck” thing. CART-ified, with the power shifted to 30 Rock and Avenue of the Americas and even Wall Street.

  5. Judy B says:

    I respectfully disagree.

    Jeff is Jeff. More polished than the “ruff & ready” yes. Phony? No. Save that for Johnson whose true colors come out on Twitter if somebody has the audacity to not kiss his butt. Or Edwards who, on the surface, has this “aw shucks” look but is really a bully. Or even Keselowski who tries to pass himself as a “throwback” but wussed out like the rest in the 500. There are others but those 3 immediately come to mind.

    While Sr. & Bill Elliott were not well-versed in “corporate speak” they did know the value of a sponsor.

  6. Judy B says:

    “Unfortunately, most people forgive sins but not hypocrisy.” Love this except I would have left off “unfortunately” as I see forgiveness as a good thing. However, in my opinion, hypocrisy is not something that should be forgiven. There is no reason to be anyone but yourself. You’ll be found out soon enuf. Plus, no matter who you are, there will be those who don’t like you. I, for one, would rather be disliked for who I am. At least then I can respect myself.

  7. geek49203 says:

    I did NOT say “phony.”

    And for the record, Jimmy was as polite as could be to me in the midst of looking at a failed engine after a race, a race he should’ve won. Carl also was a nice guy, professional.

    Now, can we all get @#$%#$ed off?? You betcha.

  8. Judy B says:

    True, y’all didn’t use the word “phony” but it was implied in both the first paragraph & the following use of “sickening.” If I misread it, I apologize.

    I’m glad Jimmie was polite when y’all met him that day. I, and many others, have had VERY different interactions. btw, your assessment of your meeting with Carl in a way supports my comments about him.

    Far as everyone being capable of getting ticked off? 100% agree!

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