For Whom Are We Cheering?

For Whom Are We Cheering?

By: Neal Gulkis

When the story resurfaced of future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning’s alleged sexual overtures toward a female trainer while at the University of Tennessee, and then subsequent possible cover-up, it made me think about something.

Now, this isn’t meant to – nor will I – analyze Peyton Manning’s legacy and how it might change in light of these alleged incidents, which if true, are more than just the actions of an immature college student-athlete.

As a long-time NFL public relations person, I was very fortunate to know the athletes and coaches who fans around the world either cheered or despised.  Besides working in a sport that I loved since being a child, you are right in the middle of many interesting moments, in which others would love to just be a fly on the wall.

It is one of the many perks of having the opportunity to work in professional sports.  You see the inside of an industry that others around the globe worship and follow intently.

For the average football fan, they are cheering for the 53 men donning the uniform of the team that they have rooted for and followed their entire lives.  Like all sports, it is generational – a love that has been passed down from their parents and grandparents, and sometimes even earlier than that.

But who are they cheering for?  Are they cheering for the uniforms or the men inside those uniforms?   In sports, you can be a fan of a certain player one day, but if that player is traded or leaves via free agency, they are now the enemy and not the ally.  I’m sure there were many Dallas Cowboys fans who denounced the actions of Greg Hardy when he was arrested for domestic violence, yet when he joined the team they became instant fans.  It’s a fact that seems very hypocritical to me.

Working in football I’d always get the question from friends and family members, ‘What is that player like to work with?  What kind of person is he?’  I was very fortunate that I was always able to answer that question, being in the position that I was.  Most people are not, and thus they are cheering for the uniform.  The only thing they know about a player is whatever information they get through the media about that player.

It is because of this difference that I was always able to make judgements on professional athletes based on personal interactions, and not performance on the field.

And one thing that I always felt was important to do is make judgements based on those interactions and not the word of others.  Even when we would sign a player from another team, my counterpart with that team would give me the rundown on him.  But ultimately every player started with a clean slate until I was in a position to form my own opinion.
As a PR professional you always wanted your team to win every time they took the field.  But having that personal knowledge of the players, there were certain ones you rooted for a little harder and were a little happier for when they did well.

This is a concept which I now try to pass down to others, whether they are friends, colleagues or even my 11-year old son.  I certainly don’t dissuade anyone from being a sports fan, because it is something – sometimes the only thing – which brings families together. 

But the question of, “For whom are we cheering?” is a very realistic and important one.  Many athletes have said in the past that they don’t consider themselves role models.  Whether they like it or believe it, they have no choice.  They are just that.  When you sign up to be a professional athlete - or a college athlete for that matter - there are certain responsibilities which come with the job.  You also give up a great deal of your privacy.  Everything you do and say is scrutinized a great deal more than anyone else in any other profession.  People aren’t calling into radio shows about the type of job their accountant is doing.  They are calling about how the players on their favorite team are doing.

So the next time we cheer for a professional athlete or go out and buy their jersey, let’s stop and think how much we actually know about that person.  And if we are able to truly decipher what we need to know, only then make a decision on if we are still a fan of that player.

About the Author:
Neal Gulkis has been the Director of Communications at Homestead-Miami Speedway since 2014 which hosts NASCAR’s championship races each November.  Before that, he worked in team PR in the NFL for 25 years with the Saints (1988-96), Dolphins (1997-2008) and Browns (2009-13).  He was a member of the NFL PR staff for eight Super Bowls and eight AFC Championship Games.