Book Can’t Tarnish the Enduring Brand of “Sweetness”

As I learned of the details of Jeff Pearlman’s new biography on Walter Payton, “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton,” I admit my reaction was the way many Bears fans would react: I wanted to find Jeff Pearlman in a bar and ask him to step outside. But after I cooled down a little, I realized that, regardless of what Pearlman has written about Payton in the way of his painkiller use, extramarital affairs and depression, his book is as useless for touching the brand of Walter Payton as a New England Patriot in Super Bowl XX.

This is not the voice of a pure fan talking, believe it or not. It’s the voice of reason based on what I know about how iconic sports brands endure above those that shockingly fail us. Particularly those born and bred here in Chicago.

First, let’s play Devil’s Advocate and assume for the sake of argument that every word Pearlman has written about Walter Payton is true. In fact, many fans and friends who witnessed his behavior off the field after he retired wouldn’t disagree or be shocked by some of the allegations. Pearlman interviewed 678 people for the book and I’m sure there were consistencies. So I’m not even going to naively dispute any of that.

Just like I’m not going to dispute that there is a foundation in Payton’s name that has catapulted organ donation sign-ups in Illinois and elsewhere – the same foundation that donates toys to underprivileged children in the Chicagoland area. Or there is a High School named in his honor. Or there is a section of the UIC Medical Center called the Walter Payton Liver Center.

See, where Pearlman did get it wrong was when he said the book was “definitive.” Perhaps in the eyes of a Sports Illustrated columnist who followed the trail of interviews to build a story. I certainly don’t believe Jeff Pearlman is an inherently bad person or that he intends to demonize Walter Payton. But his book will not define the brand of Walter Payton in the eyes of Chicagoans. Not one word. Why?

It’s not like we didn’t know our most iconic sports brands have had their personal faults. We know it and we love them anyway.

Michael Jordan had a failed marriage, gambles huge sums of money and gave a Basketball Hall of Fame speech that was more “F*%$ You” than gracious. Some might even quibble with the fact he smokes cigars as he signs autographs for kids. But we love him anyway.

Mike Ditka has a medical chart like a train wreck, a DWI conviction, tossed a wad of gum at an opposing fan and flipped photographers the bird. Not to mention he is also ’til this day the worst 7th inning stretch singer of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” But we love him anyway.

Phil Jackson. Ryne Sandberg. Mark Grace. Bobby Hull. Mistakes off the court/playing field/ice? They’ve made a few. We love them anyway.

We have been lucky to watch the special talents of these icons, but they have been lucky to have a relationship with a town as forgiving as Chicago. I am not entirely sure other cities with bright lights always have such warm hearts. When you do well by us on the field, we tend to understand your humanity off of it. It doesn’t mean we agree with it or excuse it. It means we know great players and coaches can make human errors because they are human beings.

Let me take another angle away from the field of sport. As any iconic brand realizes, when you build up a long legacy of delivering a superior product or service that people appreciate year after year, decade after decade, it is easier to maintain loyalty through the eye of a storm. It’s the difference between a bump in the road and a full-on catastrophe. Why? Because many of those people who invest in your brand look at the “big picture” of what you’ve delivered on up to this point and understand that people in business can relate to. I’m also not talking about a scandal on the level of Enron, but minor things like a foreign object falling into a Big Mac that shouldn’t have.

To be sure, the allegations of the book on Payton are anything but minor. Yet the faults of him and other icons in this town have been the same demons many people grapple with at one time or another: Staying faithful to your spouse. Gambling. Drinking too much. Painkillers for old injuries. Failed business ventures. Depression.

Tell me you or someone you love hasn’t had to face at least one of these challenges. We all have. And thankfully, nobody is writing a tell-all book on us.

Even if they tried, we’d say that author of the tell-all didn’t define us. Because even if we aren’t performing in front of thousands of people any given Sunday, we are all striving for a personal brand that is defined so much more by our positives than our shortcomings.

I know the brand of Walter Payton will enjoy that positive definition too.

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