The most unforgiving criticism in sport is directed at any athlete who fans believe is celebrated too excessively above his true talent level — especially those stars who are gloried because they're such pretty people.
To wit: As David Beckham retires, so much attention is being devoted not to how good he was but to how good he was not. I never saw that emphasized with a fine athlete before. Likewise, while celebrity athletes are hardly new, in Beckham's case, he is so outlandishly notorious that it's been just impossible for many people to allow for the fact that he, like any good product, could be judged independently for his value on the one hand and his marketing on the other.
Becks came as quite a contradictory package. A huge, rich star, he was, nevertheless, a disciplined, hard worker dedicated to his craft. His teams won four championships in four countries. He was not only a sports celebrity but a social crossover — the acclaimed metrosexual. His wife — Posh Spice, the most visible of what the British sports press wonderfully call WAGs, wives and girlfriends — is the exemplar of whatever is the opposite of "shy and retiring." But your Mr. and Mrs. Beckham nevertheless managed a fairly scandal-free tabloid life.
Moreover, in contrast to his sexy, rakish image, Beckham's game was, in fact, standard, lacking much in the way of stylish invention. Yes, we all know he could bend it, but it was his ability to, in soccer parlance, cross that made him so exceptional. That is, the most glamorous athlete in the world didn't fit the hot-shot attacking mold. Beckham was, at the end of the day, an associate, a sideways guy. And like that, he was sort of equal parts vanity and wonder.
Perhaps in time his reputation will be nudged to the margins, where he will primarily be recalled more for being what we commonly refer to as a "character" — talented, yes, but remembered rather more the way Yogi Berra and Charles Barkley are in America.
But really, that wouldn't do Becks justice. He is a spectacular figure, one of those phenomena that inexplicably pop up in some part of every culture every now and then when the time is just right and the ingredients are all perfectly brewed. Understand, he was not an original. No, David Beckham has simply been more of everything that he had to be to bend himself into planetary eminence.
Sometimes, some things just come to a boil.
Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.