Sports, Social Media, and Identity
The Column – By Ryan Sederquist
Olympian at 16.
Olympic gold medalist and world record holder at 21.
The first ever two-time Gatorade High School Athlete of the Year. If all 700 of my words were dedicated to list Sydney McLaughlin’s accomplishments, I’d still be forced to cut out monumental feats.
Mature, succinct, and humble in front of the camera, authentic and hard working away from it, McLaughin has presented zero entry points for pundits. Sydney and fellow teenage track phenom Athing Mu are the least talked about – but most worthy – role models to emerge from the Tokyo Games. They also exemplify a harrowing truth: in our world, if you do everything right, you are destined to remain away from the limelight, no matter what your accomplishments are. A decade ago, this wouldn’t have bothered an athlete with McLaughlin’s resume. Reaching the pinnacle – a gold medal AND world record – would suffice.
Today, however, a more important carrot looms in the distance: social media ‘cred.’ Even someone as grounded (and accomplished) as Sydney McLaughlin feels the pressure, as evidenced by her recent instagram confession. Social media has birthed a toxic culture – a paradox of virtual and tangible realities – and it has changed what matters to young people. Rising mental health cases in teens could be symptomatic of an even more devastating outcome – deception regarding one’s foundation for personal identity and value.
McLaughlin’s post-Olympics instagram video, where she tearfully confesses pretty deep emotions regarding the reactions of teammates and friends to her Tokyo successes, is vintage Sydney: mature, grounded, and generally spot on. However, as it remains useful for my thesis, I’m compelled to run with it. This is not me ripping her – she is currently my favorite Olympic athlete.
Take this quote, for example:
“Our world only accepts ignorance and it hurts my feelings and I find it very disrespectful that you can do everything right and it’ll never be enough. There’s still always a problem with you… I know they don’t reject me, they reject Jesus living in me… I could do nothing to so many people and that offends them.”
She follows, however, by making my point for me:
“As humans we were not made to be famous… I’m grateful for the platform and to be able to reach people but I don’t want it. When I tell you I don’t want fame, I don’t want any of that, it’s toxic. It genuinely, physically makes me sick.”
I want to fully believe her, but then she says this: “I don’t want the fame. I would just like a little respect… You may not agree with my message, but in the sport at the age of 21, to be a two-time Olympian and a world record holder, I would just like a little bit of respect, just a little bit. You guys can have all that other stuff.”
The ‘other stuff’ is the aptly described fame – the toxic social media cred. She says she doesn’t want it, but it feels like a wife lamenting they don’t want the flowers, they just want to feel loved. Of course the plea for love rings loudest, but you better believe those flowers matter!
Sydney seems to have wrongly assumed that taking care of business off of Insta – winning Olympic races and breaking all-time marks – garners respect on Insta. Shockingly, totally eviscerating your competition with a generational athletic performance, and being a class act through it all is not the recipe for respect in our all encompassing virtual social space. Contrast this with Sha’Carri Richardson, who, after notably missing the Olympics on account of a marijuanna violation, was subsequently retweeted by Michelle Obama. Then, after trash talking her Jamaican rivals (who would sweep the Tokyo women’s 100 meter dash podium) from her couch all summer, proceeded to place dead last against them in the hyped up Prefontaine Classic last week. To top it off, her jaw-dropping, profanity-laced post-race interview was followed up by a commercial break where we were fortunate to see a Nike advertisement featuring…Sha’Carri Richardson. Richardson has 2.4 million followers on the platform, more than double McLaughlin. Are you worried about our world yet?
Here is the reality – McLaughlin actually has the respect she thinks she needs and perceives Richardson to already have. If you as a fan respect athletes with a Richardson-like timbre over the Sydney McLaughlin’s, you are a moron. Sadly, McLaughlin is caught up in the ultimate social media deception: your standing on social media is the basis for your identity. Obviously, this is not true, but try telling that to a packed high school cafeteria full of silent zombies, staring at their phones and scrolling their newsfeeds as they eat. Again, I wouldn’t be writing this in 1999. McLaughlin, not Sha’Carri, would have been the one receiving love from the First Lady. The social media environment is so effective at devaluing reality, it has essentially pedestalized a flash-in-the-pan drug bust over a secure and sincere champion. Sydney, step back and realize where you actually stand. Also, remember where your identity truly rests.
As a Christian, Sydney’s value rests in her being made in the image of God and being one of his adopted children. Period. She could have never set foot on a track and her identity would remain permanently in place. That source provides a foundation which is unchangeable by the events of life, the number of ‘likes,’ or the value of a shoe contract. We used to coach athletes to not place their identity in performance, which is obviously harmful. Of course, the principle behind this teaching serves to identify where the only truly immovable identity can be found. Now, a more reckless source – a screen-based make believe one – exists. You might want to heed this message before handing a tablet to your misbehaving two-year old at Olive Garden.
Now, let me post and share this on my Facebook.