Before you read on, check out this brief NY Times (2004) guest column by former Chicago Tribune writer Bob Greene.
The apparent trigger for Greene's column was this provocative TV commercial depicting a boundary violation between a professional athlete and a fan. In the commercial, we see Terrell Owens of the Philadelphia Eagles dressed for a game and standing at a locker room urinal. When Owens finishes and turns around, actress Nicollette Sheridan is standing just a couple of feet away, wearing nothing but a towel. She tries to seduce Owens, but he resists.
The game starts in ten minutes, says Owens.
After much seductive prodding, Owens is just about to leave when Sheridan drops the towel, Owens declares that the game will have to wait.
Greene sees this commercial as part of a marketing trend that is corrosive to the invisible boundaries between athletes and fans. He traces this trend back to a 1979 Coke commercial in which a little boy in the players' tunnel offers his Coke to a battered Pittsburgh Steeler, Mean Joe Greene, who is making his way from the field back to the locker room. At first, Mean Joe resists the offer, but the little boy prods him into accepting the Coke. Greene smiles and tosses his jersey to the little boy.
It's a warm, fuzzy, fantasy moment, but it is also a trespass of the normal boundaries separating fan and athlete. The boundary violation looks quite innocent, but Bob Greene proposes that the fantasy erosion of boundaries has had some serious consequences.
Greene also discusses an infamous 2004 brawl involving Ron Artest. The brawl that began on a basketball court spilled into the stands after a fan tossed a beer at Artest. Greene attributes the ensuing crowd violence to a cumulative erosion of appropriate boundaries between fans and players.
The fantasy -- promoted by professional sports leagues for years – is that there is no wall between athlete and fan. It's good for business; the less perceived distance between the person who buys the ticket and the person who shoots the baskets or carries the football, the more money there is that comes to the leagues. There has been almost a straight line leading from Mean Joe and the kid with the Coke, to Michael Jordan and ''Be Like Mike,'' to the growing presence of transitional celebrities sitting courtside, to what we saw last week (with a grotesque stop along the way for the stabbing of Monica Seles).
We're all in this together, the illusion promotes. Except when the flimsy illusion is shattered -- when the fans start heaving beer through that transparent wall, when the players break through the wall-that-isn't-there to fight with the fans. It turns out we don't really know each other after all. Imagine that. The wall was there for a reason.
Whether or not Greene is correct about a straight line leading from the Coke commercial to the Artest' brawl, he is right about the potentially serious consequences of boundary erosion. At first, boundary violations may look quite innocent, but the consequences can be very serious and far-reaching. That is why boundary violations often follow a sequence of resistance followed by prodding of a seductive nature.
Greene's insight into the need for invisible walls comes from a painful place in his own life. I don't know if he consciously thought about this when he wrote the Times piece, but the parallels with Greene's life are impossible to ignore.
The 2004 article in the Times was the first published article written by Greene since his dismissal from the Chicago Tribune two years ago for carrying on a sexually inappropriate relationship with a high school student 15 years earlier. The girl was 17-years-old, which meant that the relationship was not illegal in Illinois. Although Greene wasn't guilty of a crime, his conduct was a gross trespass of invisible professional and social walls.
At the time of his involvement with the girl, Bob Greene, like Mean Joe Greene, was a star – in Bob Greene's case, a newspaper star. Early in his career, Greene was regarded as something of wunderkind by some in the newspaper world.
The inappropriate relationship with the 17-year-old girl began after she wrote a fan letter to Greene. She was invited to visit Greene at his office. Some time later, at Greene's invitation, the two went out to dinner. One thing led to another.
It also became known that Greene had frequently used his position to arrange extramarital affair. And some disturbing contacts with other young women came to light.
In a disturbing irony that did not go unnoticed, Greene devoted many of his columns to stories about children who needed protection. He became an advocate, using his column to intervene in the news. Greene took a lot of flak for his banal sentimentality and overinvolvement in the lives of the people he wrote about. You might say that "Like Mike" and Mean Joe Greene, Bob Greene broke down the invisible walls between star and fan. Perhaps this was a marketing device for Greene, as well.
When all of this hit the news, Chicagoans came down savagely on Greene. They might as well have thrown beer and chairs at him, just like the fans in the Ron Artest brawl.
And that's how Greene came by his insight, albeit too late, that the invisible walls are there for a reason.
The boundary violations between journalist and fan may have seemed innocent at the very first, but the consequences were tragic, even aside from the harm done to the girl. Not only did Greene lose his career and reputation, he lost his wife who endured the humiliation and passed away just a few months later. I might be the only person who felt a little sorry for Bob Greene in the midst of all the beer tossing, but I saw this as a tragedy all the way around. We are vulnerable beings who need the support of our walls, yet we are also driven or seduced into destroying the walls. Things can go haywire when those walls are gone.