The Carson Wentz Mea Culpa Tour has carried on for a full week now. There was the invitation-only sit-down with six Eagles beat reporters last week. There was a one-on-one interview with Dave Spadaro of the team’s website. Finally, there was an 11½-minute stint on WIP, the Eagles’ flagship radio station, just Thursday morning.
The latter two appearances were teed-up opportunities for Wentz to promote his charitable organization, the AO1 Foundation, and its annual fund-raising softball game in May. But he also used all three forums to respond to the recent PhillyVoice.com story that cited “more than a half-dozen players” and “other sources close to the team” in painting him as selfish, entitled, and phony – to counteract the perception of him that the story had fostered.
“It’s never fun to read,” Wentz said during the beat-reporter session. “But to an extent, you look at it and [say], ‘Well, if someone did have this perception of me, why? What have I done wrong? What can I get better at?’ I realize I have my shortcomings. Yes, I can be selfish. I think we all have selfishness inside of us. There’s human elements to that, that I really look at and say, ‘Well, I can get better.’ ”
Based on that quote, Wentz has ostensibly been doing some soul-searching lately, but keep in mind: These problems and issues, such as they are, are only problems and issues in relation to the Eagles’ other quarterback, Nick Foles. Most of all, they are a function of the way sports (and politics and crime and too many other topics to list) is covered nowadays: not as a gray, complex reality, but as a succession of black-and-white “narratives” that may or may not be based in actual truth.
We see this all the time now, the same sequence playing out again and again: Select a controversial topic or athlete. Set up one or more straw men. Go full pyromaniac. We’re incentivized to do it. We want and need the clicks on our stories and columns. We want the viewers for our late-morning ersatz-debate screamfests on our all-sports networks. We want to read or hear something that raises the drama and the stakes as high as they can go. Kevin Durant, for instance, can’t simply be a wondrous basketball player, maybe the best on the planet. With his impending free agency this offseason, he could transform himself from Guy Who Took The Easy Road To Winning A Championship By Signing With The Warriors to Guy Who Enhanced His Legacy And Delivered Salvation To God-Awful Franchise By Signing With The Knicks. In this story line, Durant could go from a weak and insecure follower to a leader capable of true and timeless greatness, all in one decision, and it’s the polar framing that captures people’s attention and holds their interest.
The Wentz-Foles question and the Eagles’ handling of it have followed a similar pattern in how they’ve publicly unfolded. But instead of having to pit Durant’s past against his possible future, we have it easier, with two separate “characters.” We can create, and have created, a protagonist and an antagonist. Foles is the “hero.” He ended the Eagles’ Super Bowl drought. He was the MVP of the big game. He is the third-round pick who considered retirement and spoke eloquently about his newfound perspectives on life and football and fatherhood – the underdog of all underdogs, adored by fans, respected by teammates, as beloved as grandmas and puppies.
There’s a saying, attributed to the writer Gore Vidal, that fits perfectly this moment, this era of media presentation and consumption: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.” Foles’ story is great, and it’s true. But to provide the starkest contrast to it, to gin up the outrage, to satisfy our craving for absolutism, Wentz was bound to become the “villain” of this story sooner or later. He had to become a failure, and so he has. His stubbornness and confidence – the very attributes that, when he was a front-runner to be the NFL’s MVP, once earned him praise from his coaches – are now flaws and detriments. His personality and demeanor have become, as described in the PhillyVoice story, an “aw-shucks, overgrown-Opie-from-Mayberry routine [that] plays well with the local and national media.” All because the Eagles went 5-6 in the games he played this season.
It’s a fair waste of time and energy to get too worked up about the accuracy or inaccuracy of this particular story, because if PhillyVoice hadn’t published such a piece or made such assertions about Wentz, another media outlet would have. How can we be so sure of this? Because the same dynamic – exactly the same dynamic – played out in 2016 with the same team, at the same position, with one of the same players. The difference was, in that situation, Carson Wentz was the prospective franchise savior, the mature-beyond-his-age phenom whom the Eagles had boldly traded up twice to draft. The “villain” then was Sam Bradford, who dared to acknowledge what everyone already knew to be true – that once the Eagles made clear their pursuit of Wentz, Bradford had no chance of being a part of their long-term future – and asked to be traded.