Spectator Perceptions Harming the Credibility of Athletes

ESPN The Magazine’s annual Body Issue pays tribute to the time and effort that athletes dedicate to their bodies and ultimately their careers. An athlete’s body is their greatest tool in furthering their careers. In order to be successful, athletes undergo intense training designed to improve and maintain their bodies so that they may deliver their greatest performances. Due to the physical intensity of their jobs, many individuals expect athletes to have unattainable body images. Prince Fielder, 275-pound baseball player, shocked readers by his cover of ESPN The Magazine’s 2014 Body Issue due to his unexpected physical appearance.

Prince Fielder cover of ESPN The Magazine Body Issue 2014.

After the magazine was released, Fielder was attacked for not following society’s image of an ideal athlete’s body. Fielder was showcased with numerous athletes including NFL player Larry Fitzgerald, NBA player Serge Ibaka, and WNBA player Angel McCoughtry, along with many other athletes that follow society’s ideal image of an athlete’s body. Fielder reacted to the criticism calmly saying that he “work[s] out to make sure [he] can do [his] job to the best of [his] ability” and even jokingly informed his critics that his large arms are hereditary.

Viewer’s critiques of Fielder’s athleticism are widely similar to the critiques of whether an activity is considered a sport, as they are both based on spectator’s perceptions. Anthony Trollope discusses the credentials for an activity to be designated a sport by means of various essays in “British Sports and Pastimes.” Trollope’s essays point out vital components of sports that may go unnoticed or unaccredited by the average viewer by focusing on British sports that have become less popular throughout the years.

Specifically in one of his essays, Trollope focuses on the art of rowing. To the untrained eye the sport can seem simple and effortless. However, Trollope emphasizes the keen senses and abilities that a captain must possess. A captain must be capable of leading his team to victory by managing the team dynamic while also remaining aware of each individual team member’s performance. Therefore, the final product of a successful rowing team may appear to an uncomplicated and effortless run while in fact the sport is extremely trying on each athlete. Trollope’s reading provides insight as to why the phrase “only as strong as the weakest link” is often heavily applied to sports in that the success of the team is based on the combination of each player’s performance.

Modern day British rowing team.

Just as easily as a spectator may not realize the true complexity of a sport, they may also misjudge an individual’s athletic ability. Fielder’s comment that his workout allows him to perform to “the best of [his] abilities” serves as prime evidence of individuals making judgments based on constructed social ideologies, such as the idea that all athletes must be in impeccable physical shape. Fielder, although currently injured, has slimmed down by incorporating MMA into his training and completing a new weight routine as he consistently adapts his body to the needs of his team. Currently, he is especially focused on performing exercises that allow him to be loose and durable on the field. Fielder credits his change of routine to a fear of failure and desire to contribute to his team’s success. Reasons drive a true athlete.





  1. caitstew12 · October 21, 2014

    I loved the incorporation of Fielder in this and how while he is a professional baseball player he does not necessarily look like one. You suggested that Fielder was an exception in professional athletics to, “constructed social ideologies”. Trollope dallies on how each member of the team is interconnected and affects how the team as a whole performs. Were you suggesting that Fielder’s physicality helps the team because of his assertion that it allows him to be the best athlete he can be and that only societal pressures are making him slim down? A more nuanced point became clear to me as I considered this blogpost. I imagined Fielder as a rower, a hulking giant rower. In that situation even if he was at his strongest his weight and body would still be a detriment to the team. This comparison between Fielder and Trollope initially confused me but it seems completely valid and well thought out in this context.


  2. acfalk2 · October 21, 2014

    I really loved they way you connected Fielder to Trollope’s article. I think you make an extremely valid point, and it made me think about the physicality of athletes in different sports. Looking at different athletes many people can tell what sport they play right off the bat. Usually tall athletic girls are seen as volleyball players or basketball players, while short and built girls are seen as gymnasts. Same go for men. The huge muscular guys who weigh between 200 and 300lb can easily be recognized as football players, while the men who barely weigh 140lb and are purely bone and some muscle are cross country runners. Different sports call for different body types, some which are born that way, while others which are adapted to fit the sport. This really makes me wonder if Trollope would consider different athletes as more “official” compared to another based on ones body and their build. It might be a stretch, but I think it could be a really important spin off of both Trollope’s writing as well as your article.


  3. alexdt2014 · October 21, 2014

    There is no doubt that Fielder is a great athlete that is very good at what he does. However, if he was in better shape, maybe he would be even better at it. When you compare Fielder’s critics to those that question the validity of a sport, I see where you’re coming from, but I don’t necessarily agree. Whether or not an activity should be considered a sport is based on opinion, but it is fact that an athlete will perform better if he or she is in better shape. Fielder seems to be content with his skill level, which is fine because he is already one of the league’s best players. However, I think there is some untapped potential there.


  4. rconybeare · October 21, 2014

    I completely agree with you: how an athlete is supposed to look is a perception given by spectators. Prince Fielder is a great example that shows the pressures that spectators put on athletes. Another example recently came up in the news. The Russian leader of the WTA called Serena and Venus the “Williams brothers” and said that they are scary to look at, according to ESPN Tennis. So while male athletes are “supposed” to be fit, apparently it is unnatural for women athletes to be. The male and female athletic bodies are supposed to be completely different–according to spectators–and that is reflected in their training and practice. If it is not–like with the Williams sisters–sexist comments arise.


  5. lbongi · October 21, 2014

    Ever since my freshman year of high school, I have had a fascination with the body; how it works and functions, and how it can be optimized through proper diet and nutrition. I really like where you take this post, and I would like to add a new dynamic after reading the chapter of Prof. LaVaque-Manty’s book the other day. The athlete’s body is tailored for each sport. The body of a basketball player (tall, lean) is certainly not the same as an NFL offensive lineman. But for good reason. There is a sport for every body type, but there is specific body type for each sport. Prince Fielder proves that. His comfort in his own body is not bizarre. He is one of the best power hitters in the game, and few would disagree. If Fielder was known as a base stealer, or pinch runner, he would certainly deserve criticism. His understanding of performing to the best of his ability is phenomenal. There isin’t a “right” body type for each position, but certainly if the performance is lacking, they will be criticized. Baseball is certainly diverse in that regard, with players ranging from 5’6-6’9, and from 160lbs to 300. There aren’t divisions of baseball for certain weight classes, because it is a true “game,” anyone can play. Spectators may not understand this dynamic, but then again, who cares? They are the spectators, not the players. They aren’t the ones making millions of dollars, so why does it really matter what they think about Prince Fielders body? If they knew the “right way” to look in the MLB, they would be playing themselves.

    In the end, I liked your argument a a lot. It is a hot topic, and I love reading other’s opinions on it.


Comments are closed.