Omnipotence is considered all-powerfulness. For example, many religions view God as omnipotent. French philosopher René Descartes once discussed the possibility of an omnipotent demon who could manipulate our thoughts and deceive us (“Silva Rhetoricae”). This demon, what many have concluded to be a genius invention, is Twitter. When the creators of this fairly new social networking site crafted the idea of posting one’s opinion in 140 characters or less, it is hard to imagine they knew the social ramifications that would manifest. Through the ability to read, react and voice a particular thought on a whim, Twitter has become a tool with the ability to not only forever define one’s character but to alter the opinion of the masses with the mere click of a mouse. Through the deconstruction of such essays as “Shooting Britney” by David Samuels, chapters of No Caption Needed by Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, and delving deeper into the significance of Visual Rhetoric along with the use of Ethos, how one particular moment on one fateful Sunday has forever stained the reputation of National Football League quarterback Jay Cutler will begin to (hopefully) be revealed.

The Chicago Bears are a historic franchise. Boasting legendary figures such as Hall of Fame player Dick Butkus as well as Hall of Fame coach Mike Ditka, the Bears have etched their legacy on the gridiron as a program known for its toughness. Jay Cutler, who was traded to the Bears in 2009, seemed to fit this mold. An All-State quarterback who shattered numerous school records en route to a 26-1 career win-loss record in high school, which also included a 90-0 shutout over Pike Central his senior season, Cutler signified success. He went on to Vanderbilt University, where he started all 45 games and never missed an offensive snap due to injury. Cutler started all four seasons at Vanderbilt, earned his college degree, was named team-captain for the final three of those years, and earned ample accolades prior to being drafted into the NFL in 2006, thus earning the tag as “leader.”

In 2008, Cutler was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes and is now forced to take insulin shots daily, persevering through the limitations. When Cutler arrived with the Bears in 2009, because of his history and talent, most believed he would become their savior, their unflappable icon for years to come. From pre-pubescent teen to rough and tumble NFL quarterback, no one has ever legitimately questioned Cutler’s toughness or leadership qualities. That all changed during the 2010-2011 NFC Championship game versus the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field Stadium in Chicago.

In the midst of the second quarter, a seemingly innocent play took place. Cutler dropped back to pass and was knocked to the ground by Packers’ defenseman Clay Matthews. He appeared to tweak his knee but jogged off the field as if the play was of minor consequence. However, he never returned. As play ensued and the Packers went on to defeat the Bears, and the camera caught Cutler looking very disinterested on the sidelines. As the leader of the team, most expected Cutler to be cheering on his teammates, making an attempt to climb his way back onto the field, or at least portraying the anguish thousands of Bears’ fans felt as their dreams of advancing to the Superbowl incinerated into a fog of Green and Gold. Whether injured or not, not only did Cutler appear lackadaisical, but he sat on the bench with i-Pod earphones in, a large trench coat on, and proceeded to talk with no one, including trainers. Fair or foul the image of Cutler on the bench– away from coaches and teammates, away from those who were pouring their heart, blood, sweat and tears into helping the team succeed– has come to permanently define the athlete in the eyes of thousands, nay millions.

“Old Media” was distant from the reader, viewer and audience. We had to rely on daily or even weekly newspaper reports to garner reaction to a previous day’s events. Television sets may have shown each game, but unearthing direct, interpersonal commentary or feedback from our most well-liked and respected idols appeared to be merely a pipe dream. Today, we have an incredibly participatory media. This “New Media” such as Facebook, constant commentary, message boards, blogs, online written newspaper columns, and Twitter have provided the power to instantly react to that which we see (Samuels 4). Utilizing these tools, fans, fellow NFL players, and media personalities alike spared nothing and tore ravenously into Cutler’s character. In their eyes, it was not the injury that prevented him from reentering the game and leading his team to victory, but rather his lack of desire to win, his lack of dedication to “the team” and his now forever “soft” mentality.

Maurice Jones Drew is an NFL player for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Like most, he was watching the game on television with the internet nearby. After seeing the image of Cutler on the sidelines disinterested, Jones-Drew immediately took to Twitter to voice his opinion: “When the going gets tough……..QUIT” (Twitter). Jones-Drew has 115,000 followers.

The character assassination of Cutler proceeded to pour in from every direction. Tampa Bay Buccaneer lineback Derrick Brooks, who most believe is a sure-fire future Hall of Famer, tweeted, “I have to be crawling and can’t get up to come off the field…There is no medicine for a guy with no guts and no heart.” Hall of Fame inductee and NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders also sounded off, “I never question a player’s injury, but I do question a player’s heart.” Mark Schlereth, former offensive lineman and current ESPN analyst, said via Twitter, “As a guy [who has had] 20 knee surgeries you’d have to drag me out on a stretcher to leave a championship game.” Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett posted to Twitter as well, “If I’m on the Chicago team Jay Cutler has to wait ‘til me and the team shower [and] get dressed and leave before he comes in the locker room” (Wilbon). Finally, ESPN.com’s Michael Wilbon, a very well-respected journalist and analyst (notably, a Chicago native), quickly tossed Cutler into a pile of failed Bears quarterbacks. Wilbon wrote, in a column titled “ As Usual, Bears Can’t Cut it at QB :”

“And perhaps never has there been more despair in Chicago over quarterback incompetence than in the wake of the loss to the Packers in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday. Forbidding the mention of the name Jay Cutler may be the best way to cope with winter. Only a Bears quarterback could stink out the joint and then get worse while sitting on the sideline.”

The reactions posted above represent only a fraction of the feelings voiced around the country, but together these public figures share more than 450 thousand followers on Twitter, not counting the viewers who listen and watch them on television. With their thoughts being made public and sent around the globe, the views of others were validated if not formed entirely by the above Hall of Fame athletes, respected journalists, and media personalities.

David Samuels’ essay “Shooting Britney” broaches the topic of how paparazzi have come to create and shape “Hollywood’s most addictive entertainment product” (Samuels 1), and there lies an eerie similarity with the Jay Cutler character collapse. This addictive entertainment product is the hunger that has built up inside the public to become a part of a given celebrity’s life. We feed off provocative news’ stories, especially those that include a public meltdown. For some reason we revel in the fall of those above us. Samuels discusses the frenzy created by the masses, when Britney Spears suffered “History’s best-publicized celebrity meltdown” (2).

More popular than political goings-on or anniversaries of historical movements and holidays, trips to Starbucks, car rides with the kids, and eventually Spears attacking a vehicle with an umbrella rose to the top of our “must see” list. “The evolution of Hollywood paparazzi from a marginal nuisance to one of the most powerful and lucrative forces driving American news-gathering industry is a phenomenon,” Samuels writes. Through Spears’ public breakdowns, magazine covers, websites, reality television shows, and online news columns have sprouted up everywhere (3). Our craving for 24/7 coverage of celebrities has resulted in “a distinctive new kind of participatory media experience,” and “The online communities that formed around news-driven dramas [have] fed the buzz” that not only pay a paparazzo’s salary but keeps the masses coming back for more (4). Twitter has paralleled this rise, especially as it pertains to gaining ability to peer into the lives of those above us and displaying instant reaction for all to see.

With the newfound “participatory media,” we no longer have to wait for the news to drop in a newspaper column, while the old media often held a polite spectatorial distance between the reader and the media handing down the message (4). There was a disconnect between the news and our personal lives. Now, with the ability to hop online and garner instant reaction, especially through direct contact via Twitter, news has become filter-free, and we integrate ourselves as almost a part of the story itself. Samuels also writes, “Online communities became gladiatorial forums where pseudonymous participants sallied forth to trade insults and shred toilet-paper-thin reputations…that recalls the frenzied mob scene at the end of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust ” (4). Samuels is speaking of the fall of Britney Spears’ public image, but his distinctions apply almost exactly to that of Jay Cutler’s, perhaps even more so.

While paparazzo have to seek out celebrities with 30-45 cameras on a given night, as Samuels notes, athletes appear on television right in front of us each and every day (2). We have no need to seek out scandal, because there is no filter to what takes place on the playing field, no chance to duck into a car or hide out in one’s home. When Cutler left the game, he sat on the bench in front of the eyes of more than 25 million viewers, each pair judging his body language and constructing their idea of his character, now with the ability to post their views on a public forum seen by many. With the backing of significant public figures as listed above, the Twitter reaction only lent credibility to the views of the public. Like a frenzied mob, we altered, in mere hours, what Cutler has built over the past 28 years of his life.

In the literary work No Caption Needed , authors Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites provide a definitive study of the iconic photograph as a dynamic form of art. They discuss how photographs themselves and their circulation through media such as posters, blog posts, t-shirts, television shows, and Web pages often toss the subject of said media through a persuasive form of critical reflection (Hariman, Lucaites 5). Jay Cutler is a prime example of Hariman and Lucaites’ illustrations. They use historical and moving examples, a soldier catching a nurse in a powerful embrace on VJ Day in Times Square, a naked Vietnamese girl running in terror from the napalm attack engulfing the road behind her, and plumes of smoke streaking outward in silent array as the Challenger exploded in the blue air over Florida, but the premise behind their argument, images effecting emotion, finds its way towards applying to Cutler as well.

The images mentioned above “are objects of veneration and other complex emotional responses.” They are reproduced widely and placed in public settings for instant feedback, and  “They come to represent large swaths of historical experience” while acquiring their own histories of appropriation and commentary (1). A silly sport often does not belong in the conversation of historical or tragic events, but make no mistake fans are undyingly passionate, as are the players who pour their lives into the game of football. The image of Cutler on the sidelines elicited a frenzy of emotional responses, mostly negative, and that lone image has come to define the memories of the 2010-2011 NFC Championship game for many fans. The image now stands alone, and nothing he has ever accomplished can erase it. Very few remember the past, because we live in a “what have you done for me lately” social landscape. Columns, blog posts, even satirical t-shirts reproduced this image around the country condemning Cutler as “Quitler” seemingly before the game had even ended (Haugh). And yet, it all began on Twitter. In 140 characters, emotional responses shot up instantaneously, were passed along and multiplied, most notably by Cutler’s NFL peers and professional journalists.

While Packer fans remember earning a ‘W’ that sent them on to the Superbowl, the general NFL fan-base recalls the day Cutler “chickened-out,” if you will. Former NFL offensive lineman for the Bears, who won a Superbowl with Chicago in 1985–which has been deemed as possibly the greatest team of all-time–said on a Chicago based, postgame radio show that Cutler, for his own and the sake of his future, “needed” to be legitimately injured. If he was not, fans would never forget what took place when he jogged off the field in the first half (Wilbon).

Hariman and Lucaites demonstrate how the collective response of a photograph can reveal national and cultural character in No Caption Needed . Similar, Twitter and the accompanying, participatory media has demonstrated how the photograph of Cutler has swayed the majority to condemn him as a quitter, a failure.

It should be noted that Cutler did receive a strong amount of backing from his supporters. Pro Bowl linebacker and teammate Brian Urlacher stated, “Jay was hurt. I don’t question his toughness. He doesn’t (expletive) and complain when he gets hit.” Another of Cutler’s teammates, center Olin Kreutz, affirmed, “(Expletive) them, it’s (expletive) stupid,” Kreutz snapped. “I could see (his knee) wiggling when he was walking back in the huddle (late in the second quarter).” In a press conference following the game, Cutler’s own coach Lovie Smith said, “No player decision. For us, Jay hurt his knee, he couldn’t go. He was injured” (Wilbon). There is no more credible a source than teammates and one’s own head coach, and yet these public statements did little to quell the hysteria. The damage had been done, captured, remembered and reacted upon.

If the coach publicly admits there was in fact an injury, then why still such a public outcry? That falls solely on the Ethos Jay Cutler has constructed. Ethos names the persuasive appeal of one’s character, especially how this character is established by means of speech or discourse (Gideon). Basically, Ethos are the public’s manifestation of a person’s image. Cutler has never been characterized as a vocal leader. Off the field he is rarely seen or noticed, save for football Sundays. When he speaks, little is said. Few know of The Jay Cutler Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the quality of life for underprivileged children and those suffering from diabetes. Even fewer have learned of the amount of work he contributes to the “Best Buddies” program for developmental disabilities. When condemning him as a fraud, his partnership with Mile High United Way’s Youth Success Initiative to help at-risk youth overcome obstacles and graduate from high school is rarely considered (Jay Cutler Six). None of the above is brought to light. We rely so heavily on what the television screen shows us and those online tell us, and because Cutler fails to correct any of the characterizations, we build up the type of person he is on our own and through social interaction.

On the field Cutler often displays raw emotion by throwing his hands in the air or yelling at a referee when a negative play takes place. The viewer sees him complaining, whining and what we believe as acting like an immature child. We don’t see his charitable efforts or dedication to a particular cause, only the good and bad on the playing field. Because he chooses not to speak, not to always depict the on-the-field impenetrable, vocal leader that is rarely rattled we have come to demand from our athletes, and because he elects not to clarify that which is said about him, we care only about what we see and hear. We care only about this:

As the story played itself out, it turns out Jay Cutler suffered a sprained MCL and would require minor surgery. Surprisingly, the announcement of injury did little to quiet the uproar. Cutler was photographed shortly after his surgery out shopping on Rodeo Drive, even climbing up stairs with barely a limp. Whether he truly could have reentered the game or not may never be known. His coaches and teammates have steadfastly supported him ever since the NFC Championship game, but few of the opposition have backed down from their condemnation of the quarterback. Marcus Tullius Cicero once said that in classical oratory, the initial portion of a speech was the place to establish one’s credibility with the audience (“Silva Rhetoricae”). Cutler has failed to establish his own credibility with many fans and players in the NFL and social media audience.

He certainly features redeemable qualities, but what is seen and spoken of by the masses holds sway over all else. Because of his demeanor, or constructed ethos, because of the TMZ-driven media of today, and because of the lone photograph of Cutler seemingly giving up on his team, his image is tarnished. Today’s media, in which Twitter is but one example, has morphed into an all-powerful beast, featuring pros and cons that can literally alter the majority’s characterization of another. Will Cutler redeem himself, or will he forever be linked to one moment, a single picture captured by millions? Time will tell. But one thing is clear, thousands upon thousands will be there if he rises, and they will be there if he falls; ready to click their way into the story and the moment into history.

 

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  • http://www.pocketdoppler.com BigSnakeMan

    Wow, Rich! If you’re going to continue to write like this, I’M going to have to go back to school.

    You put forth an interesting thesis (literally), but please allow me a couple of observations from my own point of view. Quite frequently, many of the players we root for on the playing fields aren’t people with whom we would care to associate on a daily basis. As you note, few people “know” Cutler the individual so I’m confining my comments to the ‘football player’.

    For myself, the red flags on Cutler went up when Denver dealt him to the Bears. “Franchise” quarterbacks in the NFL simply aren’t traded away unless there’s a good reason to do so.

    If the portrayal of Cutler as a quitter came solely from fans like myself, I’d be more inclined to view the images from the NFC Championship game as an aberration. But, when it comes from fellow players and/or media who have had at least minimal exposure to Cutler’s persona, I tend to give it more credence. If they thought such a view was out of character for Cutler, I would have expected them to give him the benefit of the doubt. I put less stock in the comments of his fellow Bears because they have a vested interest in propping up a teammate. I’d be more suprised if they didn’t back him up.

    It’s also interesting to note that Cutler had a losing record as a starter at Vanderbilt, and in the NFL before last season. Since he was also playing poorly in the NFCCG before he got hurt, it doesn’t exactly endorse a reputation as a “winner”.

  • http://PocketDoppler Carol Nichols

    I haven’t finished your thesis yet, Rich, but thank you for a football-related smile on this dreary May day. “…As their dreams of advancing to the Superbowl incinerated into a fog of Green and Gold.” Yep…it still makes me smile! Thanks Rich!

  • http://www.twitter.com/RichWardJr Rich Ward

    “If the portrayal of Cutler as a quitter came solely from fans like myself, I’d be more inclined to view the images from the NFC Championship game as an aberration. But, when it comes from fellow players and/or media who have had at least minimal exposure to Cutler’s persona, I tend to give it more credence.”

    Exactly! Well said. We respect and look up to a lot of these athletes and analysts. When they speak, we listen and occasionally use their opinions to build our own views.

    I would have liked to cut out a lot of stuff, including some of the sources (No Captions Needed, etc) that no one really knows/cares about, but they were required by my professor. Never again…college grad now. =)

    Still, it got a bit long and redundant in the middle there.

    Either way, thanks for the comments BigSnake and Carol. I appreciate the responses. It hurt me to try and be objective about Cutler, though. I’ll be out of the country for a while — long awaited graduation present to myself — but I look forward to jumping back into PocketDoppler this summer.

    Take care everyone!

  • http://PocketDoppler Carol

    As a journalist, Rich, you need to be objective. If the pain caused by being objective about Cutler gets too bad, how ’bout watching a little more of that NFC Championship game….or maybe watch a little bit of the SuperBowl. I’m sure those would help you feel better ;)
    I don’t have to be objective, not one little bit. And as a Packer fan residing in Illinois…..I’M NOT!! If I had money to throw away, I’d get one of those Quitler shirts and have that and my Favre Drama Queen shirt framed and hang it on my wall somewhere.