You remember John Rocker.
If you care about baseball, you'll probably remember him as a briefly dominant Atlanta Braves closer. But even the baseball-clueless likely remember him for something else: the many, many times he offended people.
The most famous of his now-immortal comments were about New York. In a 1999 Sports Illustrated story, sportswriter Jeff Pearlman quoted Rocker as saying that he'd never want to play for a New York team:
It's the most hectic, nerve-racking city. Imagine having to take the 7 train to the ballpark, looking like you're [riding through] Beirut next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It's depressing ... The biggest thing I don't like about New York are the foreigners. I'm not a very big fan of foreigners ... How the hell did they get in this country?
Say this for Rocker: he didn't commit just one famous gaffe, but made happy hillbilly comments about nearly everyone. In 2002 he had to apologize for making "anti-gay remarks" outside a Dallas restaurant. In 2006, the retired reliever reminded everyone of his nasty existence by publicly throwing his support behind Ozzie Guillen, then-Chicago White Sox skipper, for calling sportswriter Jay Mariotti "a fag." (Guillen tried to say that in his country, that word is about courage, not sexual orientation, which was cute.) Later that year, he penned the requisite washed-up-athlete memoir, Rocker: Scars & Strikes, and summarized its contents for this very web site thusly: "more conservative Republican rantings." (At the time he was pushing an initiative he had titled, charmingly, "Speak English.") To this day, he maintains a presence as a troll columnist on the fringes of the right-wing internet, writing pieces with headlines like "Water Is Not A Human Right" and "Black Mobs and Media Practice."
In other words, he's the perfect kind of B-list (C-list?) athlete that the CBS program Survivor loves to feature. And you can bet that watching him on the new season, which debuts on Wednesday, is going to be legitimately fun.
Here's where you begin to roll your eyes and wonder, "But … why would I watch Survivor?" You would, among other reasons, watch Survivor because you, Deadspin reader, are (presumably) a sports fan, and this is, among other things, actually a sports program.
Yes, Survivor, which is about to air its 29th season—appalling to some, maybe, but clearly not to all, given that it's now lasted as many seasons as The Real World and has already been renewed for another—has been miscast as reality television. It's "reality" in that it's real, sure, but there ought to be a different genre for this show. The reality TV label suggests painfully contrived situations, scripting, and pre-planned, packaged drama. Survivor doesn't really need to get into any of that, because of the structure of the show.
That structure has remained basically unchanged forever. A group of contestants goes to a beautiful, exotic locale with little more than the clothes on their backs, they are divided into teams, and they compete for rewards in elaborate challenges. (The challenges are the best part of the show, at least in my opinion.) At about the halfway point, the teams break up, and the game becomes every man for himself. Every few days, a player is voted off until either two or three remain, at which point a jury of voted-off contestants hears their arguments and then decides who will win the million dollar prize.
The show has long since dropped the pretense that survival skills have much to do with anything. Survivor is really just an elaborate strategy game with a demanding physical element at its core—something very sports-like, if not quite a sport. Think of the whole thing as a very carefully edited behind-the-scenes look into the locker room politics of a strange athletic competition, and it all makes more sense.
The best evidence that athleticism drives this show is the way people actually get voted off the island. The physically strong always last for at least the first few rounds. Unless there's an obvious choice—a person who is cancerous from minute one—the tribe that loses the first challenge consistently votes out the old person (on Survivor, a guy in his 40s counts as old), or, in lieu of someone old, the weirdest person, or, in lieu of a tatted-up or pierced person, someone weak. With occasional rare exceptions, they keep the strong folks around for a while for the purpose of winning challenges. And as the game moves toward the every man for himself part, these same people finally start getting voted off. The other contestants judge them, correctly, to be the biggest threats.
Whenever I mention to anyone that I watch this show, they act appalled. There are occasional exceptions, like the unpretentious cousin in Florida, or a big-box employee at a certain company I was visiting in Arkansas, but the judgment is consistent, and cuts across any lines you might like to name. This isn't just my liberal arts-educated Manhattan snob friends! It's everyone.
It usually turns out that their preconceived notion of Survivor is wrong. In most cases, they've never seen the show, never will, and will always just assume it's fake—I hear that one a lot—or just stupid and catty. Of course, yes, there's a lot of stupidity and cattiness, and, sure, the whole thing is ridiculous. Check out legendary ham "Coach" Ben Wade:
Still, playing well takes a perfect balance of physical skill, mental toughness, and crafty strategic reasoning—things any sports fan can appreciate. Whatever else you can say about it, Survivor is just different from something like The Real Housewives of Moron Peninsula or Kim and Khloe Do Dallas. (My suspicion is that my friends and family who think Survivor is trashy each have a reality program that they watch religiously and that their pet programs are far stupider; as a result, they're pinning the stink of their shows on mine. Classic deflecting, a shrink would say.)
A necessary confession here: I wasn't all that into Survivor as a kid, though I did watch two seasons. I didn't really get into it as a grown adult until 2011 for its 23rd season, South Pacific, and then only because a girl I had known vaguely in college, Sophie Clarke, was one of the contestants. (She ended up winning, and made it look easy.) Since that season, I've watched religiously, so that in total I've seen eight of the 28 seasons. But I'm hooked. I've gone so far, in fact, as to participate in a fantasy Survivor league. Yes, that's right: three of my friends and I have turned Survivor into a fantasy sports event.
Before each new season of the show, we watch the quick introductory videos CBS posts of each cast member and look at the promo photos. (That's about all we can do in terms of scouting.) Then we draft. Last year, for the first time, we drafted in person, in Seattle, with our commissioner writing in the names one by one on a roster sheet taped to the wall.
Episodes are scored according to a detailed set of criteria that can earn or lose you points. One of your survivors cries? (This show isn't for the weak!) Docked a point. One of your survivors volunteers to sit out of a challenge? (This show is for athletes!) Docked a point. Your guy finds a hidden immunity idol? Plus five. One of your gals orchestrates a "blindside" to vote someone off? Plus 10.
Having the Survivor fantasy league adds a level of excitement, just like with any other sport. It makes you feel a little bit more personally invested. And shit, do we get into it. A quick sampling of other scoring metrics: Killing and eating an animal (+15); being called "lazy around camp" by a tribemate (-5); receiving professional attention from a Survivor medic (-25); earning a nickname from host Jeff Probst (+25); hooking up on the island (+50); giving away an immunity idol (-15); getting voted off with an unused immunity idol in your pocket (-25). That these are viable categories tells you a lot about what John Rocker is generally in for.
More than his fellow contestants, though, Rocker will also be fighting history. Survivor has a rich heritage of bringing former pro athletes onto the island. These athletes do not have the best track record. They are almost always guys who, whether or not they were successful in their sport, have some controversy or famous fuck-up to their name that fans will quickly remember. And they are almost always guys who, though widely known within their sport, are not household names to the rest of America. (An exception on that front: Jimmy Johnson, former NFL coach turned TV bloviator, who went on in 2010. It did not go well.)
Four seasons ago, on Survivor Philippines, 2000 National League MVP Jeff Kent was on the show. It was almost certainly the most entertaining run, if not the most successful, by any former athlete, and it peaked just as it ended, when he responded to getting voted off with a rant that transcended the show itself and went viral:
"Thanks, Obama" aside, it actually was a good run. Even though Kent hilariously tore a ligament in his knee in the first 10 minutes of day one on the island while scrambling onto a canoe, he was ninth voted out, lasting long enough to make the jury. (Jurors stick around on a pleasure-island style beach house, getting fat, playing volleyball and bickering; their antics are posted online for hardcore fans to cackle at.)
Two seasons ago Brad Culpepper, the former NFL defensive tackle, went on with his wife Monica. She had been on the show before; he hadn't. Brad was a lot of fun to watch, though he approached the game with a big-dog attitude that made him no friends. He proved that physical strength alone isn't enough, but even without much of a social game he could have stuck around longer (if he had played a bit more under the radar).
Last season's cast included NBA veteran Cliff Robinson, the 6'10'' giant who played most of his career with the Portland Trailblazers. He had a decent run, but was voted out fifth by jealous tribemates nervous about his likability and following. He was big and nice and probably too earnest to have lasted much longer.
The most successful former athlete to ever play Survivor is Ethan Zohn, a former soccer player with the USL's Hawaii Tsunami, who won the third season. (It wasn't quite the same as an NBA, MLB, or NFL veteran coming on, but still.) His status as a former athlete had almost no bearing on the show, and he's one of the few who won with no real backstabbing; he was a nice, vanilla contestant. He is probably not a good role model for John Rocker.
Given all this, let's take a look at the prospects of this season's token athlete. Like Culpepper's, this is a "Blood vs. Water" season. Contestants come in pairs, with everyone bringing along a family member or loved one. (The appeal here is obvious: You get to see stuff like a schemer voting against her own mom.) The last time they did this, they were separated right away.
John Rocker's loved one is a woman named Julie, whom CBS actually describes as such: "Spray-tan business owner Julie McGee." Yes, John Rocker's girlfriend owns a spray-tan business. Act surprised.
One of the more entertaining aspects of athletes on Survivor is that they almost always attempt to lie about who they are and what they do/did for a living. The theory is that if your fellow contestants know you are a retired pro, they will either a) be annoyed that someone who no doubt has a lot of money is now competing to make more of it or b) immediately plan to vote you out on the assumption you are physically superior. The first may have something to it; the second is just silly. (Why wouldn't contestants be equally on-guard against a jacked, non-famous guy who claims to be a horse trainer, or a sports photographer, or a gym teacher?)
Whatever the case, they almost all do it, and the results can be funny. Jeff Kent told tribemates that he owned a motorcycle dealership—true, though a lie by omission. When one girl approached him and told him, quietly, that she recognized him, he helped get her voted out right away before she could spread the word. Former backup quarterback Gary Hogeboom was so paranoid that he gave his fellow islanders a fake name—Gary Hawkins—and said he was a landscaper, but he was caught out in his lie. Cliff Robinson, at 6'10'', couldn't so easily hide that he had played basketball, and was a big enough name that a large portion of the cast knew him; the same went for Jimmy Johnson.
What's Rocker's plan? He's going with the obvious, dumb idea: he's hoping no one will recognize him, and planning to lie about his identity.
"I would like to live in a fantasy world and think it's not going to happen," he told EW's Dalton Ross before the show began filming. (He must have hoped not one of the other 17 people is a baseball fan.) And if he does get recognized? "If that happens, maybe that person becomes my target before they can spread throughout 'This guy's a major league baseball player. A retired guy. He's got plenty of money. Let's just get him out of the way.' So that person may become my target or that person may become my biggest ally, I don't know." It doesn't sound like the most careful plan.
If he doesn't know what he's doing, at least Rocker knows why he's doing it. In a pre-show survey CBS makes contestants answer, he gave this as his reason for wanting to be on the show: "The experience and for the possibilities of future Survivor shows. I would love to compete more than once." Give him credit for not bothering to hide that this is a fame play. Hey, everyone! I'm still here, I exist. Put me on TV, buy my book, hire me as a commentator. Speak English!
If all else fails, Rocker's game plan is to show people "the real John." This apparently involves some deep reflections: "I was raised in a professional baseball clubhouse, and I still carry a lotta idiocy with me. As far as negatives, I think it's just going to be overcoming the obvious stereotypes, the 6-foot-5 guy, ex-baseball player, he's obviously egotistical, he's obviously a jerk." Well, yes. Will anyone want to work with him? For whatever it's worth, there's another jock on this season, former Michigan State linebacker John Misch, who is playing with his girlfriend Jaclyn Schultz, a former Miss Michigan. You can imagine Rocker and Misch teaming up; you can also imagine them hating each other.
In the end, though, this is still John Rocker, a loud, boorish meathead at best, and one who certainly gives every appearance of actually being a bigoted, homophobic, jingoistic redneck. Assume that he gets away with his "Baseball? Never heard of it!" ploy. How will people react to him?
If I had to make a prediction—and those who watch the show will assure you this is hardly a bold leap—I'd say he sticks around for four or five episodes, competes fine in challenges because of his size and strength, but quickly makes an enemy on his tribe. Their antagonism simmers, and then he gets booted once he annoys some of the others, too. But hey, prove me wrong, hoss.
Either way, I can't wait to see. And we can certainly hope that when he gets voted off, someone will cleverly shout at him as his torch gets snuffed, "I mean, how the hell did you even get onto this island?"
Daniel Roberts writes about sports business at Fortune magazine. He can be found on Twitter @readDanwrite. (He is not the Daniel Roberts who wrote a Deadspin piece on Floyd Mayweather, though, ironically, he has interviewed Mayweather and writes Sports Illustrated's Fortunate 50 list of athlete earnings, which Mayweather has topped three years in a row. Hey, it's a generic name.)
Image by Sam Woolley; photo via Getty