Posted in

Simone Biles, Sports, Sponsorship, Social Media and the Modern Self

I was glad to see that Simone Biles was able to compete again in the Olympics and win a bronze medal on the balance beam.  She is an outstanding gymnast who has advanced the sport/art with new moves and a high level of execution.  Unfortunately, because of her very public withdrawal from some of the events for reasons of “mental health,” she has been subjected to some extremely harsh criticism.

The reactions both of her critics and defenders have been mostly superficial. What happened to Simone Biles is the result of the confluence of four currents in modern American society: the role of sports, the financial impact of sponsors, the ubiquitous presence of social media and its baleful influence on the self, which was already trapped in the hopelessly contradictory reality of mass society and the exaltation of its individual expression.

The Cultural Importance of Sports

For over a century, sports have played an excessive role in American culture.  Successful athletes are idolized, and people often identify themselves with their favorite teams.  In such a cultural climate, athletes are believed and normally believe themselves to be representatives of not just their team or sport but also of their fans.  This creates significant pressure on them to succeed and when they fail, they feel that they have failed not only themselves and their team but also their fans.

The pressure from this cultural context reaches its greatest heights in major sporting events such as the Super Bowl and the World Series in which the whole nation seems to be watching and not just the normal fanbase.   As great as this pressure is during the Super Bowl and the World Series, it is negligible when compared to the Olympics, which has the whole world watching.  Additionally, athletes represent their whole nation in the Olympics.  Thus, the normal challenges of fans identifying with their heroes is multiplied exponentially because now it is mixed in with patriotism, that potent force of self-identity.  To fail here may make one appear to be guilty of failing your nation.

In considering this pressure in the case of Simone Biles we also need to take note of the peculiarities of gymnastics—her chosen sport.  Several factors increase the amount of pressure on a gymnast.

  1. In contrast to basketball, soccer, and volleyball, gymnastics is an individual sport. Yes, there is an important team aspect to the sport, but whether on the mat, the balance beam, the uneven bars or leaping from the vault, the gymnast is alone.  The focus of attention and thus the pressure is on her alone.
  2. Gymnastics demands a high level of concentration. It is true that the sprinter and the discus thrower also must be very focused.  However, running and throwing are relatively simple activities compared to the complex multiple moves that a gymnast makes.
  3. Intense concentration to perform a complex action is also necessary for divers, but the extent of time required is much less than that for the balance beam or the uneven bars.
  4. Several sports, such as gymnastics, are very popular during the Olympics, but, in contrast to team sports such as baseball, basketball and soccer, garner relatively little attention otherwise. This means that the Olympics represents far more than any other event the opportunity for the athlete to gain fame and glory.
  5. In contrast to most sports, gymnastics is also an art. In fact, the Olympic competitions are called artistic gymnastics.  The gymnast develops her routine and in floor gymnastics music must be chosen to complement that routine.  The element of creativity is crucial.  Art and creativity make the gymnast’s performance much more personal.  Therefore, as an art, failure or success touches them more deeply and personally than in other sports, which increases the pressure to succeed.


The Olympics also affords the greatest single opportunity for the gymnast to make money.  This statement should not be taken as a criticism of the professionalization of sports, as if it is somehow morally reprehensible for an athlete to earn a living by using her skills.  Olympic medalists do receive bonuses; however, the financial side of athletics varies widely from sport to sport.  Kevin Durant has an enormous multiyear and multimillion dollar contract with the Brooklyn Nets and, of course, can garner more money through personal endorsements.  Whatever financial remuneration he receives from being an Olympic gold medalist is, comparatively speaking, negligible.  In sports such as gymnastics the money mostly comes from corporate sponsorships.  As in the case of Simone Biles, these can be quite substantial, but they are also more dependent on that one big event, the Olympics, thus adding a financial side to the enormous pressure to win.

By using their athletic success and personal image to gain money through advertising products, athletes are marketing themselves and need to be aware of all the potential negative consequences that can and do follow.  Even more challenging, they are dependent for much of their livelihood upon that most fickle and at times unscrupulous of entities—advertising and the hype and image creation that go along with it. In turn, the publicity and the image projected there depend upon the media.

Social Media

The media have always been important in the modern Olympics. Journalists and photographers were present at the 1896 Athens Olympics. The first radio broadcast was done for the 1924 Paris Olympics and the 1936 Berlin Olympics were telecast. However, even with their increased technological sophistication, the presence of these traditional media pale in comparison to what goes by the name of social media.  The reach, immediacy, permanence, and interactive nature of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and a host of other websites and platforms are unparalleled.

Athletes are asked to and often eagerly seek to express their views, feelings, and experiences via social media without the time for reflection and carefully formulated statements.  Although these various new media can and do enhance fan enjoyment and participation as well as publicity for the athletes, there are significant downsides to this phenomenon.  When athletes use their fame, which is in truth the influence of their personae as celebrities, and social media to advocate political or social causes, often without understanding the complexity of the issues, they expose themselves to criticism from those who oppose their views.  Such criticisms can be vitriolic and personal.  People believe that they can hide behind the supposed anonymity of social media and attack others in a way that they would not in face-to-face interaction.  In addition, even the reasonable criticisms can appear to be personal since the athlete has employed her persona to support views rather than reasoned arguments.

A more direct challenge from social media for the athlete is to maintain focus.  In order to perform well, one must be able to tune out all the external noise and concentrate all of one’s mental energies into performing the physical task required.  The effort to focus by a high jumper before taking off is evident to even the most casual observers.  In gymnastics the level of extended concentration is even greater due to the nature of the sport.  The seemingly constant presence of the social media into this generation’s personal or mental space represents a new challenge to today’s young athletes, especially when one’s self has been so closely tied to one’s media presentation.

The Modern Self

The Lonely Crowd, David Riesman’s classic 1950 study of the American character, contrasted the previous generation’s inner-directed persons with the other-directed persons, who, in his analysis, began to be more prevalent in the 1940’s.  The inner-directed person has an internal gyroscope of values and norms by which he identifies himself. Other-directed people define themselves more by the society around them, whose approval they seek.  Riesman significantly connects this development with consumer culture.  The other-directed person seeks to conform with the surrounding culture regarding what is consumed as well as what is believed and the status one has.

If Riesman’s thesis is true, people identify themselves with their perception of what external society values.  In the contemporary era, social media becomes the primary source for discovering what the values of a mass society are and thus for shaping one’s identity.  A key component of that source is what celebrities, including athletes, express about themselves and their opinions and values.  Thus, when an athlete projects an image or expresses views that are contrary to one’s views, it is perceived as a threat to that person’s identity and results in an attack on the athlete.  At the same time, if one’s identity is closely tied to an athlete’s, then the failure of the athlete is experienced as a personal failure that damages one’s self-identity.  Such an experience can also result in an attack on the athlete.

What has changed since Riesman’s day is the dominance of expressive individualism, which is ably outlined by Carl Trueman in his “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.”[1]  According to Trueman, expressive individualism holds that the authentic self is found by expressing outwardly what is felt inwardly, when one gives voice in a public or social setting to one’s inner feelings.  The irony and tragedy for the modern self is that it combines a supposed independence of the inner self both with a dependence upon social media for the shaping of itself, Riesman’s “other,” and with seeking approval from that same media, which exposes it to attacks.  When the person is a prominent athlete, whose every thought, feeling, and action has become public, the threat to the self is greater than ever.

Simone Biles

In the light of the above reflection, how should we understand and respond to Simone Biles’ withdrawal from several Olympic events due to mental health and the reactions to it?  We’ll look first at the reactions, then at the gymnast herself, and finally propose a solution.

Many of the negative reactions should be criticized.  Some conservative pundits, regrettably including Christians, expressed glee at her withdrawal and openly mocked her mental health justification.  Because of her previous expressions of support for Black Lives Matter, she was interpreted as a symbol of “wokeism.”  Because of their opposition to these movements, they rejoiced at her failure.  Clearly, one does not have to be a partisan of these movements to see that a one-to-one cause and effect relationship between the ideology of wokeism and athletic failure is woefully simplistic.  More importantly, from an ethical standpoint, their dehumanizing of a woman made in the image of God is sinful and a sign of the problems of this age of social media.  As a final point, the mocking of her mental health justification reveals a woefully superficial understanding of the human person and psyche or else a decision to make political points without regard to the truth.

However, the defenders of Simone Biles also are not above criticism. Some are merely the reactions of fans who want to defend her or of those who oppose conservative commentators.  More characteristic of contemporary society and more problematic is calling Biles a hero.  Traditionally, heroes are those who courageously act for the benefit of others despite the danger of harm to themselves.  Given this understanding, her act seemed hardly heroic.  However, in contemporary terms Biles’s withdrawal and the admission that it was out of concern for her mental health was laudably heroic.  Their reasoning has everything to do with the contemporary view of the self.  Biles spoke publicly and authentically of her inner feelings and struggles.  Her revelation of issues of mental health was brave because of the criticism she would assuredly face and the possible damage to her public image.

While granting that there is a subjective element to heroism and thus something to this point of view, it seems overstated.  Her act was proper and in the best sense of the word prudent because the risks of performing were real and in the light of her diminished capacities her withdrawal probably helped the team.  It is another example of the dilution of the word “hero” in this day and age when teachers (I am a teacher, by the way.) and cashiers are called heroic because they went to work during the COVID pandemic.  It would have been appreciated if Biles had merely thanked her supporters and humbly admitted that the pressure was too much for her, but she appears to be embracing the heroic image as the poster child for the new cause of mental health for athletes.

As I have stated previously, Simone Biles made the right decision to withdraw from several Olympic events and her mental health justification is valid.  In addition, anyone with a heart should be glad that she recovered sufficiently to win a bronze medal for the balance beam.  Having said this in her favor, there are legitimate reasons to contend that she is at least partially responsible for her mental health issues.  Biles reportedly is the one who had the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) image put on her leotards and defended it as an honest assessment of who she is—the greatest gymnast of all time.  Whether this self-evaluation is correct is beside the point.  It is disingenuous to complain about the pressure that the moniker placed upon her when she is the one who did it.  Also, given the reality, and not just the image, that she was the most talented and the senior member of the American women’s gymnastics team, it sounds like whining when she says that her being pronounced as the glue that holds the team together was being shoved down her throat.  On a sad note, her desire to be able to perform just for herself, which, I believe, was falsely interpreted as selfish, was naïve.  One can appreciate the desire to practice the sport that one loves without all the surrounding noise and interests; however, the desire is impossible.  She is no longer just a gymnast but a celebrity whose status and income are tied to a culture that feeds her and feeds off of her.


The fact seems to be that the pressure proved too much for her and she wisely stepped back.  It was good to discover as the reporting of this event unfolded that there are counsellors and medical personnel attending to our athletes.  One would hope that her experience would lead to a discussion of the challenges of pressure on athletes and other celebrities.  Beyond that, a much wider discussion needs to take place on the destructive combination of the inadequate basis of the modern self and the pervasive influence of social media.  Earlier, I criticized conservative critics of Simon Biles for ignoring her value as the image of God.  The solution to the problems of the modern self is to find its foundation in the unchanging reality that each person has been created in the image of God and that seeking to find one’s affirmation and identity in the world of social media is destructive to the self.



[1] Trueman’s views on expressive individualism can be found in the series of lectures available at the following website



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *