And that difficulty throws a strange light on one of the prevailing tendencies of Tumblr-era sports fandom, which is that, a lot of the time, maybe most of the time, we treat athletes as fictional characters.3 Mario Balotelli is a person who is alive and who is currently registering sense perceptions and who has his own conception of himself and the universe. But he was a goof job at Manchester City, so we don’t talk about him with hesitation or sensitivity. We don’t, I’m sorry, worry about his feelings. We just spray exclamation points on Twitter and laugh about the latest thing he’s done, as though someone were scripting him for our entertainment.4 We turn his personality into an extension of the game itself — it becomes a consumer product we feel entitled to enjoy. Which is weird, morally, even if we’ve been tacitly encouraged to reach this point by years of marketing efforts to sell sports by selling a fantastically constructed and mediated emotional engagement with sports stars.
Anyway, with Balotelli, we can just about get away with this, because as nutty as he is, he’s a type. His character doesn’t cross a lot of lines. Di Canio, by contrast, keeps leaping borders into different roles — he’s a clown! No, he’s a drill sergeant! No, he’s a villain! — and thus drawing attention to the fact that, basically, within the context of an actual human life, these roles are total bullshit.
The Madness of Paolo Di Canio, ex-Sunderland manager - Grantland
Gosh darn I love Brian Phillips.