Part of the glamour of big-time athletics is the glittering lifestyle that we imagine the athlete leads. Fancy cars. Mansions with endless corridors. All the champagne and caviar one can gulp down. The idea that a top athlete might run down to the 7-Eleven to pick up a can of tuna or recline on a Barcalounger to watch a soap opera doesn't quite fit our image.
And yet...around lunchtime you would be surprised how many athletes munch tuna sandwiches and watch soaps. Though the brands of tuna vary, many jocks watch one particular soap. And many watch one particular character, the same character who enthralls homebodies, students, the terminally unemployed and those who keep up with their favorite soap via VCR. His name is Victor Newman, and he is a mainstay on The Young and the Restless. This spectacularly affluent tycoon runs his business with the ruthlessness of a Chinese warlord and sheds his redundant wives as easily as he does his tuxedo.
Newman's boardroom power plays and bedroom reconciliations are followed slavishly by boxers and ballplayers, golfers and gymnasts. "Jocks relate to Victor," says former Philadelphia Phillie pitcher Larry Andersen. "He relies on intimidation, manipulation.... He's got most of the '-ations' down pat."
Jocks relate as much to Newman's Machiavellian intelligence as to his swaggering reserve—a sense of throttled rage that gives him an almost sinister allure. "Victor never lets his emotions show through," marvels former NBA star Mychal Thompson. "He can explode, but it takes a lot for him to lose it." The unflappable Newman hangs tough no matter how many barbarians try to crash his gates. "Victor's a guy's guy," says New York Yankee slugger Danny Tartabull. "Always poised, always in control. And he always gets his revenge. We all strive to be that way."
Professional athletes have so much time and so little to do with it that many get swept off in the sudsy flood of soaps. "Teammates used to tease me about watching them," says Thompson, who in his days with the Portland Trail Blazers taped as many as five a day on road trips. "But they all knew the characters' names—even the exotic ones like Cord and Blade and Suede. Obviously, the players were secretly kicking back on their beds, watching too."
In these more tolerant times, few soap-struck athletes feel compelled to hide their habits behind chained hotel doors. "I don't watch sports," says Chicago Bull guard Ron Harper. "I do sports for a living. Soaps relax my mind and keep me out of trouble."
No soap has athletes in more of a lather than Y&R, a sprawling epic that is as hard to summarize briefly as Finnegans Wake. The show is set in real-life Genoa City, Wis., where, at least on Y&R, marriages fail with depressing regularity and everyone is desperately involved with everyone else. The crises faced by these New World Genovese run from straying affections and frayed reputations to comas and bouts of amnesia.
In the middle of this melodramatic maelstrom is Victor Newman, a Fortune 500 buccaneer whose very name couples winning and rebirth. As played by Eric Braeden, Newman is among the most mercurial of TV characters. One minute he'll warble some soap-opera aria such as, "Defer to your elders, or I'll crush you." The next, he'll peer soulfully through candlelight and whisper, "I love you with every fiber of my being." Newman is higher in fiber than oat bran.
Newman was soap scum when he surfaced in Genoa City in 1980. He sealed his first wife's lover in a basement dungeon and fed him baked rats. He met his second wife at a strip joint, where she performed erotic aerobics. After a failed third marriage he got hitched to the glamorous chemist who had been his lover during his second marriage. Newman stumbled onto his fifth wife—a blind farmer named Hope—after his Rolls-Royce was car-jacked at a diner. For months he was presumed dead because he never bothered to phone home.
Immediately after meeting Braeden on an L.A. street a few years ago, Harper called his mother. "Mom flipped out," he recalls. "She said, 'You didn't really meet Victor Newman!' I said, 'Yeah!' It was hard to tell who was more excited."