Monday, November 1, 2010

Small Time in a Big Time World: Why sports?

I have a friend who simply cannot stand reading about sports. She says that the minute she sees anything about sports, she automatically tunes it out and goes onto something else.

Well, I hope she violates her curious code of reading conduct and continues. But even if she doesn't ...

The argument that sports should not command so much attention in a society that has far more important things with which to concern itself is certainly valid. We're still crawling out of a recession the likes of which we haven't seen since the Great Depression (a curious question regarding that; it's off the track, but what would have happened had the electorate, in 1934, not given FDR at least his first term to solve the crisis he inherited?). Yet we're subjected to endless breathless rumination on Brett Favre and his injuries; LeBron James and his decision to play in Miami over Cleveland (well ... duh????); and thousands of other ego-driven, narcissistic, overpaid jocks who think the world truly turns on their axes.

But I submit to you that's precisely why we care so much, and pay so much attention to, competitive sports in our society. It's because those who play sports at a high competitive level are -- a lot of the time -- cartoon characters who are very easily (and very comfortably) lovable or hateable (if that's even a word).

Sunday in Foxborough, Mass., I had a chance to see the extreme ends of that spectrum. On one end was Brett Favre, who is becoming -- in his old age (athletically speaking) -- almost unbearable in his smug, arrogant jockness. On the other end, there's Tom Brady, he of the dimpled chin, matinee idol perfection, and uncanny ability to either say the right thing at all times, or smile and kid his way out of trouble if he slips up.

I suppose to some, both are equally off-putting. Favre's act is growing old -- even to his coach (apparently). He is a giant Galapagos Turtle sitting in the middle of the thoroughfare of progress. His presence on any team these days (currently the Minnesota Vikings) prevents that organization from moving forward. Further, Favre has his awfully annoying ability of making every bit of everything about him.

He is in the middle of a consecutive-game streak that was, up to this year anyway, honorable. It harkens back to Cal Ripken of the Baltimore Orioles, who surpassed Lou Gehrig's similar streak back in 1995. You know what, though? Ripken came to the realization that he was no longer up to the rigors of every day playing, and took himself out of the lineup.

Ever see "Monty Python and the Holy Grail?" Remember the black knight scene? That's Brett Favre. Yesterday, Myron Pryor of the Patriots put a 10-stitch gash into Favre's chin. Favre had to leave the field in a cart. But there he was, after the game, talking about how brave he was (again). I could just hear him say, "only a flesh wound."

The problem with people like Favre is that they're too wrapped up in themselves to realize no one buys their act anymore. What was once bravery is now seen as egotistical idiocy. No one except for, maybe, the most hopeless sycophant sees Favre as anything but a pathetic creature trying desperately to hang onto something of which he should have let go as recently as last season.

Favre is not the only one with this syndrome. Willie Mays had it too -- with disastrous results. So have many others. Rare is the player like Larry Bird, who knows when it's time to go ... and goes without any public rumination.

Brady's different ... but not really that different. Sure, he makes no waves ... says nothing that'll get him trouble (intentionally at least). He's eternally pleasant, smiling, gracious, accommodating ... so much so that it often seems cloyingly calculated. One can only imagine what goes on with Brady and his teammates behind closed doors, but there seems to be an Eddie Haskell aspect to him sometimes that leaves you just short of buying into his act.

This isn't to say that Brady's way of doing things is necessarily wrong. He tries very hard not to come off as a self-indulgent fathead. He didn't make waves when it was time to negotiate his contract ... didn't make lot of noise or issue ultimatums in the media. That's just it, though. He just seems to always be on his guard. And while I'm sure it serves the Patriots well (he is, after all, the best ambassador the franchise could have when he acts this way), you wish that, just once, he'd get up there and say something that makes seem a LITTLE less rehearsed.

But haven't we seen people like this all our lives? Especially in high school, when the pecking order of life seems to be established?

This is why I continue to fascinated with sports in all aspects. These professional jocks really aren't much different than they were in high school. Every SPORT in ever SCHOOL has a Brett Favre ... a guy with an impossibly arrogant swagger whose abilities almost put him above the law. If Brett Favre is flunking two subjects and is in danger of being ineligible, tutors are rushed to his side to prevent that from happening. Deals are made. Extra credit projects come out of the woodwork. Somehow, Brett passes and gets to play in the big game.

The guy who plays the tuba in the school band? Forget it. He's on his own.

Every school has a Tom Brady ... the anti-Favre, if you will. The guy with the good looks, who gets to take the top cheerleader to the senior prom ... they're voted King and Queen. The Tom Bradys of the world keep their hands clean. Like the Favres, they, too, can do no wrong. But where the Favres tend to push that envelope just a bit, the Bradys drink the kool-aid ... at least where you can see them.

Behind the scenes, they are every bit as distracted ... and self-absorbed ... and conceited ... as the Favres are. They just hide it better. They know how to play the game.

In high school, the sycophants may be teachers who love sports (and who played them when they were younger), coaches, administrators who see these athletes as a way to make their schools look better in ways that are much more tangible (not to mention visceral) than standardized test scores (or award-winning drama clubs). But in the world of the Favres and Bradys, the sycophants work for ESPN, and FOX, and NESN ... and other media outlets whose ratings depend on their breathless reporting of everything they do.

This is why we have ad nauseum reporting on the comings and goings of LeBron James. It's why ESPN built a set and broadcast from the Miami Heat training camp. It's why Favre and his injuries -- and the possibility of his streak being jeopardized this past Sunday -- got so much play. Sycophants are like that not so much because they truly believe these people are great. They do what they do because they're petrified of what'll ever happen if they lose access to the stars. It's why Mickey Mantle was allowed to careen through life with a glass of whiskey in one hand, a baseball bat in the other, and a woman in practically every bed he slept in. Nobody wanted to imagine what life would be like without access to him.

(It's also why JFK was also allowed to be a womanizer all those years. The party line is that those were the rules back then. Sure. Those were the rules because their success -- RATINGS -- depended upon their access to, and favoritism toward, JFK, who was the personification of glitter).)

Myself? I prefer the Randy Mosses and Charles Barkleys of the world. They can be just as nauseating, and just as ego-driven, as the others ... but they don't deny it. In fact, they revel in it.

Tom Jackson, on ESPN, said something today on SportCenter that it's difficult to arug with: That he loved guys like Randy Moss because even though they were often burrs in the saddles of their organization, they were unscripted. They said what was on their minds, and threw caution to the wind. They are few and far between.

Barkley was another one like that. Charles simply didn't care. Did he sound like an ass sometimes? Absolutely. Did it matter to him? No.

Shaquille O'Neal is also like that. It is perhaps the No. 1 blessing of his arrival in Boston this year. There's no turtle in Shaq, even though he's on his last (massively big) legs too. He knows it; he's willing to submerge himself into the Celtics' team concept if it gets him one more championship (even though we all know one reason for that is so that he doesn't end up with less rings than archrival Kobe Bryant by the time it's all said and done for him).

But that's OK. At least he won't deny it if you ask. And if he, and the Celtics, don't go all the way, it'll be a fun ride. Because Shaq's going to say what he thinks. He's already done that. After the NBA decided it was going to clamp down on all the bitching and moaning on the court by calling lightning-quick technicals, Shaq remarked that they might as well start selling referee's jerseys in souvenir shops.

So this is why I continue to gravitate toward sports. There's really little difference between athletes and politicians. They both have tremendous egos. Some manage to control them; some cannot; some manage to hide them better than others ... but they all have overblown egos.

Also in both cases, the ones who seem to make out the best are the ones who go through life with a wink and a smile. That was Bill Clinton's charm. I don't think he spent much time worrying about his gargantuan ego. He played to it, the same way Tom Brady plays to his, and Shaquille O'Neal plays to his, and that probably mitigated a lot of what he did.

You get to be a certain age, and the games tend to mean less and less, especially if you write about sports for a living. But what fuels you are the people ... the character studies ... and the personalities and circumstances that fuel the performances. That's what gets my juices flowing.

Always did ... and always will.

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