Question of the week: Does it bother you when your favorite player breaks bread/talks on the phone/dishes gossip with your most hated rival?
We know it shouldn't. We know sports are a business, that players on different teams are all part of the same overall corporation. But still, in your gut, you know there's something that rankles you a bit about quotes like the following, from Peyton Manning regarding Tom Brady's presence during Manning's injury-lost 2011:
"He was supportive. He plays for another team and he reached out to me and said, 'Hey, anything I can do to help the rehab, miss seeing you out there.' When you're injured, and you're not out there playing, you kind of find out who's with you and who's not. Tom consistently throughout the season would check in with me. I appreciated that. It says a lot."
So, as a football fan, is your initial reaction:
A) "Hey, that's classy. These guys are competitors on the field but colleagues off it."
or B) "Oh, puke. When's the wedding? And make sure Brady throws the bouquet, Peyton, or it'll get intercepted. Jerks."
Truth? The first reaction is the correct one, we guess, but the second one is the real one. We don't want our rival athletes buddy-buddying their way around in life, because we loathe our rivals with a hatred that borders on (and occasionally crosses the line of) sociopathy. Bleacher fights between rivals are so routine they barely make the news; you've got to beat someone into a coma or destroy a rival's historical treasures to move the needle now.
Granted, the above examples are not exactly what you'd call healthy expressions of sports fandom. Even so, they're the far (and, yes, insanely irrational) edge of the seething frustration that lurks in the back of every devoted fan's mind. Every time we see a LeBron James join up with a Dwyane Wade rather than try to defeat him, every time we see a Johnny Damon jump from one bitter rival to another, every time we see our losing team smiling as they embrace the winners … it all fuels that creeping knowledge that we're being played for chumps.
Now, this is not to say that rivals must only meet on the field of battle, their lives off the field an endless montage of solitary, spartan training scenes (preferably accompanied by a motivational '80s soundtrack). Earlier this summer, the news that NBA Finals rivals Kevin Durant and James worked out together sent ESPN commentators and sports-radio hosts (never the most nuanced of observers) into fits of "no-fraternization!" fury.
Now, there's not a relevant sports storyline out there that the sports hype machine can't chew into single-flavor gruel, but still: There's something ineffable lost there, some element of the whole idea of rivalry and fandom that vanishes in the face of mutual business interests and shared workouts.
Theory: This is why we are all falling in love with fantasy football. If our guy isn't performing, we can imagine ourselves inviting him into our office for a little chat:
"Hey, Tony. No, don't sit down. You won't be here long. When we picked you up from the Cowboys, Tony, we expected more from you. Five interceptions? Really? Get out, and leave your playbook. Drop it right there. We know you've got no problem dropping things."
So much more satisfying than real life, ain't it?
Speaking of lunatic fandom: Ever been on the wrong side of an official's call but realized that, yeah, your guy probably did deserve that penalty? That's a sickening feeling, isn't it?
Normally, we're cool with, say, our defender using a Taser on the opposing receiver, but every so often you'll realize that your guy just went too far. Pulling a knife on the guy right there in the paint? Yeah, that'll probably be a two-shot foul.
I had one of those moments Friday night at the Atlanta Braves game. Now, I've been an Atlanta fan for all my life; as a three-year-old, I threw up during my very first trip to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, which in hindsight looks a lot like a metaphor. And while I'm professional enough not to cheer in the press box now that I'm covering the team, I'm not quite professional enough to look with utter detachment on the famous Turner Field Infield Fly Debacle of 2012.
I wanted to write a screaming, this-was-a-crime-against-humanity column. I wanted to call out the ump, call out Major League Baseball, call out the Braves and Cardinals and get them back on the field so the Braves could win JUST ONE PLAYOFF SERIES SINCE 2001 AND …
… sorry, the narrative got away from me a bit there.
But I reviewed the Kozma/Holliday fly ball and the infield fly rule over and over again, with a dedication I never showed during my college days. And the more I watched, the more a disheartening realization came over me:
The ump was right. By the letter of the law, the ump was right.
This is why I wouldn't make a good politician; I can't argue to the death for something I don't believe in. (Well, this and that whole kidney-smuggling ring I'll tell you about another time.) Sometimes, much as we want to, we can't blame the umpire. We've got to blame our own team. And oh, does that sting.
And further speaking of fandom: Chances are you've never loved anything in your life as much as this young lady, who goes by the name NASCAR Girl on Twitter, loves her some Dale Earnhardt:
In case you can't quite understand what's happening there: It's a tattoo of a literal (well, symbolic) stairway to heaven, with the late Dale Earnhardt standing at the top and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the bottom. Don't walk up those stairs, Junior! Not yet!
Yeah, until someone offers to host the embryo of an Intimidator clone – which is probably in the works – we have a clear leader in our Greatest Earnhardt Fan On Earth competition. Say what you will about this young lady, but are you committed to anything as much as she's committed to her NASCAR?
Oh, and if you're one of those types who likes NASCAR for the wrecks, there was a beauty on Sunday at Talladega.
The SEC has been America's dominant college football conference for more than half a decade now, which is just fine for those who are fans of the schools or the region but a real pain for pretty much the entire rest of the country. The question is, why exactly has the conference throttled the rest of the country on a regular basis? Ray Glier takes on that thorny matter in How The SEC became Goliath: The Making of College Football's Most Dominant Conference. (A book? Why? Everybody knows SEC fans just use book pages for outhouse emergencies! Ha ha ha!) An excerpt:
"The baddest men on the planet, as far as [former Alabama center Ryan] Pugh is concerned, play on the defensive line in the SEC. They bring mayhem and disorder, and they have inflicted cruelties on the offenses of the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-10 the last six years, not to mention their brethren blockers in the SEC. Indeed, the most significant contribution to the SEC's run of six national championships is not the 60-yard run by the tailback, the spiraling touchdown pass, or the sudden drama of a kick return for a touchdown. It is the harm brought by the SEC marauders, those bad men who come off the edge or up the middle. They have stuffed the run game, pestered your quarterback, and blown up game plans in the National Championship Game."
SEC defensive linemen vs. Al Qaeda: Who ya got?
Remember when dodge ball was just school-sanctioned brutality toward the weakest of the herd, an opportunity for the budding jocks to sharpen their marksmanship while the teachers snuck a smoke around the corner? Yeah, times have changed. Check out the assassin in the blue shirt at the 40-second mark:
I cannot think of a single practical use for that skill outside of a dodgeball court, but congratulations, sir, on owning said court.
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