Applebees waiter-turned-sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy posted a recent dither on SI.com about fraternization among professional athletes. Shaughussy’s “thesis” is that the LeBron-Wade-Bosh union in Miami is proof that athletes are too friendly with the competition. Back in the good old days, Shauhessy pines, players wanted to beat the competition, not hug them.
Now, Shawnmessy should stop tricking Sports Illustrated into perceiving his opinions as “journalism” and go back to telling us about Applebee’s new 550-calorie menu options. But he does bring up an interesting subject (to us, not him): the balance of competition and good sportsmanship in American professional sports. I’m steamed about his article, but I’m going to do my best to focus on this topic.
The question of what lessons professional athletes should teach us is a long and unsettled debate. Shaughmessy gives anecdotes about Ted Williams embarrassing a young pitcher who asked him for an autograph. He also relates how he somehow cornered Bob Gibson (in an Applebees booth, probably) and told him about a young hitter homering off Roger Clemens and then asking Clemens to sign the ball. According to Seanmessy, Gibson was so enthralled by this story that he got really, really mad. This, Shaunbotony suggests, is how real athletes treat their competition. With contempt and scorn. They stomp young, admiring players into the mud and then piss on their broken carcases for daring to acknowledge that striking out Ted Williams or hitting a home run off Bob Gibson is likely to be the pinnacle of their professional careers.
Our American society is pretty far removed from the constant threat of warfare which has characterized most of human history. Sports, particularly football, are surrogates for that warfare, allowing us to choose a side and pretend that life, death, and glory are on the line. It’s safe because we know, at the end of the day, nobody dies. But we like the adrenaline and we need a source of honor to defend.
We hold up athletics as a way to pursue an upstanding, moral life. We try to make professional athletes role models, and get all pissy when they fail us. Sport teaches us important lessons about hard work, dedication, teamwork, and dealing with success and failure. Must we really choose between respecting one’s opponent (a noble virtue) and seeking their total destruction with every ounce of our strength and cunning (a profitable attitude, but somewhat unstable when found widely throughout society)?
Shabalabadingdong bemoans the hugfest that the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry has apparently become in the last 15 years. Were the 2003 and 2004 series not filled with enmity? Was Aaron Boone’s walk-off home run not sufficiently competitive? Did the Red Sox go soft in 2004 by not taking a team piss on the Yankees logo after Game 7? What about the whole Pedro-Don Zimmer fiasco?
Surely we can agree that animosity towards your opponent can go too far. In 1999 Wichita State star pitcher Ben Christensen hit an opposing batter in the eye with a 90 mph pitch because that batter was timing his warm-up pitches from the on-deck circle. Wichita State coach Gene Stephenson said afterwards that Wichita got the worse end of the deal because Christensen was ejected and suspended. A horrifying incident and one that not even an Applebees waiter watching 300 trailers on Youtube would think is proper sporting conduct.
In my view, sport creates within the structure of the game sufficient space for competitive animosity. Roy Halladay wants to dominate the other team every time he takes the ball. Kevin Garnett takes every point scored on him as a personal affront and challenge. Roger Federer seeks to methodically turn every opponent he faces into a quivering mass of sneakers and useless synthetic gut string. The fact that none of these world-class athletes go out of their way to mock, humiliate, or denigrate their opponents outside of the playing arena makes them better, not lesser, athletes.
Hockey even has a built-in system for the sort of competitive rage Shoonoshy apparently craves. Enforcers’ primary purpose is to get into fights with the other team and provide violent retaliation (exactly the sort of behavior D. Night Shaunessy wants to see in home plate collisions). Yet (most) NHL enforcers do not continue the fight in the parking lot after the game. They know the boundaries of the game, and they “leave it all on the field” (a cliché that our Applebees Serving Associate would probably attribute to the sort of athletes he thinks we don’t see anymore).
Want examples of true contempt for the opposition? Look at soccer riots, or LeGarrett Blount’s punch, or the Kermit Washington-Rudy Tomjanovich punch. That’s where the line is crossed. That is when people lose respect for their athletic opponents.
Perhaps nearly 1,000 words is 1,000 too many to spend in reaction to an SI.Com puff piece faxed to the editors on the back of an Applebees kids’ menu. But when there’s dog shit on the sidewalk, you do everybody a favor by pointing it out. Baseball needs dirtier play the way MMA needs smaller compression shorts. Athletes who give their all in the game, and respect their opponents outside of the game, should be encouraged in the national media, not denigrated.
So what’s the ultimate reading of Dan Shantwritewell’s puff piece? He’s scared the Miami Heat are going to spend the next 5 years steamrolling his beloved Boston Celtics.
*NOTE: there are a million issues I have with the SI.com article I’m reacting to with this. But I’m all worked up and doing my best to keep this piece in some semblance of order.