JP Pelosi, a child of the Magic-Bird years, wonders where all the good sports role models have gone.
Something’s changed in sports. The pros, the people we cheer for, and often admire, seem more selfish and self-centred than I can ever remember athletes being.
The reason I say this, is because so much of what we hear about these people, is that they’re not happy with their current employment and either want more money, or better working conditions, which means new teammates. Many of these so-called professionals are so consumed with money, the terms of their next contract, and the attention all this Tweeting brings them, you could be forgiven for wondering what is they’ve actually done better than their peers to warrant such demands.
But that’s just the start.
There are also a high number of athletes, from what we see on TV broadcasts, and occasionally at arenas, that makes them seem less self-aware, or simply less content. I’m basing this on body language, predominantly, and the way they walk, and by the way they look and sound at so many press conferences. Am I missing something? Aren’t these guys living the dream? You know, by the way they flip the bird at the crowd, and spit in front of the camera, or demonstratively leave a game the moment the buzzer sounds? It’s just so hard to like some of these guys. Right?
I’m always telling people about a game I just watched or an individual performance I revered, because I genuinely love the thrill of sports. But something has fatigued this love affair in recent years, which is mainly attributable to two things, I think: 1) there are more jerks in sports in 2012, or 2) as I get older I’m more perceptive about people, and maybe there were always this many jerks in sports. I don’t like either option, but for nostalgic reasons I hope it’s the former. And I also hope that some of the sports organisations we follow are run by jerks too, because at least then the quibbling over millions, or complaining about lack of first-class flights, or the incidental firing of coaches might—might seem more reasonable to fans of the game.
One of my favorite sports stars ever is Larry Bird. But to be honest, I have nothing in common with Larry Legend. He’s tall, I’m short. He’s from a country town, I’m from the city. He’s a man of few words, I’ve been known to spin it. However, what drew me to Bird was his will. He never gave up. He worked and perfected his craft despite obvious shortcomings. That might sound more clichéd than the inspirational posters hanging in your boss’s office, the ones with purple sunsets or puppy dogs, but as far as I’m concerned, Bird was the embodiment of man’s rationale to compete: to overcome all challenges, adversities, and occasions, and emerge victorious. In doing so, he made other men believe in themselves, as well.
Now I’m not saying Larry Bird was or is perfect. In fact, I recall two or three incidents when Larry’s temper was shorter than his trunks. But the man’s body of work speaks volumes about his character and how we as fans perceived him. He played hard. He spurred others on to exceed their limitations. And he inspired even basketball fans who rooted against him with his artistry, accuracy, and imagination. Magic Johnson did the same. The reason everyone over the age of thirty bangs on about the Bird-Magic era is because of the way their approach superseded their egos. This is important, at least in my mind, because I’ve always liked associating myself with Larry and Magic. I aspire to their work ethic, creativity, and leadership skills. And I ‘m also fond of my old Magic and Larry Topps cards.
The point is there are very few sports people I want to associate myself with today. And yes, I’m perhaps now older than many of the guys charging across gridirons or swooping down on hoops, but what’s the difference? Age doesn’t stop you from being a fan, does it? I mean, I saw Rafael Nadal play in person a year ago and I was mesmerized by his tenacity and athleticism. He’s just 26. When I was kid watching Bird and his “C”s battle Magic and the Lakers, Rafa had just been born. There’s a generational disconnection between Nadal and me, but I still appreciate and enjoy watching him.
The trouble is that it’s easier to judge today’s pros athletes because we see so much of them. They’re on the web and TV and in the paper and on Twitter and endorsing so many different things—all the time! We see them at game time, in suits at events, arriving in airports, lying on the beaches next to supermodels, rubbing shoulders with high profile business people, on grainy YouTube videos, via wobbly iPhone recordings, defending their position on something or rather on SportsCenter, being dressed down on Deadspin or chastised on FOX Sports. It never ends. And then, when it almost ends, we see them again, their inordinately tattooed forearms and bloated biceps polluting the romantic ideal you have in your mind, or at least recall of watching Larry and Magic, and others.
Not that the superficialities matter, but somehow, players seem more angry or righteous or individualistic, in sports that are mostly team games. And when they fist-pump their chests, or make a throat-slitting gesture, or scream at the official with the rage of a Pacino in, well, anything, I begin to wonder why I tuned in.
Isn’t it just a game after all?