We know many athletes play just for the money. But when we’re watching a game, we find a way to forget it.
What do we want from our athletes?
Don’t answer that. You can’t.
Ask 100 people and you’ll get 100 different answers—all of them formal.
I want a guy who cares about the colors on his shirt and the numbers in the win column more than the numbers next to his name.
I want a guy who cares about these games. I want a guy who cares as much as I do, god dammit!
I want a guy who’s gonna win and lose with dignity. Win or lose, he carries himself with class on and off the field.
Yes, we all have our own super-specific ideas of what we want our athletes to be. What we want them to achieve. What we want them to do for us. It’s selfish, but that’s OK. We’re fans. We’re selfish by definition.
But, in general, I don’t think I’m crazy in saying that most of us want the players we root for to fall under the umbrella of “Guy who cares more about winning and, generally, isn’t a complete dirtbag.” There’s a ton of wiggle room in that description, but basically, those are the guys we want on our teams. We want them to care as much as we do.
We want Tim Duncan. We want Chris Drury. We want Clay Matthews. We want Derek Jeter.
We don’t want Benoit Assou-Ekotto.
Benoit Izzy-Koko-Huh? (says John Buccigross).
Benoit Assou-Ekotto is a 26-year-old Cameroonian defender for Tottenham Hotspur, one of the best teams in the English Premier League.
As a player, he’s probably best described as “useful.” He’s scored one goal in his eight professional seasons. He’s built a nice career for himself thus far. He’s made his way up the ladder—from the slums of Arras, France, to London—and is now playing for one of the better clubs in the world. Last summer, he played in his first World Cup.
But, that’s all it is for him. It’s a career—nothing more, nothing less.
Assou-Ekotto openly admits that he plays soccer for nothing other than the money.
In November, he told So Foot magazine:
The reality is I play for money. I don’t see the point of lying, of saying I love the color of my shirt. Today I have a very good job, I can’t say otherwise. All in all, I work two hours a day. But I do it to earn money like everyone else on this planet.
Imagine if Brett Favre said this while he was in Green Bay or Sachin Tendulkar (don’t know him? Stop reading me, and read this) revealed something similar before the Cricket World Cup.
You can’t imagine it. Terrible, unspeakable things would happen.
We know—whether or not we choose to acknowledge it—that there’s a chance our athletes think and play this way. It’s a suspension of disbelief. We know they’ll never admit to it, but it kind of lurks there, shadowy, in the back of our minds, waiting to appear and, once and for all, ruin sports as we know them.
Yes, I know a lot of these guys are just playing for the money. But, please, just don’t ever let me know.
Since I’m no Tottenham fan (here’s one reason why not), it’s easier for me to look at Assou-Ekotto as this sort of honorable, honest figure. Sure, he’s cutting down our disbelief and beaming into our living rooms every time he takes the field, but he’s also breaking preconceptions that I had.
He’s not that evil athlete who’s just in it for the money, moping around, disinterested in how the game ends. He does his job. And forgets about it when he’s done (No, he doesn’t watch games at home).
Ben Lyttleton wrote on SI.com:
His inscrutability on the pitch should not be confused with indifference. He does not argue with referees’ decisions only because he has never seen them change their mind, and he has little time for those who do. “They are just doing it so the crowd see their reaction,” he said.
But he does care. Assou-Ekotto played for Cameroon at the last World Cup, and was very upset last week when new coach Javier Clemente did not select him for its African Nations Cup qualifier against Senegal. The Cameroon FA overruled Clemente and called him up—he played the full match.
He doesn’t remember the date of his one and only goal, and he doesn’t think much of being a professional soccer player, saying, “You just kick a ball around—it’s hardly helping the world advance.”
We can think that sports are advancing the world, though.
We think, at least, they’re advancing our world when we get caught up in a game. And maybe they are. Even if they’re not, they sometimes feel like it, and that’s the point.
You can’t watch sports and care about it so passionately, so irrationally, while, at the same time, being aware that you’re watching a bunch of guys, literally, going to work. Instead—most of the time—we’re projecting our passions and our desires onto the guys wearing our favorite colors. And most athletes either accept this or just ignore it—not letting us know, either way.
But Assou-Ekotto lets us know. Yet he still plays. He does his job well enough for us to ignore everything he says and keep on believing that he’s just like us, bleeding our team’s colors.
Really, though, he is like us—just in a totally different way.