Is it just a game? Or is it something more? The facts would suggest the latter, more than the former, yet sports at their core are just simple games with imaginary points on the scoreboard based on the sheer amount of revenue major sports leagues rake in every year. There is nothing truly tangible, yet the sports seasons can truly govern our lives. I know that by the end of football season I’m almost starting to crave an end so I can get my Sundays back from watching my Bears fail to make the playoffs again. But wait “My Bears”. “My Bears” comes so naturally off the tongue, but I don’t own the team, I don’t play for the team, I have no connection to the team other than a passionate enthusiasm for watching them play and win while also spending money on merchandise to associate myself as being their supporter. The same goes for the Cubs, the Blackhawks, and the Bulls (nope not the White Sox). That feeling of glory and exultation that comes with every win, that bitter taste after every loss shared by us, the fans, sitting on our couches tuned in on the TV. Then there’s that passionate dislike for our team’s storied rivals, the loathing of certain players, and the odd way we support our team’s players despite their faults as if we were their parents. With so many headlines in the last few weeks I’ve taken some time to reflect on what sports mean, and why many people view them the way they do, more specifically, how we have come to define individuals that play the sports we love.
Let’s start off with the doozy; New England has, unfortunately, won its 5th Super Bowl trophy [imagine my voice as very monotone and unenthused when you read that]. Their dynasty has lasted over 15 years, the majority of my sports watching life, at this point. They have had more success in the last 15 years than they had combined for in franchise history prior to their first victory in 2001 over the St. Louis Rams. The wheel started and it has just kept on rolling. The team has won in the draft, won in free agency, hired admirable coaches, and had a streak of hiring guys who seem to give their all on and off the field to win year in and year out. Yet I, like what appears to be most football fans in the United States, have a passionate dislike for the Patriots. And quite honestly, that dislike centers around two individuals; Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. I’m sure that must be a novel and a revelatory statement that none of you has ever heard or ushered before, right? But my point is that I’ve attributed my frustration in football, the Bears’ own inadequacy at winning, the real and perceived slights other teams and players endure, as well as my own envy to one team and two individuals. It’s almost as if they are the reason I throw my hands up in frustration as I watch the Bears throw another turnover, or lose another close game, but I know they’re not. Tom Brady, for all intents and purposes, is a stand-up guy. He’s done nothing wrong and has exceeded expectations since his opportunity presented itself when, as a 6th round pick, he replaced the injured Drew Bledsoe and never looked back. He’s married to a supermodel, is a divine being in New England, and gives a lot to charity. He’s living the American Dream and should be the epitome of a feel good story. But he’s not. He’s arguably the most divisive player in the entire sport playing under one of the most divisive personalities in the entire sport, Bill Belichick. Once again Bill Belichick has made the most of the opportunities he’s been afforded, though he definitely seems fairly cold and dispassionate he sure does know how to win. But then we have Spygate and Deflategate. The scandals of the century. Do I believe they cheated? Yes. Yes, I do. But you already know I’m biased, so take that as you will. I certainly wouldn’t see them not trying to find rulebook loopholes they could work around to their advantage until the rules become stiffer. But that’s beside the point, they’re vilified for these actions by millions of Americans who, like me, are looking for a scapegoat for their sports frustrations. I’m convinced their names should have asterisks next to them in the history books, but realistically that’s hardly fair to diminish their decades of success to cheating. But hey, there’s a reason why I’m writing this article. I’ve hammered on the Patriots for long enough, though, so I’ll look elsewhere. Ray Rice is another prime example of a player who is viewed dispassionately by a large number of fans, but for very different reasons.
Ray Rice was a legitimate fantasy football superstar and one of the Ravens’ best all-around players. That all went downhill fast when he made the decision to physically abuse his fiancé (now wife) in an elevator at an Atlantic City casino. While I won’t get into the specifics of the incident, or why the NFL decided that the video was any worse than being told he’d punched his pregnant fiancé unconscious in an elevator, I think it’s easy to see exactly why Ray Rice is almost universally disliked. His actions off the field defined our perception, rather than being part of an excessively successful franchise, but they no less help define the Tom Brady/Belichick problem. They’re great people who, as far as anyone knows, have done nothing wrong off the field (they’ve actually both contributed a lot to the community), but we still hold a place in our hearts for them alongside Ray Rice (not the same exact place, but not far off).
Now let’s step away from the negative and step towards the positive. Anthony Rizzo, my favorite athlete in sports. He and Kris Bryant are the faces of the newly minted World Champion Cubs (I’ve been waiting a while to say that) and they’re both wildly successful players in terms of production. Rizzo has been nothing short of stellar since he started swinging inside Wrigley’s Ivy Covered walls, with a career slash line of 0.267/0.362/0.483 plus 134 Homers and 425 RBIs off of 738 hits [BaseballReference.com]. Anthony Rizzo is just 27 years old and has turned himself into a franchise first baseman for the curse breaking Cubs, and last year took home plenty of hardware with Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, and Defensive MVP trophies to sit next to that World Series ring. Kris Bryant is younger and still has more hardware. But Anthony Rizzo’s journey to stardom started out well before that, and correspondingly the reason I like him so much as a player on and off the field. Anthony Rizzo’s life was turned upside down soon after he was drafted by the Boston Red Sox when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Rizzo fought and won that battle, much like his teammate Jon Lester, and fought himself back to baseball only to be traded to the San Diego Padres by Theo Epstein. As fate would have it though Epstein traded with San Diego to get Rizzo back, but for the Cubs instead of the Red Sox. The rest is history, except what Rizzo has done outside of baseball. Besides appearing to be a fun-loving and easy going guy, Rizzo has spent a great deal of time contributing to children’s hospitals in order to help kids fighting cancer. If you browse through some of the new stories about it, you’ll see he’s a regular at some of those facilities. And very recently Anthony Rizzo stepped up in a big way for a young man who was brutally beaten by a classmate in a Chicago area school. Rizzo not only sent his support on social media but offered batting practice at Wrigley and game tickets to the boy once he’d recovered. While there are plenty of big issues in the world it’s great to see Rizzo bring a bit of hope and joy to that young boy’s life, especially when it is at it's lowest. Will Rizzo eventually be as maligned as Tom Brady for being a key part of an overwhelmingly successful sports dynasty? Who knows? Only time will tell, but I sure wouldn’t complain if the Cubs were that successful.
To lead onto the most controversial figure in sports, I thought I’d start with his shadow, the specter that creeps over his shoulder day in and day out. Michael Jordan. His Airness. The GOAT. The Legend. One of my favorite athletes of all time simply for his accolades on the court, regardless of who he is off the court. Jordan has become an icon for success both as a superstar athlete and as a brand. His glory days are like myths told to children before they go to bed, and I remember his playing days far more fondly than the few games I was able to watch at the twilight of his career when I was very young. But I love watching old clips of him play, I love reading every article that comes out about his playing days, or reading up on the sheer number of records he holds and trophies he won. I do this also, in spite of knowing how he’s perceived off the field. From everything I’ve read and heard he’s a jerk. Is he a philanthropist that donates a ton of money to commendable programs? Absolutely. But I’ve never heard a story about him that depicted him as anything other than self-centered and seemingly bitter. Just recently he was quoted as having told the Warriors owner “You know, 73 don’t mean s***” at dinner, just out of nowhere. I have to think that Jordan is eaten alive by his competitive nature and the knowledge that a team finally bested his record season. Especially having his record season bested by a team that lost historically to Cleveland after being up 3-1 in the Finals. I’m certain every word ushered about the Warriors being the greatest of all time grated on his nerves and it came pouring out in that snarky comment at dinner. Pile that onto the fact that he’s almost invisible to the press, is an admitted competition junky, and a prolific gambler. Suffice to say Michael Jordan doesn’t come across as the GOAT when it comes to being a nice guy. And funnily enough, his former coach, the Master of Zen, Phil Jackson has been a verifiable turd towards Carmelo Anthony in recent months and has seemed everything short of cool and collected. Which finally brings me to another major player in the Phil Jackson and Carmelo Anthony drama, Mr. LeBron James himself.
LeBron is the greatest player in the game of basketball that is actively playing. Place him where you will in the list of greatest of all time. He’s going to go down as one of the most dynamic, talented, and complete players to every grace the court. King James, however, has been plagued since the dawn of his career as being the most hyped and over-evaluated player in all of sports. Every aspect of his life has been dissected and mashed into a gelatinous goo of drama, pettiness, and judgment. Not on his end, but by the media, the fans, and even other players. LeBron James, like Anthony Rizzo, is an exemplary figure both on and off the court. Except that LeBron is already a Hall of Fame shoo-in, multiple time champion, and an international celebrity on par with Hollywood’s biggest stars (even Prince William and Princess Katherine had listed that they wanted to meet LeBron James when they traveled to the United States). LeBron should be universally celebrated and enjoyed by fans of the sport. He’s spoiled us with a decade and a half of highlight film, never-ending storylines, and a rare combination of a uniquely physical talent akin to a freak of nature and a basketball IQ amongst the highest the game has ever seen. Yet why do so many people have an issue with LeBron? He donates time and money to worthwhile causes, he’s clean as a whistle when it comes to his personal life, he’s been in a seemingly beautiful relationship with his wife since he was in high school, he’s seemingly Dad of the year to his children, and he’s always got a smile on his face. He’s what Michael Jordan was plus throw in a little bit of Bob Hope. His spat with Charles Barkley pointed that out too when LeBron replied to Barkley’s jab about being whiney when he said to ESPN “I’m not going to let him disrespect my legacy like that I’m not the one who threw somebody through a window. I never spit on a kid. I never had unpaid debt in Las Vegas. I never said, ‘I’m not a role model.’ I never showed up to All-Star Weekend on Sunday because I was in Vegas all weekend partying. All I’ve done for my entire career is represent the NBA the right way. Fourteen years, never got in trouble. Respected the game. Print that.” And you know what LeBron wasn’t wrong. He’s been nothing but a stellar role model and citizen since day one on top of being a phenomenal athlete.
But even still people dislike him because he’s got this rare combination of being capable of usurping His Airness, leaving his hometown team, and being wildly successful. LeBron is a combination of everything we love and everything we hate in professional athletes. Why do so many people suddenly dislike Kevin Durant? He was a fan favorite until he left OKC to join the Golden State Warriors, now he’s known as a deserter. Though funnily, far less so than LeBron was when he left Cleveland to join Miami. Remember The Announcement and the subsequent fallout that lasted throughout his tenure in South Beach? I do, I was one of those fans that panned him because of that decision. I didn’t agree with it and it made me want him to lose games. I’m petty, what can I say? But then he rejoined Cleveland and it all got fixed, right? Eh, kinda. But anyways…another figure that has caused a large amount of stir recently is Stephen Curry. Originally he was loved as an underdog, the little guy that had the deep ball game and played a style different than anyone. Then he led the storybook underdog Warriors to win a championship, and then was immediately a bad guy of the NBA for being too good when he took his team to another Finals, which obviously they lost to LeBron and Cleveland for their first franchise championship in spectacular fashion. But the animosity pointed towards Curry for his success is still nothing compared to that which was aimed towards LeBron and the Heat in his prime. And I ask why?
Why do sports impact us in this way? Are we all small bitter people who feel comfortable throwing our frustrations for the inadequacies of our teams and our own lives onto others from the comfort of our couches? Has the media warped our perception of these individuals to the point that maybe we’re too focused on them, and not on the game? Maybe seeing LeBron and Tom Brady more often than you do your own family has something to do with it? Or maybe it’s just an envy complex where we simply dislike those that have what we want? Maybe we’re all just sore losers? Or maybe yet we’re thinking just a little too hard about people we don’t know and will likely never meet in relation to a game we have never played or no longer play? Alternatively are we looking to attach ourselves to players we like, as if we’re friends with someone successful? Do we simply enjoy being represented by winners and it’s a natural human response to like those that are successful representing what we like and believe in? Maybe it’s our nationalistic behavior leaking into sports, who in turn become our soldiers, our gladiators? Or maybe we just like the feeling of being a part of a winner and believe our cheers and our t-shirts are part of the larger story? Who knows? I sure don’t. But I think it’s interesting to digest a lot of these stories and peer into what it means to be a sports fan. To see where that emotion goes; both the good and the bad. And I’m certain that if you look a little deeper at how these figures, and others, affects you, you would come up with drastically different conclusions. But I imagine you’ll come up with the question as I did, contrary to what common sense would tell us. Is it just a game? Is it really?