Before I begin, I'd like to point out that there are some really talented, professional, and well-read men and women in the sports media industry these days. Personally, I am a huge fan of most, if not all, of the writers on ESPN's Grantland website. Rick Reily also does a consistently great job but really hit a strong note with his last piece involving the Penn State scandal. So let it be known that I truly do have a great appreciation for lots of sports media, there are a good number of people in the industry who do a terrific job bringing us analysis and news on a daily basis. However, there is one aspect of this job that I would like to challenge.
I really can't get my head around the fact that most of sports media is a group of non-athletes, for instance Skip Bayless, trying to delve into the minds of people that they themselves know only on a basis of interviews and on field/court behavior.
What's truly shocking and, in my opinion, unprofessional is that many members of the media actually believe that they understand the mental makeups of the athletes that they discuss. Actually, shocking probably isn't the right word. I'm basically just plain ticked off about it. Are you honestly going to act like you know what's going on behind closed doors in this individual's life? Before you sit back in your nice leather office chairs and call out "Player X" for being a thug or some other classless and baseless insult that seems to get tossed around like facts, wouldn't it suit you to maybe take a second to think that perhaps there's a reason that people act out sometimes? That's what these athletes that we admire or revile are, aren't they? Of course they are. I don't care that they live high-profile lives and show up on TV, these are people dealing with real problems, how dare someone like Skip Bayless question the integrity of some of these men.
I would love to go on about Skip Bayless, I really would, but I think a video should suffice. Now I don't necessarily wish the guy any ill will, he makes his money off of saying "shocking" things, kind of like a PG version of Howard Stern minus the attempts at humor, but he is a classic example of what I'm trying to fight here.
Mark Cuban Calls Out Skip Bayless (via ESPN)
A lot of you guys have probably already seen this, but I'm here to bring it up again. This is Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavs and self made quadrillionaire, basically putting Skip Bayless on blast in front of the entire country. Like Cuban says, Bayless seems only to be able to talk in generalities. He brings up that last year's finals were the biggest collapse by a superstar ever. No, the reason LeBron couldn't attack the rim couldn't possibly have been that the Mavericks had a lockdown defensive center in Tyson Chandler and a bonafide superstar in Dirk Nowitzki patrolling the paint. I don't even follow the NBA and I know that those two were an absolute force in the paint when they were together in Dallas, Chandler especially. It just has to be because LeBron is weak-willed and unfocused. This is also coming from the man who defends his delusion that some kind of "clutch gene" exists.
Rick Carlisle, former coach of the year and owner of a career .596 winning percentage and his defensive game plan probably had nothing to do with the victory. According to Bayless, LeBron choked and didn't want it enough, end of story. What the hell does "didn't want it enough" even mean? So because his team lost a series for something they're been working towards for their entire lives, they just didn't want it? So what, did they just give up? No, I find it extremely hard to believe that a team that's worked that hard and gotten that far could just give up. What we perceive as "giving up" may be fatigue, reminder that LeBron is one of the most utilized players in league history, from day one he's been used for forty minutes in just about every game he's played in and he doesn't get hurt. He's already got quite a few miles on him. Is it a stretch that what we perceive as "choking" may be a brilliant defensive game plan and a night where the shots just aren't falling? The second part isn't really provable, the first however is often a large part of an offense's struggles. Go figure, good defensive schemes designed to stop great players work sometimes when executed well. The Mavs didn't have great offensive players and compensated accordingly? Nope, just LeBron choking again! I hope this year proves that that was just totally bogus. It sickens me to think of the money ESPN has made off that line. How many chokers carry a god-awful 2007 Cavaliers team to the finals? Yes, they were swept, but when your second best player is a toss-up between Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao, it's not going to be an easy ride. Yes, certain intangibles exist, everyone is different upstairs, but it's like Star Wars: there are some morals in there and some lessons to be learned, but if you take it too seriously and take the world as gospel, you're going to find yourself awfully disappointed when you can't find a lightsaber to wave around like an idiot. Skip is that idiot. He's waving the lightsaber and he doesn't care who sees. The ironic thing is that Skip Wasn't an athlete, not at any meaningful level at least. How could he possibly understand what kind of thoughts go through the head of each and every professional athlete that takes the field, court, ice, whatever, on a daily basis. He can't, obviously, but he thinks he can, and this is the root of our problem. It all comes down to the mental fortitude of someone he's never known, but somehow understands how their brain works. Do you have to be an athlete to understand sports? No, not necessarily, but I think you absolutely have to have been an athlete to understand what these guys go through. It's very easy to fall into the trap of assuming that they live easy, Nerf lives. In the end, Skip should take Terrell Suggs's advice and be an analyst, not a douchebag. Talk about legitimate sports stuff, not how much you think such and such choked, talk about the defense that the other team ran: what were the match ups? Zone, man, combo, what am I looking at here and why did it cause this player to struggle? I know it's easy to attribute it all to just not being strong enough mentally, but the way that people watch games would be totally transformed if we had a few analysts telling what is actually going on instead of arguing about who's weaker in "crunch time".
The James Conspiracy To Make Us Hate The Best Player Since Jordan isn't the only thing that grinds my gears lately, we've also got the phenomenon of pre-emptive labeling based on popular, preconceived notions. Bryce Harper, the most hyped prospect in forever, made his debut this year. Most of us were looking for reasons to despise this guy. Before he had even stepped into the box, Bryce Harper was viciously booed in his debut in Los Angeles because of what we thought we were about to see. However, since his call-up, Harper has been a model of professionalism and level-headedness. He still wears the eye-black, still rocks the shiny, flashy cleats, and still plays the game with a ton of hustle, but none of the prima donna behavior that a lot of people expected just isn't there. Read what one scout had to say about Harper when he was first drafted.
[...] it's equally difficult to find one who doesn't genuinely dislike the kid. One scout called him among the worst amateur players he's ever seen from a makeup standpoint, with top-of-the-scale arrogance, a disturbingly large sense of entitlement, and on-field behavior that includes taunting opponents. "He's just a bad, bad guy," said one front-office official. "He's basically the anti-Joe Mauer."
This is a quote I found in a piece about Harper and his total lack of any of the qualities we thought would make us hate him written by one of the best in the business, Jeff Sullivan. He also would like us to know that Bryce Harper has three of the five fastest home-run trots this year. It's laughable that Harper was considered one of the worst amateur players ever from a makeup standpoint, he's handled himself like a 20 year veteran so far. Read the post-game quotes from Bryce Harper and compare them to Jim Thome. Maybe there's some modern lingo thrown in there when Harper speaks, but they're basically saying the same things. Could some of this stuff have been true when he was first drafted? I don't know, I wasn't there, I guess it could be, but evidence on and off the field point to a very level-headed young guy who is trying desperately to shed the image that has been thrust onto him. A couple of nights ago, Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen tried to get a reaction out of Harper by generally acting like an asshat and swearing at him profusely for doing absolutely nothing from his metaphorical Ivory Tower, the dugout of Marlins Stadium. Harper reacted by doing more of absolutely nothing. He ran out a ground ball, headed back to the dugout, and took a seat. Ozzie looked like a complete idiot. Even though he had harmlessly been retired on an easy grounder, Harper shut him down on national television by simply being the bigger man.
Gullen tried to cover for himself by professing his love for Harper and the way he plays the game. Fair enough, but then he comes along and says something like this.
if this kid continues to do that [expletive], he might not make it. Because they’re going to fool around with the wrong guy, and that wrong guy will kick his [expletive].
What did he do, Ozzie? What did he do? You asked him to take the pine tar off of the bat, he went and got a new bat and showed it to you, where's the problem here? This just seems like Guillen trying to prod Harper for a reaction because he thinks he knows that it's not difficult to get this kid riled up. Ozzie Guillen is a 48 year old man. Bryce Harper can't even buy alcohol yet. This seems like a case of total role reversal.
This isn't the first time he's been tested, Cole Hamels plunked him shortly after his debut simply for existing. Harper promptly tossed his bat aside and trotted down to first. He would go on to steal home in a game that the division leading Nationals would go on to win, further burying Hamels and the Phillies in the cellar of the NL East. I know it would be pretty convenient to have Harper act like a total douche, but that's just not the case, so can we drop it? All evidence points to him being a young man who's been forced to grow up pretty quickly and who has risen to meet the challenge. There's no speculating to be done here, he's done nothing but serve as a role model and a shining example of the way the game is to be played, if you're into that kind of thing. He says the right things and plays his hardest. He's exceeded expectations with his bat and glove, but not more than he's exceeded expectations with his grace under pressure. Let's begin to accept the idea that perhaps this is a superstar in the making that everyone can love and drop the whole "douche" label until he actually does something that makes him deserve it.
Finally, an example from the team that we all know and love. Despite the fact that he's a great player (last year was an outlier people, bank on it) and a dedicated worker, there's a shocking amount of hate for Chris Johnson. A lot of people unfamiliar with him would take one look at him and label him an uneducated, money grubbing thug. Do I know how Chris Johnson did in school? Nope. Do I care? Nope, it's just not important, he doesn't make a living like the rest of us, he uses his legs to make magic happen. For all we know, he could be a pretty smart guy. He has a strong accent and tweets in such a way that old people can't understand him and this one time he held out for a big contract, honestly you're going to need a little bit more to convince me that he's such a cancer to the team and unable to dress himself in the morning. I feel like all will be forgiven as soon as we see the same old dude busting tackles and shredding defenses again which is kind of nice, but this short memory syndrome is a double edged sword. How quick we often are to demonize people like LeBron James, Bryce Harper, and
LeBron James Chris Johnson while all three still have glistening public records, are some of the main figureheads of their respective leagues for on field performance, and make significant donations of time and money to their respective communities.
All I ask of you all is to forget the generalizations, stop hating players like these because sports media tells you to, try to have an open mind and go a little deeper. This is the culture that sports media has helped cultivate. Honestly, I can't blame them, television is a ratings game so fair enough, create controversy and come out with strong opinions. People love to hate, they love a good scapegoat and, for some reason, they enjoy watching what many athletes have spent years and years working for crumble before their eyes. It's kind of twisted when I say it like that, but that's how it is. In the end people passing judgement on character of people they've never met and probably never will meet too quickly is what got me riled up like this in the first place. I'm not totally innocent of this either, it's something we as people will probably always do, I might suggest we all try to do it a little less.
Thus ends my rant, call it what you will, these are my guns and I'm sticking to them.