Tebow, Suh, and your mailman

On Sunday morning, the NFL.com article previewing the Denver Broncos and Detroit Lions game highlighted a buzz-worthy second year player on either side. From the Lions, it was bruising defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. On the Broncos side was Tim Tebow, the earnest athlete-cum-quarterback. The headline: “Good vs. Evil.”

It was certainly a leap, but the roots were basically in place. The reputation of being a ‘dirty’ player has been thrust upon Suh, an unapologetic guy in a position that demands brute force. Conversely, there is Tim Tebow: a player with less physical ability and technique than most in the league, but a sparkling public image.

The Lions dominated the game, winning 45-10 and shutting down Tebow. After the game, Suh responded to the article with a shrug.

“The league did do that for whatever reason. Evil prevails,” he said. “Hopefully we’re going to continue to keep it that way if that’s the way they want to perceive us as. For me personally, it means nothing to me. I’m going to continue to be me, I know who I am, I’m not an evil person. I may not be a good person in some people’s eyes. [But] I’m going to continue to play hard.”

On the surface, it seems a markedly poised and innocuous reaction from a player cast as a villain by his own league. In actuality, though, it fits with Suh’s off-field demeanor; maybe he’s no Tebow, but he’s not exactly Voldemort, either.

Suh is the latest unlucky recipient of hasty branding in a media-frenzied arena. In the 24-hour news (and sports) cycle, the character of players is regular fodder for talk radio. The conclusions are snap judgments; incomplete and hard to shake, they are widely accepted as truth by a public that doesn’t have the time or the resources to evaluate a player’s off-field decisions on their own. As a result, it’s safe to say a lot more kids will be hanging up Tim Tebow posters than Ndamukong Suh ones.

But is it fair to judge a player’s character at all? More importantly, is it a good idea for kids to view professional athletes as role models–no matter what their media image is? The answer is–or should be–no to both.

Professional athletes should be evaluated solely on their in-game performance. All of these external attributes we’ve assigned to them are unfair and slanted by reporters’ and writers’ biases. But most significantly, they’re irrelevant.

Players sign up for a certain level or transparency and scrutiny when they enter the profession. It comes with the territory of being in the public arena. But as long as their off-the-field choices don’t impact their on-field results, we shouldn’t be digging deeper.

What if we judged our mailman the same way? As long as he delivers your new Netflix movie on time, you don’t care what sort of weird or sinister things he may do behind dark curtains at home. That’s his prerogative. As long as he doesn’t say anything too inflammatory during your weekly 15-second conversation, you’ll never think about his character. Even if he did make some dark, bigoted remark under his breath, you’d probably take your mail and brush it off–oh, that’s just old racist Harry.

But regardless of that blatant double-standard, it’s important to draw a line between immoral acts and regrettable immaturity. Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring: immoral. Dez Bryant’s pants? Juvenile, but essentially harmless.

There needs to be some sort of Character Gradient for people in the public arena. Politicians, for example, must be judged on their values and their strength of character. This is independent of their political affiliation–it is quite simply part of their job. After all, they are elected. Movie stars would be in the middle, because their integrity has an occasionally negligible influence on their work. Athletes would be on the other end.

With that in mind, parents should dissuade their children from idolizing sports stars. Admittedly, it won’t work. But we should try. Kids should be encouraged to support teams instead of individuals. When that fails, parents should push for the separation of Game and State. And when that also fails, parents must desperately champion the perceived Good Guys–earnest, good-looking success stories who start charities with names based on puns about the position they play. Players who always say the right thing in press conferences by saying nothing of substance. Players who show us it’s okay to cry–but only when you win a championship or tear your ACL.

Okay, jibes aside, and back to the point: kids are going to emulate athletes. So, for our kids and for ourselves, we must separate the malicious from the ignorant. We must not jump to conclusions based on incomplete news stories or paparazzi output or blinkered NFL.com headlines. Or else we’ve got to start asking our mailman what he tips at restaurants.

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Remembering the joy

After reading Brian Phillips’ brilliant piece on hyperfandom in soccer, I was reluctantly reading the columns and came upon this one: “…Anyway, the only thing worse than hyperpartisanship is overintellectualising a simple game for simple folk [sic].”

It’s true: before the age of the internet, before the age of the Barclays Premier League, soccer was a blue-collar game played without pretense or pomp. Fans went to the same pub at lunchtime on every Saturday to support their local club. Then, win or lose, they went home to their lives. There weren’t ubiquitous replica jerseys, there wasn’t sports talk radio—football was simple. It occurred to me that this argument could probably be transplanted to any sport: are over-analysis, constant blogging and re-tweeting, and four hour NFL pregame shows taking us away from the elemental joy of being a sports fan?

For me, my life as a sports fan began as a child on the couch with my dad: falling asleep in the late innings of Tuesday night Red Sox games was as much a part of my childhood as school or birthdays. This suggests inheritance and reinforcement, nature and nurture—the slow drying of the wet cement of personality.

In this way, sports are as simple and deeply-ingrained as a love for diner coffee or a mistrust of cats. Watching sports is just something I like to do.

The problem is this: just to get back to that point, that basic truth, a sports fan must strip away countless hours of media saturation, all the prejudicial notions about fans of certain teams from certain cities, every piece of Danny Woodhead trivia locked away for a bar bet. A sports fan must look past everything that, as a sports fan, they are subjected to on a daily basis.

To use myself as an example again: on Transfer Deadline Day for the English Premier League, I literally comb through every internet message board I can find, every CoverIt Live Clockwatch, just to see who Chelsea might be in the market for. I draw up formations, consider personnel changes, how new acquisitions would match up against rivals. But when I look back on the August 31 of every year, which should—in theory—be automatically one of the most exciting days of the football calendar, did I ever enjoy it? No, not really.

My fondest memories as a Chelsea fan are days when I drag myself out of bed for the early game, 8:15 a.m. kickoffs on Sunday mornings, and quietly watch a relatively unimportant match against Wigan or Blackburn with a cup of coffee. Moments I remember where I wasn’t analyzing anything—I was just watching the team that I support play the game that I love.

Ultimately, I don’t know if it’s possible to reduce our sports consumption back to its most basic form. Our reality is that these shows, these websites, these bloggers exist because we keep going back. And why wouldn’t we? If the joy we experience watching the Patriots play for three hours once a week can be replicated and reproduced daily, hourly, then of course we will be there. Hell yes.

But maybe, if we could practice some degree of moderation, the simple pleasure would be that much more tangible. Maybe we could treat our favorite teams, our favorite sports, like our favorite dish at a restaurant. Don’t order it every night, because sooner or later it starts to lose flavor.