Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Bringing Moderation to the Extreme

The epiphany scared me. It made me mad… then disturbed… and then, inspired.

As I watched Tom Brady’s interview with Mike Tirico prior to the start of Monday night’s “game” with the Houston Texans, I realized that Brady, the same man who has been at the helm of a cornucopia of my worst moments as a sports fan, no longer garnered even the slightest modicum of my disdain. I’ve always respected Brady—much in the same way I hope Red Sox fans feel about Derek Jeter—but this was something more than a begrudging acknowledgement of greatness. 

I ;ike Tom Brady. Just. Can’t. Do. It.

I loke Tom Brady. Must. Resist.

I like Tom Brady. No lighting bolt, yet.

Leaving the hate-train is nothing new for me. I gave up my anti-Heat sentiment long before it was the in vogue thing to do. Do people still hate them? I don’t care. In fact, nobody cares.

What does execrating a professional athlete accomplish? Is the brotherhood of the hundreds of thousands of anonymous hostiles really that enticing?

Tom Brady (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
So LeBron James’ departure from Cleveland left a bad taste in your mouth. You can try to hate it away, or you could realize that “bad taste” is imaginary. Maybe when he wins three of the next six championships (a conservative number) it’ll feel good to know you stood in meaningless opposition from the beginning.

My fellow Jets fans hate Brady for less clear reasons. Spygate? Tuck Rule? Those events had little to do with something Brady did—and certainly nothing to do with him now.

The charade hurts more than it helps.

Instead of thanking the sports Gods that we may watch transcendent players like Tom Brady and LeBron James, the hater inherently roots for the reduction of such a potential joy. Booing the television set has zero impact on the recipient of the nays. Millionaire athletes 0, Plebeians -1.

Cleveland, suck it up. Maybe if the Cavs acquired a competent player rather than everyone else’s second or third choices (Antwan Jamison, elderly Shaq come to mind) during LeBron’s tenure he would have never left. He was a free agent, as in free to do whatever he desired. You don’t like that he went Avengers with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh? Wake up. Eighty-plus percent of NBA players would pull the same stunt if only they were good enough to have an open offer to join any organization.

You can root for LeBron to fail. I’ll savor every one of his historic performances.

But it’s more than just the hate.

Sports exist, by their very nature, to compare one person or group of people to another person or group of people. “Who’s better, Robert Griffin III or Andrew Luck?” It’s a question that’s bound to be asked thousands of times in sports bars across the country for—if we should be so lucky—the next decade. If nobody asked it, we’d need our collective pulses taken.

It’s fun to ask. It’s fun to debate. I changed my opinion 10 times in Week 14 alone. But there is no right answer—at least not yet. The only wrong answer to is to be certain that there is a correct one.

"Moderation" is not a common word in the sports world, which I came to thoroughly understand during my five months with Bleacher Report. The necessity to take a definitive, I’d-rather-be-dead-than-wrong stance is precisely what is wrong with sports writing and television punditry—the latter even more so.  

Sports generate opinions and, because these opinions are less substantial than, say, politics or religious beliefs, people are quick to express them. There’s nothing wrong with any of this.

Fandom goes wrong when it turns into something more than like and dislike, team allegiance and preference. When a stance (i.e. Kobe Bryant is overrated) blinds one to examples of the contrary (81 points in a game, 5 NBA Championships), something is wrong. Instead of enjoying the ride, stubborn haters are self-obligated to conjure up preposterous reasons to disregard the accomplishment (X player could hit 80 if he really wanted to).

Tom Brady or Peyton Manning will win MVP this season (I am dismissing Adrian Peterson by virtue of his position and the success of his team, but I would love to be proved wrong). Some don’t care too much for Brady. It seems fewer feel that way about Manning. Who’s better? It’s probably around a 50-50 split if you survey the general audience and sports writers.

But taking a firm stance that one is better than the other—Manning doesn’t win when it matters most, Brady’s a system quarterback—undermines the appreciation that you could have.

We may never again have two quarterbacks of their caliber playing at the same time. It’s great because we can argue about who is better than the other. It’s even better because there’s no clear answer.

Forty years from now, almost all of the countless hours we pour into watching sports will become one mostly-unidentifiable blob. The players and the moments that stand out are the truly special ones. When someone brings up Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and LeBron James or the rookie seasons of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, do you really want to say, “He was overrated” or “Hated that guy?”

Maybe all the sports writing and fantasy football has turned me into an allegiance-empty bastard of a fan, but I’d rather remember the best athletes of my time for what they were: Legendary entertainers.

Of course, 40 years from now, I’d prefer to be asked, “What was it like when the Yankees, Jets and Knicks won a decade of consecutive championships?”

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