Yesterday morning, I watched Stoke City FC play against Manchester United in the Premier League. Like a million other people in the first world, I learned long ago to hate Manchester United with a searing passion. So I reveled as I watched the heavy underdog Potters – a strictly mid-level club I don’t have any particular strong feelings about here or there – beat the defending champions Man United despite a last-leg onslaught which, thanks to a mighty rash of injuries, included a whopping seven minutes of stoppage time. When the 99 minutes of the match were finally whistled, I was happy Manchester United had lost. Naturally, I’ve been loving the past season of Premier League soccer because Alex Ferguson, the fearless leader of the Red Devils for the better part of the last 30 years – and the man who managed them to the 13 or 14 most recent of their 20 or so titles – retired after last year, and so the rest of the league has been reveling in the customary revenge beatings.
It doesn’t even matter quite so much that my team, Liverpool, is still in the mix and has a legitimate shot of winning the League Title. I’m just Manchester United’d the hell out, and the bottom line here is that I want them to lose. Sure, I can be the nice guy out in public, shake the hand of the average Man United supporter, and congratulate him for his team playing a nice game, but I don’t care to. If Liverpool just beat them for the first time in umpteen games, I’m going to be that guy wagging his finger in the other guy’s face, shouting the more explicit versions of the word “booya!” When Manchester United is involved, my sportsmanship goes right out the window.
That’s the big thing about sportsmanship. We’re hypocritical about it. After two weeks of hearing the word hurled everywhere as nothing but a veiled synonym for “quiet,” it’s time to address the idea for what it really is: A kids’ concept and a way to replace real parenting. It’s antiquated in the age of information, with everyone now thinking they have some kind of stake in the personal lives of the rich and famous. You would think we learned our lessons in the worst-case scenario of OJ Simpson, the public gentleman who was revealed in a murder trial, but for some reason we’re clinging to the image of the milk-drinking, Jesus-praising, white male athletes more than ever and offering weak cries of “sportsmanship!” whenever someone breaks the mold.
Richard Sherman broke the mold right after the NFC Championship game. After apparently being spurned for a handshake by San Francisco 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree, he forgot to hit the phantom adrenaline off switch which most people are under the apparent delusion exists. The result was that he exploded right at the camera when Erin Andrews stopped by after Sherman made the game-saving play. Now, Andrews was visibly petrified, but never in any danger – Sherman made no threatening comments, and nothing he said was directed at her. And yet, for a breach of some nonexistent social contract – and even though Sherman is a straight-A Stanford grad who runs one of the best charities in the country, is a student of the game, and is extremely well spoken and a good guy by all accounts – we decided to start labeling him and judging his character based on 30 seconds of an interview cutoff.
I’m well aware of the fact that professional sports feel different from other forms of entertainment; I mean, really, I don’t see very many people putting their whole emotional well-being into how their favorite actor or band is performing. If there’s a city somewhere that threw a riot to celebrate a Best Picture Oscar win, I haven’t heard anything about it. Regardless of how much sense it actually makes, though, we manage to keep placing our favorite professional athletes into a really, really specific mold: Quiet? Check. Christian? Is there any other kind of religion? Glory for the team above all else, never insults the hometown? Nice to have. We think different about sports because athletes aren’t associated with movie resumes; they run around in clothes which we believe symbolizes everything our hometowns hold dear to their cultures. There’s a whole argument to be made under that faulty logic since no one ever seems to care about a team’s image when the team is good, but I’ll save it. Most of these athletes don’t adopt the city they’re contracted to play in, anyway.
The aw-shucks, milk-drinking athlete who plays his heart out and then goes home to the high school sweetheart was crowded out of the building when Muhammad Ali told the Army where they could put their draft notices. Ali was the first to truly recognize and capitalize on the sports industry for what is really is, and also the first to recognize the fact that he was a private citizen with every right to share his opinions with whoever he saw fit to share them with. Professional athletes have always been doing things against the image of what clean-cut America desperately wants them to be, since King Kelly womanized and drank himself to death in the late 1800’s. Ali, though, was the first one to show that they didn’t necessarily have to hide it. He stepped up and became as much a showman and a symbol as an athlete, and 50 years after the fact – and with the likes of Chris Kluwe standing up for the rights of people who are widely still not treated like actual people – we’re still clinging to the gee-willickers image of Mickey Mantle, despite the fact that Mantle was another rabid womanizer who also drank himself to death.
At the professional level, in an information age with clockwork coverage and athlete salaries more than the gross domestic economic products of entire countries, showmanship is the real account of worth for athletes. These people make their entire living playing in front of enormous crowds, and the more they get noticed, the more opportunities they get for extra income (read: attention) which people are more than happy to give them. Right there lies the ultimate double standard: We’re happy to watch the games and pick out the players we like the best, who are more often than not the ones who are the best on the field. Then we shower them with extra attention and money for being that good and, when the inevitable ego inflation occurs, we suddenly get shocked and forget a lot of these players had millions of bucks suddenly land on their heads. It’s a wonder more professional athletes don’t end up like Randy Moss. Now, with Facebook and Twitter and all those other social networks giving us all-access passes into private lives, we should be getting nullified to the transgressions of the rich and athletic.
No matter how hot the spotlight gets, professional athletes are still people, and they have every right to live their personal lives without having to apologize or be vilified by a vindictive public which expects them to excel all the time, play injured, turn their adrenaline on and off at will, and accept public deification while keeping their heads down and gracefully accepting their free rides. Screw sportsmanship. If I want my team to win, I’ll take passion and fire over sportsmanship any day. Don’t expect me to contain myself when they really do win, either.