I’m asked, more often than expected, if I am comfortable with how much money professional athletes make. Do I, as a teacher, harbor ill will towards other humans blessed with hyperactive pituitary glands and a surplus of fast-twitch muscle fibers? Do I not feel it’s absolutely ridiculous that they should live in multimillion dollar homes and suffer the daily or weekly adulation of millions of fans?
“You’re a teacher,” they say (“they” are normally students, but this is a common question from colleagues and family as well), “Isn’t what you do so much more important?”
I suppose what I do is more important. But until 35,000 people choose to pay anywhere from twenty to a thousand dollars to watch me teach, I can’t necessarily begrudge athletes their spoils. I could throw my hands in the air and rail against the culture as a whole, but the truth is that this is not a new phenomenon. All cultures have tests of physical skill, stretching back to the Greeks and before, and whether it’s naked wrestling, Gladiatorial combat, jousting, martial arts, jai alai, or the NFL, people have spent time and money to watch, cheer, and disparage other human beings capable of doing things with their bodies that normal mortals can only dream about. It’s weird and unfair, but their you are.
My wife doesn’t understand this. It’s a game. Children play it, and yet grown men hold it dear. A recent article in Sports Illustrated investigated the lasting physical toll wrought by playing in the NFL by taking the 1986 Cincinnati Bengals and interviewing each member about their various chronic injuries, mental and physical. Most of the players were beat to shit. Eighty percent of them said they didn’t regret one goddamn minute.
But what of the fans? What possesses men and women to paint themselves, wear cheese wedges on their heads, waste entire weekends away from their children and loved ones to scream and caper about for athletes who could give two good shits for them?
I have no clue. That’s not really what I’m writing about.
What I want to write about is hate. Specifically the hate fans have for particular athletes. One athlete, to be precise. Because I tend to believe it’s the hate, the jealousy, the Schadenfreude that keeps people coming back. Sure, when your team wins, and your piling out of the stadium giving hugs to strangers and high fives to little kids, that feels great (I remember one time in particular when Adam Dunn hit a grand slam to beat the Indians with two strikes and two out in the ninth. Magical, especially since I was a Reds fan sandwiched between Indians fans. See? Hate.). But what we really love is watching these overpaid, over-entitled thyroid cases fall on their large, well-padded asses.
Everyone has an athlete they hate and reasons why. But NFL quarterbacks seem to suffer the most scrutiny and savagery (with the exception, perhaps, of Baseball closers and athletes who take extraordinary amounts of money from Miami and buy airtime on ESPN to celebrate it. Another post for another time. And ancient history, Cleveland fans…).
Tom Brady? Soulless automaton. Ben Roethlisberger? Put your dick back in your pants, you perv. Peyton Manning? Over-the-hill corporate shill. Michael Vick? Woof.
But I am surprised at the backlash Tim Tebow has received. It’s not even backlash. Nobody really liked him before, or at least they don’t admit it. Last night he threw for more yards against the Steelers–the number one defense in the country–than anyone has this year. But if you were listening to the game, specifically Phil Simms, you would’ve thought that the Broncos has started a one-armed glue-huffer at QB. This is consistent with his entire college and pro career. College too, come to think of it. e was lauded as the greatest college football player of all time, as well as one of the worst quarterbacks to play for a major program. The questions about his accuracy, arm strength, arm angle, ability to run a pro-style offense, instincts, and decision-making made it sound like he had a buffalo wing attached to his throwing shoulder rather than an arm.
And then there was the other thing. You know. That thing. The religion. The goody two shoes. Writers harrumph about the criminals we let into our living room every Sunday afternoon and how much we pay to watch them frolic about, poisoning our children’s minds and souls, the second chances we give to car thieves, rapists, dog fighters, and wife abusers, but when confronted with a man who–let it be said–kneels a bit too much, deflects praise to his God, and takes trips to third world countries to administer religious and medical aid and we wish for the good old days of Michael Irvin and Terrell Owens.
When commentators and columnists slag Tebow, it’s one of two things that drives them: one, they simply don’t like the way he plays, and let’s be honest: it’s ugly. Chuck Klosterman once asked in an essay if the scientific world could genetically modify a silverback gorilla so that said gorilla could understand and operate intelligently on offense and defense, and despite his overwhelming physical advantage promise to not purposefully kill or maim the opposing side, would the reader deem it appropriate to let that gorilla play in the National Football League. Well, we have our answer. The gorilla now plays quarterback for the Denver Broncos.
There is no elegance, no savoir fare in Tim Tebow. He is brute will, flying arms and legs, and lots of yelling. YELLING! ABOUT EVERYTHING! WHERE ARE MY SOCKS! AHHH! LOUD NOISES!
OK. Let’s cool it down a minute. Nobody looks particularly elegant running the option. True story. We ran it when I played in high school. Most of the time it looks like the quarterback is making shit up as he goes. Hand-off! Nope! Fooled Ya! Run around for a bit! Where’m I goin’? Where’m I goin’! Shovel pass! Our quarterback in high school, Collin, spent a good portion of our season running sideline to sideline behind the line of scrimmage for no discernible reason except the motherfuckers haven’t tackled me yet.
Tim Tebow takes this to a level unseen in professional football since, perhaps, 1923. It’s like he learned out to play quarterback in prison. And it kills–KILLS–traditional drop-back passers like Simms and Marino that it works. It’s like playing a technically perfect portion of the Goldberg Variations with your face. You should not succeed in this league with a game like that. But he does, so far (cue foreboding music…). Everyone watches Tebow to see when this circus act will fall in tatters and flames, and we thought it had. Four interception in week seventeen. We wanted him to start crying. We wanted him to blame God on Twitter.
Instead, he went out and kicked Pittsburgh’s ass in the playoffs.
And that’s the second thing. Why people hate him, I think. Like I said, commentators and columnists are forever pining for the return of the professional athlete. Where, oh where are the Frank Giffords, the Johnny U’s, the Joe Montana’s? Where’s the calm, cool, collected leader, the elan and deep quiet pride? Why doesn’t Roger Federer play football?
Shhh. Here’s what the really mean: where’s the white guy who can show all these wildly gesticulating jungle-dwellers what it’s like to be a professional? Where’s our Larry Bird, our Joe Dimaggio, our Pete Maravich?
Truth is, he’s probably playing quarterback for the Patriots, but such an example runs counter to my argument so I’m going to ignore it.
When sports writers bemoan the lack of integrity in professional sports, I always hear the unspoken, the subtext: athletes should act white, or at least the stereotypical white manner of conducting one’s self. Credit goes to the team. Be confident but not cocky. Pretend you aren’t doing it for the money. Family is important. Nightclubs lead invariably to gunfire. Play hurt. Emotional demonstrations of any kind will not be tolerated. DO NOT FUCKING DANCE.
Athletes are entertainers, pure and simple. That’s why they exist. They are no different than movie stars or pop singers. Derek Jeter does the exact same job as Lady Gaga. And yet we hold athletes to a certain standard of decorum. They should thrill us, but be cool about it. Rather than entertainers, we like to think of them as soldiers, warriors. Hopping around and expressing joy, disgust, or rage is anathema to importance of the game. A game in which grown men throw and catch balls, toss balls through hoops, swing at balls with sticks, and/or forcefully hug each other to the ground. If you can’t take hugging another grown man to the ground seriously, then there’s no place for you in the NFL.
Of course, if you do act like that–serious, focused, confident, proud-but-quietly-so–you’re boring (Tom Brady).
Maybe people just need things to bitch about. I just can’t shake the idea that Tim Tebow is hated because he comes so close to the media’s ideal of the great white hope, but falls hopelessly short due to his personal proclivities. He’s good-looking! He seems truly decent (though even I tend to find such a lily-white past suspect–we’ve all seen that before, and it often seems to end in a rest stop men’s stall…)! He’s a winner!
But…he’s a Bible-Banging bonobo.