Friday, December 24, 2010

What THEY play for...

As a Cowboy fan growing up, I remember living and dying by the outcome of Sunday’s game.
When the Cowboys won it was the greatest thing ever.  There was nothing anyone could say to me to dampen my mood, for I was on cloud nine and the rest of the week was one big rainbow with a pot of gold waiting for me.
  But when they lost, all bets were off.  The most sickening feeling would come over me.  I couldn’t function, eat or sleep.  I would wait to read the latest sports columns, breaking down the games with the experts and trying to figure out what we could do to fix the problem for the upcoming week’s opponent.  While in school, I would count the days until Sunday just wishing there was some way to speed up time in order to get to the game. 
For years I had made myself sick at the outcome of something I could only watch, not control.  I would incessantly talk Cowboys, hated their rivals and destroyed countless possessions of mine whenever a play went bad, a player missed a tackle or my team came up on the short end of the stick.
Needless to say, this pattern went on for quite some time until a switch finally went off in my head and I finally understood that I needed to let my emotions take a back seat and just watch the games for what they were—entertainment and nothing more.
There were two events that occurred in my sport’s life that made me change my mind and my attitude about the game.  The first was the how the heated rivalries between my team and teams like the Eagles and 49ers began to dial down in the mid-90s.  The second was the advent of free agency.
I remember the first big move came when Ken Norton Jr. left the Cowboys for the 49ers.  I thought, as many fans did, that this was the ultimate act of betrayal against all things Cowboy. 
“How could he live with himself?” I asked. 
Then I began to curse Norton, his life, family and career.  I hoped for the most severe injury possible for this traitor.  It didn’t matter that my team had acquired Charles Haley and Deon Sanders in the same manner.  This was the Cowboys dammit and you want to come here, you don’t leave.  They had no right to.  
In a matter of years it seemed all the old rivalries that had taken years to build; all the hatred and bad blood that had been passed down throughout the years seemed disappear.  Everyone I had trained myself to hate started coming to my team or moving to another.  Then my hatred often turned to dismay and disbelief when players would meet in the middle of the field to talk be cordial.
And that’s when it hit me.  I was getting mad for all the wrong reasons.  I hated players when my own players did not.  My Cowboys had the audacity to be friends with the enemy, cross the star and shake hands and laugh with the likes of Sanders, Banks, Taylor and so on.  Aikman patted Rypien’s back; Irvin shared pleasantries with Darrel Green and Alvin Harper would hug Merton Hanks.  And then before you know it, they were all gone.  Harper would leave for Tampa, Montana and Allen were Chiefs and the entire game, in my mind, went topsy-turvy.  The rivalries were gone and the contempt had nowhere to burgeon.
I say all this in lieu of autograph-gate betwixt one Tashard Choice and Michael Vick. 
Fans and media members were up in arms that Choice was caught on camera asking the Eagles QB for his signature just minutes after losing a heartbreaking game.  Fans cried foul and demanded swift action against Choice for what they deemed was sacrilegious or something to that effect.  Some even carelessly called for Choice to be removed from the team A.S.A.F.P.
I saw it as a guy asking a guy to sign something for someone and nothing more: something any one of us would do.  But we hold athletes to a different standard.  When they are on the field, we expect them to be the machines we envision them to be in our mind—gladiators hoisting the trophy of a foes’ head high in the air asking if we are entertained.  But the reality that most cannot seem to understand is they are doing a job, much like we do everyday save for the fanfare and attention.
We cannot differentiate between games and battles and fail to allow ourselves to understand that these guys can.  They play for the love, the money and the glory.  They put their bodies on the line play after play, game after game and season after season.  While we see the finished product on the field, we miss the grueling work they commit themselves to off it.  And many times the people we fans declare to hate are the best friends or close associates of those we claim to love.
And because we pay for a hat, jersey, bumper sticker and/or tickets, we feel we have a right to get involved in the process of telling these guys who to like, hang out with, talk to and, yes, get autographs from.
It took me a long time, but I finally came to the realization that what these guys owe me is nothing.  They play sports on a level we fans only wish we could.    The reality is we are all jealous.  We steadily claim that “If that were me, I would…” whenever something bad, tragic or terrible happens with an athlete.
But truth be told, if it were you, how much worse would you be?  I can tell you right now, if I became a rich athlete, the first thing my critics could do for me is kiss my ass.  Because the truth is, they cannot do what I do.  They get paid to criticize what it is I do without realizing that most athletes are versatile enough to maximize their careers as well as do the job of their critics.
Don’t believe me?  How many athletes can make the transition from player to broadcaster?  How many former players are sportswriters, coaches and businessmen? 
Now contrast that with the number of critics that able to take on 200+ pound linemen, can run a sub 4.6-40 or can make a critical hit or free throw in a ballgame when it matters?  They flat-out can’t.  But through some narrowly defined sliver of reality developed between Narnia and Hell, they all think they can. 
They all think they can call the plays in the games, make the right substitutions and make the correct managerial decisions.  They disregard the power of hindsight, their greatest weapon, and forge ahead with certainty and prescience no matter how foggy their rose-colored glasses become.
However, what they need to comprehend, and what I have discovered is we fans make the choice to be fans just as the athletes make the choice to destroy their bodies for their own personal gain and our entertainment.  While we sit in our recliners getting fat and happy while making suggestions and holding on to unreal expectations, these guys are playing through pain the likes we couldn’t imagine.  They take pain injections to give it one more play, get re-taped to make one more yard and have doctors checking them out to see if their brains have stopped rattling around in their skulls long enough to finish one more game.
So at the end of the day, you’ll have to pardon me when I say these guys owe me, you and everyone else out there nothing.  Not one autograph, not one handshake, not one hospital visit, not one donation, not one charitable event or photo op.  When they make a mistake I don’t need an apology because no one requires one of me when I mess up.  If a player beats his wife, he beats his wife.  It is a private matter that becomes public only after we get on a righteous crusade to indict someone often without the added benefit of knowing the facts.
I could care less if an athlete does drugs, drinks and drives or kills someone.  I care that they receive the same justice that I would, I would hope they can get the help they require and I would like for them to be able to continue their jobs without prejudice and malice from the fans and media.  Because the truth of the matter is, isn’t that the same thing we civilians want?  If you get a DWI or are involved in a domestic dispute, should I come to your job and demand you be removed?  Can I scour the paper to find someone to target and boo you as you walk to your car?  Should I gather my friends and protest the manager at Wal-Mart because he was at a strip club at 2 o’clock in the morning and someone was shot, regardless that he was merely a patron in the wrong place at the right time? 
Hell no!
Henceforth, keep this in mind the next time one of your team’s players converses, prays or trades pleasantries with the “enemy” after a game.  It’s not for you and me to tell these people who their friends and foes are.  It is our privilege to enjoy and appreciate what these guys do to themselves for our entertainment.
Yet, the minute we feel betrayed or underappreciated by our “heroes”, then do what so many with common sense have done.  Stop watching and change the ch…  

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