January 25, 2008

The Ugly Truth Behind Popularity in the Sports World

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Did anyone hear about the kid in Mexico who glued his hand to his bed so that he wouldn’t have to go back to school? It’s not a long-term solution, of course, but I’m still thinking that kid deserves some sort of medal for, for lack of a better term, the cojones to pull off a stunt like that.
Unfortunately, those involved in sports continued to do equally stupid things over Winter Break — without the excuse of being 10 years old. Case in point: around page 44 of the Mitchell Report, I got so depressed that I felt like someone had dropped the 300-and-some-page monster on my head.
Now, there were so many things to choose from to write about, and I was all set to fill this space with a rant about sports as a popularity contest, but something happened three days ago that deserves a discussion …
Heath Ledger: April 4, 1979 — Jan. 22, 2008.
I know. At first glance, this has nothing to do with sports whatsoever (unless you count that excellent jousting and swordplay in A Knight’s Tale). There is, however, a particular lesson we can all take from Ledger’s death, a lesson that is particularly applicable to sports. I can probably get this message across best in the form of a question:
How much can we judge the life of a person by their professional work (performances on the screen, in the case of an actor like Heath Ledger, or on the field, in the case of the late Redskins safety Sean Taylor)?
As hungry as modern media outlets are for information, spectators really don’t know that much about the real lives of public figures. Ledger was lumped into the category of teen heartthrob early in his career, but he purposefully sought out more complex roles. His acting in Brokeback Mountain and the new Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There tells us about his artistic skills and vision, but it says nothing about his personality or character.
Similarly, though Sean Taylor was trying to change his lifestyle at the time of his death, his brilliant play for the Redskins cannot, and should not, automatically be extended off the field without other proof. Randy Moss is an excellent wide receiver, one of the greatest in history for sure, but that doesn’t mean he lives the rest of his life with the same discipline.
It’s all well and good that athletes use their fame to help the less fortunate, and many athletes do deserve praise. Nevertheless, fans have to be able to separate the performer from the person. In this day of misbehaving athletes, hero worship is one of the worst things a fan can do, because now you inevitably have to watch your hero fall.
Heath Ledger is … was … one of my favorite actors, but the reports that he was using drugs haven’t stopped coming since the first news of his death. These reports could be true; they could be false. It doesn’t matter. The point is that there’s no way I, as a fan, can know for sure.
Well, that was all I had to say about that. Think about it, and here’s that rant I mentioned earlier if anyone’s interested …
When I sat down to watch the men’s basketball team play Duke Jan. 6, I was so excited. The thought of Cornell getting the chance to play at Cameron Indoor Stadium just blew my mind; I was star-struck. But the more I thought about it, especially after the game itself, the more I realized something about sports — even thought it doesn’t have to be, it is the ultimate popularity contest.
“Popularity” means two things to me in this case: a) a spike in outside support at any given time and b) social status, any specific instance referring to one or the other or both meanings at the same time. Duke’s basketball program, for example, is suddenly “popular” this year — a quick recovery from last year’s early exit from March Madness — on the strength of its winning record.
A championship contender like Duke should have had no trouble handling a lowly Ivy like Cornell. On Jan. 6, however, Coach K’s annoyance was probably radiating throughout Durham, N.C. Cornell was clearly outplaying his “popular,” then No. 8, Blue Devils for a good portion of the game.
Bottom line: why should “popular” teams like Duke get all the hype when it is a long-established rule of sports that any team can beat any other team on any given day? This theory has been confirmed time and time again in basketball alone, from tiny Chaminade’s defeat of powerhouse Virginia in 1982 to George Mason’s surprise run to the Final Four in 2006.
As a side note, this idea also applies to the individual level. There was a very relevant article in USA Today a few months ago — a new scientific study investigated the relationship between athletic ability, real or perceived, and social status in elementary school children. The cycle begins as early as elementary school.
Anyway, the idea of the underdog is one of the most influential ideas in sports, and it is a commonly held belief that an underdog team or athlete often wins the support of the sports, or movie watching masses (See The Bad News Bears, The Replacements or — shudder — The Benchwarmers). We root against the villainous opposition and hope the underdog will get glory and redemption in the end.
But it is a popularity paradox. The truth is that, in real life, we are the ones who create underdogs in the first place. Then we keep them down by giving unconditional support to the “villain” that’s “popular” at the time.
Everyone’s climbing on the Celtics bandwagon now that they have the Big Three, for example. The Celtics are what’s “popular” now (a complete 180 from a year ago), whereas the consistently improving clubs like the Bulls or the Wizards don’t get anywhere near the same level of support.
One fateful weekend less than two weeks ago, the Wizards beat Boston twice in a row. (D.C. fans, please join me in a little cheer right now.) I’m not saying that dominant programs don’t deserve support. I’m just saying that it wouldn’t hurt to spread the love around a little and appreciate the basketball (or whatever other sport) itself, as opposed to the name.
P.S. I apologize that my column topics today are so mean and cynical. I guess coming back to school makes me use those critical reasoning skills, emphasis on the “critic.” But don’t worry, faithful reader. Like my 10-year-old Mexican counterpart, I just want to play, and I’m willing to glue myself to this computer until something happy happens in sports for me to write about. Start prayin’.