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Friday, December 30, 2005

Seeing the Forest Through the Trees

Tony Dungy buried his 18-year-old son, James, this week after an apparent suicide. I have many, many things on the sports agenda that I want to rant about, but I feel this one must be discussed.

I can only imagine what Dungy must be feeling at this moment. The regrets, the possibility that he missed a 'sign', despair over the pain his son must have been feeling to push him to such an act. But I also am taking note that Dungy left immediately - with no promise to return to the Colts before the end of the season - to get things with his family in order and to grieve.

I think we can all learn from this behavior - especially the fans who criticize the professional sports community for being, well, human.

I know no one is going to get on Dungy's case for pulling away from his 'football family' for the time being. But what of the other 'human' foibles that have occurred in professional sports? I think we all need to sit back and acknowledge that the life of a professional athlete - while it is glamorous and high-paying - is grueling in terms of schedule, often lonely, often not family-oriented (please note Viking's Boat Party) and often results in the athlete being surrounded by a posse of posers.

So many examples of this lifestyle in action - let's name a few:

Mike Tyson - though Iron Mike is mentally a man on the edge, it was still he who brought home the prize money again and again. He has the heart of a warrior. The average sports fan drinks in Mike and hopes to never meet him in a dark alley. But what of his story? What took him to the place where he is now? Why, in God's name, is he not retired, living comfortably on his ranch inviting guests to casual dinners and reminiscing with Ali? The business of sport got in and totally clouded his judgment. His posse got in and milked him for everything he's worth before splitting. He never had a chance to step back and watch the charade go on about him because he was too much a part of it and still is. Sad.

Darryl Strawberry - The man cannot stay away from the white stuff. I feel like Strawberry did not get a fair chance to deal with his dependence because, again, the business of sports, the promise of more money, the nature of people wanting to say 'Strawberry is back' and the obligation to 'make it up to the team' weighed in too heavily in the recovery process. Eric Clapton has said that, though he gave up heroin decades ago, there is not a day that he doesn't think about shooting up. People who don't understand addiction are like the people who tell the homeless person to 'get a job'. It's just not that easy.

Theoron Fleury - Once again, a supreme player, this one for the NHL, who had a stellar career cut short but drug and alcohol problems, plus a famous temper. Fans don't seem to recall that he was an intergal member of the Stanley Cup-winning Flames in 1989 (his rookie year) and the Gold-Medal-winning Team Canada in 2002. All the fans could think to call him after his return from a 6-month suspension for violating his drug-abuse after-care program in 2002 was 'Crackhead Theo'.

Yes, I know that for every example of the fans not giving the athlete/sports professional a break for showing weakness there is one in which the fans are totally justified in attacking: OJ Simpson, Ron Artest, Terrell Ownes, Todd Bertuzzi, Kobe Bryant.
But my New Year's resolution is to learn from Tony Dungy. Let the people associated with professional sports be human. Let Gretzsky go home and grieve for his mother, let Tracy McGrady leave the game early to be by his fiance's side for the birth of his child - for goodness' sake, let Marv Albert wear a wig and ladies' undergarments if he wants to. It all adds to the texture of why we love sports. I want real people to play my favorite games, not robots. I have Xbox for that. And I want the Colts to go all the way for my man, Dungy.

Happy New Year- Robin

To Play Or Not To Play

Last year, about this time, I was riding on the cheese steak highway straight to the Super Bowl. The stars were in alignment, the energy on the field was like a meteorite hurtling through space. Nothing was going to stop the boys in green from taking the NFC Championship in stride and booking their private jet for the jaunt to Jacksonville.

Peeling back the layers of the fried onions, however, revealed a bit of "uh-oh", but I chose to ignore it. I'm just a fan, I thought, not a coach or an analyst. But it seemed to me that resting these guys for what amounted to almost a month was a risk. In looking back, it may have been the nail in the coffin.

It's that time again where teams have secured their playoff spots, their bye week and, if they were super effective, home field advantage throughout the playoffs. All great things to have when going into the final battle for the ultimate bragging rights in the NFL: the Vince Lombardi trophy. To rest or not to rest? That is the question coaches ask themselves. I say no. They, of course, won't listen.

Having been a fan of a team destined for the Super Bowl, I understand the strategy of keeping your best players off the field when the outcome of a game isn't going to give you any better position for the post-season. We all know players have targets on them so why chance an injury when nothing is on the line? Rest them. The players probably crave rest at this time in the year too. Their bodies have been through the equivalent of a human pinball machine for months. A little R&R would feel oh so good right about now. Maybe a little too good.

Soft feet don't make for a comfortable marathon.

As a fan it just doesn't sit right with me. (I reiterate my initial support for holding out Donovan McNabb and his merry men for the final two games last year.) I wonder if all that rest takes the edge off. And then there is the issue of paying for a full season of play - whether you are a season ticket holder or a subscriber to one of the many pay TV services available. Not only do season ticket holders have to shell out major dollars for meaningless (to them) pre-season games, but they must also sit through scrub matches in the final weeks of a brief season (brief when compared to the number of games played in other sports). It's like going to a broadway play starring Bette Midler and finding the following on a piece of paper inserted into the Playbill: Appearing in the lead role of "Bette Midler on Broadway" is Suzie Smith from Boise.

Sure, the fans are likely thrilled that their team is in the enviable position of holding out the starters, but I wonder if they feel the same "uh-oh" I did. It seems to go against the grain to proactively make one's team a lame duck. This is a SEASON. There are 16 games to be played and played well. Whether you are out of post-season contention or locked in at home for the duration of the playoffs should not matter. A game is a game. It's a roll of the dice, but that is what makes sports exciting.

Coaches have a tried and true method of remaining focused during the season by refusing to look beyond the next game. Then, when it matters most, they allow their team to focus ahead to the post-season, and give their starters a holiday from competition. Uh-oh.

IT HAS TO BE SAID: We the people of the United States have got to check ourselves into celebrity rehab. When there are more stories about Paris Hilton than President Bush circulating in viral-like fashion around the TV, the radio and the internet, we have a problem, or shall I say, an addiction. If we cared as much about the environment and the corruption in politics as we do about the latest make-ups and break-ups in Hollywood we would not have lost a jewel of a city (New Orleans) and we would all be much richer (Anybody find that missing 7 billion dollars? I could have sworn I put it right here?)

Happy New Year!