Warren Sapp, Allen Iverson, and the Tragedy of the Riches-to-Rags Athlete

Jake,

I'm cynical by nature, and hardly a patient sufferer of fools. Still, that doesn't mean I lack empathy. In the boneheaded cases of Sapp, Petrino and Guillen, it's easy to feel outraged. Easier still to chuckle. Almost impossible to not sit in blithe judgement, hepped up on schadenfreude and the sheer shameless giddy joy of good ol' fashioned human rubbernecking. This is pretty much why reality television exists, and great wide swaths of the Internet, too. Plus Taiwanese news animation. Deep down in our petty, collective heart of hearts, we are all Nelson from The Simpsons, sneering and pointing a finger.

Ha ha.

And yet: There's something very familiar about the guys we're laughing at, something very old about their stories. Squandered riches. Cheatin' hearts. Foot-in-mouth disease. The classic stuff of self-destruction—not to mention country music—common to athletes and coaches and presidents alike. Shakespeare would size up the likes of Sapp in seconds; ancient Greek playwrights wouldn't find Petrino's saga the least bit surprising (well, maybe except for all the texting. And his inexplicable failure to use a motorcycle sidecar). These men are buffoons, sure—but hardly different from the rest of us, save the outlandish degree of their buffoonery. After all, who hasn't wasted money in moronic fashion? Screwed up royally in romance? Lied in a futile effort to stave off embarrassment? Held an unpopular opinion, and lacked the good sense to keep quiet about it?

(Hint: even Jesus was guilty of the last one).

I'm not saying that when society looks in the mirror, it sees Petrino's absurd, trial-lawyer-catnip neck brace looking back. I'm not saying that Sapp's alleged domestic violence is commonplace, or that Guillen's lack of tact is par for the course anywhere outside anonymous Internet comments and Curb Your Enthusiasm reruns. I am saying that their sins are a little more familiar than most of us would like to admit, and that in discussing and judging and mocking all three men—in doing the same with a seemingly endless series of high-profile scandals in sports and beyond—we're not just inoculating ourselves from their mistakes. We're offering up a silent prayer to the gods, in this case Deadspin and TMZ: There but for the grace of not being a celebrity go I.

So yeah: I can laugh at idiocy, and still feel sorry for its purveyors. Well, except when it comes to just-fired Isiah Thomas. That guy is hopeless.

–Patrick

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