Lately we've seen rivals palling around off-court and requesting autographs from one another. What led to the rise of this nicer, fuzzier normal—and is it bad for play?
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), and Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) ask why pro athletes just don't seem as bitter towards one another as they once did.
Once upon a time in sports, athletes were divided into two camps. Us and them. Our team and those guys. Players on opposing squads or schools weren't supposed to fraternize, or even really talk. They were supposed to hate one another, wage bitter little Cold Wars, act as proxies for fan passion and antagonism. When the "Bad Boy"-era Detroit Pistons of the late 1980s repeatedly pummeled Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls, there was no love lost between the squads; when the Bulls finally returned the favor en route to becoming the NBA dynasty of the 1990s, Pistons guard Isiah Thomas famously led his teammates off the floor before the final buzzer of a closeout playoff game, the better to avoid shaking hands with their detested rivals; spilling more bad blood, Jordan reportedly lobbied to keep Thomas off the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. Checkmate!
Of course, that was then.
Today, athletes from opposing teams are less likely to have a Captain Kirk-Kahn relationship than something akin to Bert and Ernie. LeBron James and Kevin Durant are the two best players in the NBA. They faced each other in last season's Finals. They like will square off again over the course of the coming decade. And in the offseason? They're friends. They train together—and then Tweet peppy, positive hashtags like "#StriveforGreatness." Or take Kansas City Chiefs players Jamaal Charles and Dwayne Bowe, who were spotted outside the opposing locker room following a 17-9 loss to the Denver Broncos last week, patiently waiting to collect autographs from Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
The latter incident prompted huffing and teeth-gnashing from former Chiefs lineman Rich Baldinger, who told a local television station that "I don't understand it at that moment ... I just think it goes to show what this team's all about." By contrast, Houston Texans running back Arian Foster defended Charles and Bowe—partially by citing his own habit of trading jerseys with opposing players—while in an ESPN.com poll of over 100,000 fans, 85 percent said they had no problem with the autograph collecting.
Me? I have no problem with it, either. And the same goes for fraternizing. Sure, athletes are trying to win, which means the other guy has to lose, and maybe that means some feelings are hurt. Still, I don't need players to literally hate each other. In fact, in an era defined by free agency, big money and constant roster shuffling, I don't see why anyone would bother. Today's rival is tomorrow's teammate, and besides, the real conflict in sports is between labor and management. (Indeed, I think it's far more likely that modern teammates would hate each other, at least the ones competing for playing time and contract dollars; were Aaron Rogers and Brett Favre anything but frosty during their shared years in Green Bay?)
Jake, what's your take? Are you cool with opposing jocks being backslapping bros? Or do you long for genuine, long-lost animosity to spice up your viewing pleasure?