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?
I'm with you, Patrick. Athletes hating each other is like $10,000 salaries and sports on the radio: a thing of the past. We fans can thank ourselves for that.
Once, athletes had as much in common with the average blue-collar Joe as they with each other. Most players were barely middle-class, and only the stars of the game had the resources and Q rating to live like kings—or if they so chose, anonymous fishermen. But as the popularity of sports increased with the advent of home TV, labor lawyers like Marvin Miller went to bat for the athletes and won them free agency and other juicy collective bargaining rights. Once that happened, it was all over, even if it took until the 1990s for player salaries to become exponentially higher than the average American's income. Now, the typical pro athlete is so different from the average American—more money, more privilege, more prestige, many more women—that they hardly live in the same society.
With that in mind, of course athletes have more camaraderie than they used to. There's such a small pool of the population that lives a "famous athlete" life that it only makes sense for a guy like LeBron to be friends with most of his rivals, even Durant. Throw in the mutual respect great players often have for one another, and it's a veritable love-fest. There are still holdovers from the acrimony of the past, like Kevin Garnett, but they are few and far between.
Is it a good thing? For the players, absolutely. Filling your heart with a burning hatred of all opponents won't fundamentally improve your career, unless you're a once-in-a-generation homicidal competitor like Michael Jordan. And with the unprecedented amount of player movement among teams, a mortal enemy today could be a teammate tomorrow. For the fans, the lack of vitriol could be frustrating—after all, Vinny from Staten Island wants every Yankee player to hate the Red Sox as much as he does. But most players don't feel the need to share their fans' bloodlust, nor should they.
Are you with us, Hampton? Or do you yearn for the hatred of yesteryear?
You guys are right about the dearth of hatred in sports and the reasons for it. Pro athletes lead rarefied lives, and have more in common with each other than the fans they represent. But the appalling lack of bitter rivalries in sports makes me furious—almost as mad as it makes me when you two drink the feel-good Kool-aid. Your capitulation fills me with an unfathomable rage that burns with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns.
Not really. But I will make a good case for hate in sports.
First, lest we forget, Jamaal Charles and Dwayne Bowe play for a team that got crushed on Sunday. The Chiefs were embarrassed at home by a division rival, putting them at 1-10 for the season. For Bowe and Charles to follow a humiliating loss by hovering around Peyton Manning's lockeroom door waiting for an autograph was not only an insult to already-injured Chiefs fans, it also showed an appalling lack of leadership and competitive fire. The team's two best players, mind you, humbled themselves before Manning, acting like a pair of teenyboppers trying to meet Justin Beiber. That sends a message to fans, teammates and rest of the NFL that those two don't belong in the same league as Peyton Manning. Almost literally. Try to imagine, if you will, Tom Brady waiting outside an opponent's door for an autograph. It is to laugh.
Frankly, the idea that athletes can be best broheims outside the lines but still compete at the highest level strikes me as looney, utterly contrary to human nature, and an assertion repudiated by, oh, the whole history of sports. Hate always, always makes for better competition. That's practically self-evident. Would you really argue that two boxers who are friends outside the ring will battle as hard in it as bitter foes will? So Ali and Foreman would have been just as riveting if the two had been besties?
You know what sports will look like in your utopian can't-we-all-get-along world? Remember back in 2002 when Brett Favre slid to the turf so Michael Strahan would have an easy play to break the all-time sack record? Remember how wrong it all felt? There's your kinder, gentler, why-can't-we-be-friends NFL in a nutshell. Come to think of it, it's a wonder that Favre didn't ask Strahan for an autograph.
Hatred is what makes sports matter, for goodness sake. Sports are entertainment. Specifically, they are mock warfare—a chance for human beings to feel like part of a tribe, and a context for us to vent otherwise socially unacceptable emotions.
For instance, somewhere in the rational part of my being, I know that the citizens of Columbia, Missouri, aren't all that much different from those in Lawrence, Kansas. Just as the student bodies of Duke and North Carolina, or Ohio State and Michigan are also far more alike than different. Yet Blue Devils hate Tarheels, Buckeyes hate Wolverines, and I categorically refuse to wear black and gold or stop for lunch in Columbia when I'm on I-70. That's because I define my sports fandom in part by fervid opposition to all things MU and an abiding faith in the idea that Jayhawk fans, on the whole, are physically, mentally, and morally superior to those who root for the Tigers.
Maybe you two are right, and money has forever changed the nature of sports. My guess, and fervent hope, is that you are wrong, and there will always be at least a few athletes for whom hate conquers all. There will always be a handful of fanatics like Jordan and Brady, or Ray Lewis, Kobe Bryant or Bryce Harper, God bless 'em, who compete because their soul is on fire, and because losing feels like death. Guys like that—who likely would have been warriors in a more ruthless age—are heroes in the original, tragic sense: both buoyed but inevitably brought down by their faith in the adolescent, but ultimately Romantic idea that what happens within the confined, controlled reality of a sport is a better measure of a life's worth than anything that happens outside of it.
Still, things have changed, and we seem stuck with star athletes who exchange autographs and pal around at the same strip club after games. That doesn't mean they have to act like it. Bowe and Charles may be in awe of Peyton Manning, but as professionals and purported team leaders, they at least shouldn't show it in public. Kevin Durant and LeBron James may not hate each other, but they don't have to flaunt their friendship. Conviviality, after all, is bad for business. Ask David Stern about the NBA back when Jordan ruled. He hated everybody in the league and the feeling was mutual. Or just ask any pro wrestler. A little hate, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, is the best way on earth to grab eyeballs and put butts in seats.