You've seen the story. A reporter enters a team's locker room, offensive comments are made, an investigation follows, an unrelated player makes a statement, the statement is deemed offensive, the player apologizes, civil rights groups get angry, lawyers are hired. It's a weekly occurrence in a society which places undue emphasis on sports. As sports coverage has gone from newspapers and magazines to individual bloggers in the locker room and FavreCam on ESPN, athletes are scrutinized on and off the field to a degree that is incomprehensible to all except celebrities.
America's insatiable appetite for additional and increasingly in-depth reporting on its favorite athletes is easy to see. On my basic DirecTV package, I have more than 40 channels devoted entirely to sports. This past Sunday, I had a free preview of NFL Sunday Ticket, which allows me to watch every single NFL game in progress, plus a RedZone channel which shows every game, plus a channel called GameMix which shows, simultaneously, every game in progress, and allows me to navigate a cursor and select one, or merely watch them all at the same time.
This is sports overload. And what it has done is turn friendly little league games into the World Series. It's forced high school freshmen to start practicing 7 days a week at 5 in the morning to try and get into college-not for academics, but so they might be able to play for a good program and progress to the NFL. It's forced every news conference with an athlete to turn into a bland repetition of clichés that offers nothing interesting or personal.
So when Dan Wetzel starts calling Clinton Portis' comments exemplary of an "ugly" NFL culture, he needs to turn around and consider the role of media in the affair: A female reporter was granted access to a locker room for an all male team immediately following a game. Players make misogynistic comments.
Look. We glorify sports. I'm as guilty as anyone else. But we've turned humans into athletes, into freaks. Portis has spent nearly all of his 29 years playing football. He has been coached, encouraged, and brainwashed into a football-only mentality. Since his days in high school, he has been scrutinized by the media, NFL scouts, coaches, fans, and fellow players. We can't expect him, or any other professional athlete, to be a social role model. We, the fans, have been teaching him that all we want to see is another game in the Win column. When all we've emphasized for the last 15 years has been "Win," how can we expect a well-balanced individual?
Critics claim that Portis was wrong. And, perhaps, his words were poorly chosen and imply unsavory morals. But I'm beginning to think it's unreasonable to expect normalcy from athletes. Because we want to see the Redskins win games, we never asked Portis to be an actual human being. We asked him to be a freak, an arm and two legs, pushing through a mass of defenders to bring 6 points to the team. We've given him well over 100 times the average salary of a teacher to play 16 games a year. And now we expect him to be normal? To be sane? To be compassionate?
The actions of the Jets in their locker room, and the words of Clinton Portis are indefensible as actions of human beings. But we have turned athletes from humans to freaks. What can we truly expect?
When Randy Moss finally leaves the book of clichés at home for a post-game interview, asks for a contract extension, and essentially says "I want to be here. I will play as hard as I can no matter what," the Boston media and fans call for his head. It's a ridiculous situation. Because athletes are used to media scrutiny, they lock up in press conferences. When they finally decide to break their usual routine, they get hammered in the press. What's the benefit? Why even have press conferences? If all anyone cares about is the game, the results, the wins, then why do we need to demand so much coverage when all we're going to do is bash another athlete for speaking his mind?
We cannot expect the freaks that we've raised to be caring, compassionate, and level-headed individuals. It's irresponsible to expect that, in addition to an entire life devoted to a single game, athletes can be suitable role models for our children and society. We've made that impossible.
Of course, a vast majority of athletes seem like perfectly capable human beings. But this is not through any actions of our own. I am impressed with conscientious, open-minded, and intelligent athletes, but they have maintained their humanity despite the sports public, and are far more likely to pull a Mel Gibson than your average person. For every pre-2009 Tiger Woods, there is a post-2009 Tiger Woods waiting in the shadows.
As a whole, changes need to be made. We must deemphasize the importance of sports or allow athletes greater leeway in their pursuit of greatness. We can take away wins and losses, or we can take away media locker room access. We can take away world championships, or we can stop deifying athletes. We can take away pro sports leagues, or we can stop slamming every athlete for every stupid thing they say on Twitter.
The choice is ours.