Please Pass the Cliches
There will be a whole lot of talking going on this week in Detroit, as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks prepare to play in Super Bowl XL. But most of the gab that will come from players' and coaches' mouths won't amount to much worth repeating, or dare I suggest, anything insightful about the actual game. Most of it will be gas, and very little of what the participants truly feel will be found among all of the cameras, lights and mini tape recorders.
At some point in history, the public and the media lowered the standards by which interview subjects are evaluated. Somewhere along the way, we began to accept question dodging as fair play and white lies as par for the course. If you watched the nomination hearings of Samuel Alito and John Roberts, or one of the few press conferences President Bush has treated us to during his five years in office, you know of which I speak. We've been taught not to press delicate matters such as, say, a justice's feelings about abortion or a president's power regarding domestic spying. You think the public has a right to know? Yeah, right!
Politics is a game of lies and half-truths. But everywhere else in life, we expect that if the media asks a fair question, the public will get an honest response.
Not so in professional sports, either, I'm afraid. Like politicians, pro athletes are trained liars and perfectors of half-truth statements. When truth is spoken -- the blunt, unpopular kind -- in the locker room or at a press conference, athletes and coaches are rarely applauded for it and often are condemned by the very same media that is expected to draw out those rare authentic and compassionate remarks.
A case in point: the National Football League playoffs leading up to the big game. After the New York Giants were eliminated earlier this month, star running back Tiki Barber suggested that perhaps the reason for the loss was because his Giants were out-coached by the visiting Carolina Panthers.
Barber was brave enough to repeat those sentiments in a second interview. But sports spin doctors were outraged and went just short of calling Barber a modern-day Benedict Arnold. How dare he pin the blame on the New York coaching staff? How dare he speak out publicly about the kind of stuff sports teams like to keep in-house? Well, if you watched that game, and know a little about the sport, you know Barber's assessment was dead on. The Giants were out-coached. He was man enough to point it out.
A week later, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning suggested that part of the reason for his club's demise against an upstart visiting Pittsburgh Steelers squad was the poor pass protection supplied by his offensive line. The same offensive line that helped Manning to become the game's highest-paid player in 2004 and set numerous passing records that same season. The same line that helped the Colts to an astonishing 13-0 start to this season before the team's wheels fell off.
How dare he make such a remark? Manning is guilty of passing the buck here to a degree. Many of his passes against Pittsburgh were off-the-mark, and he seemed flustered from the constant pressure applied by Pittsburgh's front seven. But the offensive line did fail; it allowed five sacks that accounted for a net loss of 43 yards, and the big men upfront are to blame for that. But like Barber, Manning was made out to be a crybaby, a poor sport who should have kept his mouth shut.
Those kinds of comments, especially from athletes as visible as Manning and Barber, are rare to find these days. And when players do speak their minds, even good guy types like Manning and Barber, they are burned at the stake for it.
I once suggested to a friend that, if I really wanted to make a few bucks, I would organize a seminar for first-year football, baseball and basketball players. I'd coach them on how to feed the media bullshit and stay politically correct -- basically, how to say nothing controversial. I was joking, of course. "Already being done," he replied. "The leagues have been doing that for a while now."
Players are taught to be bad interviews. Early on, their agents coach them on what to say and who to speak to, because agents realize that bad press can equate to lost endorsement dollars.
Few players in professional sports give an honest interview anymore, and the ones who do are on their way out. I once interviewed former Packers general manager Ron Wolf about why the team had allowed its punter to leave a few years back via free agency. His $1 million asking price seemed a bargain for a guy who helps his team control the ever-important battle for field position, and the Packers' punting game has never really been the same since. "The guy negotiating the deal blew that one," Wolf said. "I'm not passing the buck, but I told our guy to sign the player, and he screwed it up." Then Wolf admitted that as the team's boss, ultimately he had to accept some of the blame.
Honest and simple. Thank you.
Most pro sports executives (even retired ones as Wolf was at the time of my interview) would say something a bit more politic, such as, "We just didn't get it done," or "It was just one of those things."
Another famous Packer, quarterback Brett Favre, is one of pro sports' last remaining honest interviews. Even as his legend has grown, even after a gazillion media requests, Favre still oozes with candor. He answers questions from his gut, the same way he plays the game. It's a quality reporters can admire and fans can appreciate. But again, rare.
We're taught at an early age that honesty is the best policy. Our sports figures have the capability to give the public heartfelt comments fresh from the field. It might be one of the few times it is ethical for a reporter to stick a microphone into the face of a man or a woman still short of breath, dripping with perspiration. This is where the human spirit can be caught on tape and transformed onto page, where our athletes can express what it's like to hit the game-winning home run or swish the last-second jumpshot. And what do we get? Hope to do better next year. Just happy to be here. We're going to take it one game at a time. No comment.
And the losers in all of this are the fans. We can't play the game, we can only hope to live vicariously through those who can. But we're rarely treated to what is inside their heads after the final whistle, and that is what we so desperately desire.
Are we asking for so much? We deserve better. We want the truth.