Sunday, July 15, 2007

Where have all the rivalries gone?

Part 1 of 2 of a series on “Where have all the rivalries gone?”

When you think of rivalries, what comes to mind? Longevity? Geography? Fights and verbal sparring? Well, all of these things fit the definition of a rivalry. They range from Packers/Vikings, Pistons/Lakers to the ever storied Red Sox/Yankees. Rivalries in sports are what keep us all watching. Without them, sports would be emotionless competition. Competition with emotions running high and a great deal of pride at stake means so much more. Growing up in Minnesota, you are born and bred to hate the Green Bay Packers. Walk around the Mall of America and tell me how many t-shirts you see that say “My favorite teams are the Vikings and whoever plays the Packers” (the same shirt can be found across the river, but reverse the order of the team names). Same goes for the Red Sox and Yankees. You can’t go to a Red Sox game without hearing “Yankees Suck!” at some point throughout the game (even if the Yankees aren’t in town). Rivalries are still strong today, but there is something missing. There is some aspect of the rivalries that has been lost in translation as our society has moved along in the last 20 years. Who remembers the way that the Pistons literally man-handled Michael Jordan and the Bulls? What about when Pete Rose charged into catcher Ray Fosse during the 1970 All-Star game? Or even Kevin McHale throwing punches during the Celtics’ glory days? What do all of these have in common? They all fall into the “the way things used to be” category.
I do not condone violence in sports, but doesn’t it seem that sports were more enjoyable to watch when there was a small possibility of someone flipping out and causing a bench clearing brawl? In the last 5 or 6 years, networks have seen some of the lowest ratings in their history for professional sports. I think that there were maybe 6,000 people across the world that watched the Cardinals/Tigers World Series last year (to be fair, it was an absolutely horrendous display of baseball by both teams). The fire and electricity that is often infused into rivalries has been put out. There are still enjoyable rivalries to watch, but they are not the same. I only have two things to blame for this lack of fight in rivalries: Crazy Parents and League Commissioners.

Parents: This story from a couple weeks ago will get us started off on the right foot. A St. Paul father felt that his 12 year old son was not getting enough playing time on his little league team. After yelling and swearing in the dugout area, the coach and other league brass asked the father to leave the field area. The next day, after watching his son not play again, he reportedly called the coach and threatened that he would “shoot him down like a dog”. Naturally, the boy’s father was arrested and charged with threatening the coach. Supposedly, the father has past troubles with being a little too into his son’s little league career. Look, I’m sure that your son is the next Cal Ripken Jr. in the making, but I’m sure that the coach had a good reason to not play your son. Maybe those sand castles he was building at short stop looked nice…

Anyway, this is becoming a problem. More and more recently, we have been hearing stories about parents who are interfering in their children’s athletic lives.

Here are some quick examples:

Dad rushes onto wrestling mats ...

A Great Slideshow by Ben Meiner and Jon Adams

3. “Playing football for West Caanan is NOT the opportunity of a lifetime!”

The Piece De Resistance

As you can see, parents have been taking things a little too far. Our society in athletics has turned so violent at the hands of parents, that we’re telling kids that they can’t be aggressive anymore. This in turn, may turn kids away from sports or make them more passive in the sport that they play. I am currently at a tennis camp in California for the summer and each week we get kids who would much rather hold a Playstation controller than a tennis racket. And at the end of the week, it’s the parents who come up and grill us about their child’s evaluation. If your child is 11 years or older and can’t tell the difference between swatting a fly and hitting a forehand…it may be time for a change of venue. Between the 1960’s and 80’s, there were too many parents who had failed athletic dreams. Now we all have to deal with those people as parents and their kids who are all the next Michael Jordan even though he may be running down the basketball court with his hands down his pants (Everybody Loves Raymond, Season 6, Episode 8 of that season). Because of parents involving themselves too much, kids are falling away from being emotional and competitive in sports. They are getting right to the roots of this problem.

So now that we’ve been down the boulevard of broken dreams, it is time to look at the league commissioners. Instead of ruining things at the base of the tree, they are just chopping off branches at the top.

Let’s look to November 19, 2004. I feel that this was the day that aggressiveness in pro sports was forever changed. NBA fans had already witnessed the brawl between the Knicks and Heat in the ’97 playoffs (who can forget Jeff Van Gundy being dragged on the floor like a rag doll). What was different with this situation in ‘04 was that the fans were involved. Ben Wallace was fouled by Ron Artest, unnecessarily hard for what the score was, and Wallace retaliated by pushing Artest. After this, Artest was brought off the court and…well…the video should explain the rest. This was an absolute disaster in Detroit. You can’t see it in the video but after the game, reports surfaced that a fan had thrown cup of beer at Artest, which caused him to go into the stands. You can blame the players until you are blue in the face, but there has to be responsibility pinned on the fans as well.

146 games combined was the total for suspensions between the players involved from the Pistons and Pacers. As well as some jail and probation sentences for the fans involved. Still, some people argued that the player’s suspensions were too much.

Let’s fast forward to 2007 on December 16th. The Knicks and the Nuggets were involved in a similar altercation (sans the involvement of fans). Mardy Collins fouled JR Smith a little too hard and they began to argue. Things were seemingly normal until Nate Robinson’s 4’6” frame came into play. He pushes Smith and then Carmelo Anthony takes a swing at Collins and then runs away like a coward. Anthony got 15 games (the most of any player involved) and Nate “too short” Robinson got 10 games. Again, many argued that David Stern had done a poor job dealing with the suspensions and violence in the NBA. This would set up the final situation.

Game 4 of this year’s Western Conference finals in the NBA. Steve Nash drives up the side of the court and is checked into the boards by defensivem…sorry…defender Robert Horry. This was on top of the already heated situation of Bruce Bowen kneeing Steve Nash in the groin earlier in the series. Immediately following the game, talk had arisen that Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw would be suspended for one game for leaving the bench during the situation. Notice on the video how the leave the bench area but then are seen holding other teammates back from going any further. David Stern is about as flexible with rules as Bud Selig is good with figuring out extra inning All-Star games. ESPN’s Bill Simmons wrote a great piece about this situation a couple days after it had happened. Because of a very lame rule in the NBA, the Suns’ hopes of beating the Spurs were crushed. David Stern had struck again. His lack of understanding competitive athletes in a heated situation led to, what I felt was, a bad decision on his part. Guys can’t even defend their teammates anymore but the NBA wants passion. What kind of message does that send to the players?

Professional sports have seen its ups and downs the last couple of years. 2007 was no exception. With the rise of parents becoming violent when dealing with their kid’s athletics and league commissioners inability to control violence and in turn their inability to deal with it, sports are quickly becoming less and less emotionally based. The age old rivalries are becoming more and more faceless and boring. What will save them?

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