Writing can be hard. There are times when the brain struggles in vain to find a topic that people would find engaging. Other time, the topic comes easily, but the words won't flow. It's kind of like golf -- if the irons are good, the putting sucks. If the putting works, the driver takes a vacation. When all of the areas of the game click at the same time, the experience is sublime.
Just as rarely, the Writing Gods smile upon you and provide a veritable bounty of material, for which the challenge is not to create words, but to find some way to limit what makes its way to the page. Over the past 72 hours, the Gods gave us John Tortorella, Peter Gammons and RIchard Sherman. Let's begin the feast.
Sherman's March to Stupidity
In the interests of fair disclosure, I've been a life-long 49er fan, having spent countless Sundays on the hard benches of Kezar Stadium, then the nicer seats -- but worse weather -- at Candlestick Park. I suffered for years until Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott & Co. arrived and brought Super Bowl goodness to Baghdad by the Bay. So, Sunday's loss to the Seahawks was personally agonizing for me, particularly coming as it did. However, I'm also a Stanford alum -- from whence Richard Sherman came to the NFL. Indeed, several players and coaches on both sides have Stanford connections, so there are conflicts of allegiance all over the place. However, as I hope becomes apparent, my observations are not colored by the final score, but by a broader concern over the caliber of conduct that has crept into the NFL in recent years.
To start, Richard Sherman is not The Great Satan for his remarks. Is he cocky? Absolutely. Brash? No doubt. Evil? No. Do some digging and you'll find that he can be thoughtful, reflective and a contributor to society, well beyond the bounds of the football field. But his antics on Sunday went well beyond reason, and his apology the next day, while articulately stated, simply isn't good enough.
I get adrenaline, and understand that the heat of battle can lead to some bizarre manifestations. Been there, done that in my college sports days. I also understand that the modern world of professional sports involves a certain sense of theater, such that the on-field personas today diverge more dramatically from the off-field characters of those involved than ever before. Think the on-stage vision of Alice Cooper vs. the right-wing, golf playing reality when not on tour. I'd love to think that Sherman was just putting on an act or -- even better -- just trying to totally befuddle ace reporter Erin Andrews. (Which he did, by the way, despite her later protestations to the contrary). Unfortunately, his remarks are just part of an increasingly boorish pattern of behavior that now permeates the league.
You see, I cling to the notion that the word "professional" means something more than simply receiving a paycheck for what others do for fun. I like to thing that being a professional carries with it a set of responsibilities to the public at large and the sport itself. Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Roger Staubach, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice . . . they all managed to ply their trade at the very highest level of the game, while maintaining a professional demeanor. It used to be that a guy scoring a touchdown simply handed the ball to the referee as he crossed the line. "Act like you've been there before" was the mantra veterans passed down to the rookies.
I don't want to take the joy out of the game. Far from it. True elation and celebration is terrific. But what we see week in and week out is not a spontaneous expression of joy -- it is an increasingly orchestrated tableau of egotism, displayed after every tackle, sack, tipped pass, catch or first down. Maybe I'm the stupid one, but I was under the impression that these guys were paid to do those things. The "Superman" and bicep kissing antics of Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick are , in a word, classless.
At the end, that's what Sherman's remarks signify -- the loss of any semblance of class. Sherman justifies his remarks by claiming that Michael Crabtree made some disparaging private remarks to him. OK, fine. Private remarks, right? So, basic decency would call for his response to similarly be private, not a lunatic tirade on national television. Sherman is a great cornerback. Crabtree is a terrific receiver. Both made some great plays during what was a wonderful football game. It does not elevate the game, the sport or Richard Sherman to belittle the opposition or use words to exalt his own standing. Others will be the judge of that in time. In the meantime, show some gratitude for having the chance to play the game and the fact that one of your teammates happened to be in the area to catch that ball. In other words, act like you've been there before.
The Tortorella Treat
We all knew it was going to happen, didn't we. Ever since John Tortorella inked his signature on the contract to coach the Vancouver Canucks, the Death Watch has been underway for the first emotional meltdown. To his credit, it has come later than many expected, but it came -- with all of the certainty of the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano (or the buzzards to Hinckley, Ohio).
For those who have been in a coma, or on the International Space Station, a brief review is in order. In Saturday night's game between the host Vancouver Canucks and the Calgary Flames, Calgary coach Bob Hartley elected to start a questionable lineup of fourth line thugs. Tortorella, as the home coach, had the last line change, so countered in kind. The result was as predictable as joining two halves of a critical mass of plutonium. BOOM! The line brawl actually petered out fairly quickly. However, Torts was at the peak of his New York form. He screamed and yelled at the Calgary bench, though fell short of doing a Patrick Roy dismantling of the barrier between the two benches. Instead -- in what must have seemed like a good idea at the time -- he chose to confront the Calgary staff and players in between periods outside the Calgary locker room -- traditionally a "No Fly Zone" under NHL rules. Unfortunately for Torts, that part of the episode was captured by Hockey Night in Canada cameras, and his intent was laid bare by a Tom Sestito tweet that came thereafter. Ruh, roh . . .
When all was said and done, the NHL gave Tortorella a 15-day (6 game) unpaid vacation, and fined Calgary's Bob Hartley $25,000 for what amounts to "conduct unbecoming to the game." In reality, Hartley was fined for taking advantage of an easy mark -- getting the better of John Tortorella from an emotional standpoint is akin to shooting fish in a barrel.
Again, I get the emotion from coaches, and it has its place. Baseball managers kicking dirt on umpires' shoes is a time-honored tradition. The anguished and expressive tirades by 49er coach Jim Harbaugh are quickly becoming YouTube favorites, and I frankly would love to see more emotion out of Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards. Passion is terrific, but we are again at a point where "passion" is too frequently used as an excuse for behavior that is unacceptable under any standard you choose to apply.
Torts is smart. He knows hockey. He has a terrific foundation that does great charitable work. He also knows that the world is waiting for him to go batshit crazy. And yet he allows himself to do just that. With the last change, he had choices. He could have put a fast scoring line out on the ice and refused to engage. Best case is that the face-off is won and the line is fast enough to get the puck in the zone and score. Worst case is that a couple of your guys take a couple of punches, and you end up with a power play, and the other team is hauled alone to the NHL offices.
Torts could have chosen the high road, but didn't. He played Charlie Brown to the Flame's Lucy, and when the ball was pulled away at the last second, he had the chutzpah to act outraged. Magnifying the crime by assailing the opposition in the tunnel just added to the fiasco. It was all needless. Did he really think that his tirade was going to have some constructive impact? No, despite being a smart guy, he did not think at all, and he'll now pay the price. Deservedly so.
The Gammons Report
To top things off, we have the case of the venerable Peter Gammons, the Boston-bred, Groton-educated sage of all things baseball. In the wake of the Tortorella story, Gammons stirred the pot by issuing the following tweet from his journalistic throne:
Calgary and Vancouver last night reiterated why the NHL is a minor sport.
First, someone of Gammons' journalistic standing should recognize that the NHL is a league, not a sport. The sport is hockey -- apparently one with which he is unfamiliar, despite having had a cup of coffee covering the sport for Sports Illustrated.
To be sure, the Tortorella incident does not bathe the sport of hockey in glory -- hence the suspension and fines. But seriously, Peter Gammons has about as much business commenting on hockey as I do discussing jai alai. With a single pejorative sentence, he dismisses a large segment of North America -- namely Canada -- where baseball is a minor sport. If he put his critical thinking to the topic, he would certainly realize that fighting and the "goon" aspect of hockey is significantly reduced from its former standing in the game, and that the growth of youth and college hockey in the United States is significant.
Perhaps more importantly, Gammons should take a harder look at his own game before casting aspersions elsewhere. Two words for you Pete - - Alex Rodriguez. Of course, the steroid/HGH topic in baseball is just the latest iteration of a long-standing phenomenon. Players have been relying on chemicals to aid performance since the earliest days of the game, when amphetamines were routinely used to counter hangovers and provide the needed energy to play. It's also a bit difficult to expound upon the sanctity and timeless nature of records in a sport that does not have defined dimensions for its playing areas (outside the base baths and mound) and allows clubs to raise and lower fences as they see fit.
Am I being a bit harsh? Sure. I love baseball as well, but the point is that it would be the height of arrogance to summarily dismiss baseball as a sport because of the foibles and idiosyncrasies that the game displays on occasion. It would also probably be imprudent to point out that ice hockey, unlike baseball, is an Olympic sport, somehwat indicative of its worldwide standing. Just sayin' . . .
The commonality between Sherman, Tortorella and Gammons is that they engaged in boorish behavior when they are smart enough to know better. This is not a shock to wives, who have been noting this tendency for centuries. However, it's time that the rest of us start recognizing these incidents for what they are, and not attempt to justify them as "passion", "commitment" or "the competitive nature of the sport." Its bad behavior. Period.
As that other ace reporter, Ron Burgundy, would say: "Stay classy."