The Sports Hangover: Petty vs. Danica, Basketball Jones, Sons of Eruzione, and More
What a weird, wild weekend! No real NBA, NHL, MLB, or NFL games. It’s the equivalent of a sports blue moon eclipse. What just happened?
Sexy or Sexism?
When Richard Petty talks, NASCAR fans listen—except when Danica Patrick walks by, at which point everybody is simply too distracted to care what the seven-time Sprint Cup Series champion has to say.
In Canada last week, where Danica wasn’t in the vicinity to avert attention, Petty replied to a question about whether Patrick would ever win a NASCAR race with a blunt “If everybody else stayed home.” Given that Petty won 200 races in his career, and after two seasons Patrick has yet to win one in NASCAR, the criticism is harsh but not groundless. On ESPN, Patrick responded to Petty’s, well, pettiness with a gracious “I believe everyone is entitled to their own opinion. That’s what makes this country great.”
She’s sweet, which is why everyone roots for her. Petty’s honest, which is why his opinion matters (the fact that he’s the greatest stock-car driver ever has something to do with that too). When given a chance to do the walk-back-of-shame, Petty declined. “What I said is what I said, and that’s what I believe, OK?” he told ESPN. “What’s unfair is the sexist part. If her name had been Danny, OK, nobody would have said anything about it. So y’all are bringing up the sexist part of it, not me.”
Unlike other female athletes, Danica competes with the guys. She is respectful if not reverential to car racing, so she’s not a gimmick or a publicity stunt. She’s the real deal—a game, though not elite, driver. She may not belong in the winner’s circle just yet. But she belongs on the track. By virtue of being a transcendent figure in racing, she brings attention to NASCAR and not just herself. Her peers, and especially her betters, should be grateful rather than jealous.
Instead of sexism, Petty’s dig might be seen as the opposite of it. He’s treating Danica Patrick just as Danica Patrick would want it—as a driver rather than as a female driver.
Kobe didn’t know how many presidents stared out from Mount Rushmore. But at least he came up with a better Mount Rushmore than LeBron James. Both players carve Bird, Magic, and MJ into their imaginary basketball mountain. Whereas LeBron, who says he hopes to be on the basketball Mount Rushmore after he retires, opts for Oscar Robertson in the Teddy Roosevelt spot, Kobe picks Bill Russell. When you win eleven NBA championships in thirteen seasons, no matter how ornery you are, you belong on that rock.
Granted: people with ulterior motives will use the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin controversy to press for a softening of an inherently hard sport. But it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion after reading the Wells Report that Richie Incognito, several teammates, and even a Miami Dolphins coach took things way too far. One could even come to the conclusion that Incognito comes off as an overbearing, bullying “friend” after reading the texts between him and Jonathan Martin.
The facts bear out the description of Incognito as “loud, aggressive and boisterous, with little sense of social boundaries—someone who was constantly making boorish jokes and getting in his teammates’ faces.” Even leaving Martin, described as overly sensitive in the report, out of it, Dolphins players engaging in a mock sexual assault on another lineman, constantly calling his sexuality into question, and a coach presenting him with a male blow-up doll for Christmas evokes less a locker room than a frat house, albeit one occupied by the most extreme and unfair stereotypes of that boozed-out college culture.
What makes the report so damning for the Dolphins is that it’s long on facts and short on opinion. Even when Incognito uses the “n” word or mocks a Japanese trainer on Pearl Harbor Day, Wells hesitates to conclude racist intent. That’s far more effective than grandstanding, self-righteous sermonizing would have been. Ted Wells reports, you decide.
Fading All-Star Game
When the NBA unveiled its dunking competition three decades ago, it breathed fresh air—despite being an ABA ripoff—into the NBA’s all-star weekend. Since then, the other major sports have mixed up their formats. Baseball infused life into its mid-summer classic by making it matter: victor league wins home-field advantage in the World Series. The NFL ditched the AFC-NFC format for teams drafted by Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders. The NHL has similarly opted for a draft, pitted North America versus the World, and, most successfully, ditched the game entirely these past two seasons. The NBA’s all-star event, once the envy of the other major sports, now plays as mustn’t-see-TV. Watching NBA’s all-star weekend, I couldn’t help wonder if they might be better served imitating the NHL’s 2014 format or, a la Larry Nance and his windmill-cradle slams, trying something new. Like Atari and “Wake Me Up (Before You Go Go),” a 1984-style all-star event appears stale in 2014.
Sons of Mike Eruzione
Things are never the same the second time around. It’s exciting that Team USA, which didn’t come into the Olympic men’s hockey tournament as a favorite, enters the quarterfinals as a team-to-beat of sorts. A defeat of the home squad and a Phil Kessel hat trick can have that effect on a team’s reputation. Hockey rules the Winter Olympics in a way that no one event reigns in the summer, so a U.S. victory would erase the many American failures in Sochi. But it can’t be 1980.
We knew none of the American players entering Lake Placid. We remember all of them today. Hockey fans at least know all the NHL stars on the 2014 U.S. team. They’ll forget most of them, no matter the outcome, after Sochi. Struggling Americans could identify with that lunch-pail bunch better than they can with a hastily collected group of millionaires. The underdog story of Lake Placid’s rag-tag band of college kids meshed so seamlessly with the broader American narrative—a down-but-not-out nation that had seen better days—that when the plot twist occurred and America roared to life during the 1980s, the games couldn’t help but be seen as a catalyst.
Syracuse Bends But Doesn’t Break
Seven NCAA teams have run the table on a basketball season. John Wooden coached four of them, Hall of Famers Bill Russell and KC Jones played on one of them, and Bob Knight’s 1976 Hoosiers and Frank McGuire’s 1957 Tar Heels complete the list. So what the Syracuse Orangemen (sorry, my clock stopped a while ago, so they’re not the “Orange,” the WWE is still the WWF, and Thailand remains Siam) have accomplished in going 26-0 is remarkable.
The last-second win on the road against Pitt makes it even more so. Pitt had Syracuse against the ropes as I watched from the treadmill, I prayed to Basketball Jones to extend the final five minutes of the game through timeouts, fouls, and other chronological magic that make the end of basketball games transcend the time-space continuum. Basketball Jones complied by providing an all-too long replay review with about forty seconds left. So, after watching most of the second half at the gym, I got to watch the last forty seconds at home. And what a forty seconds it was, providing back-and-forth lead changes that the rest of the game had denied us. Tyler Ennis sinking a 35-foot bomb at the buzzer demonstrated that this is a team of destiny. The one-point win over NC State on Saturday puts the exclamation point on that for the doubters.
And lest anyone forget, Syracuse isn’t the only undefeated squad. The Wichita State Shockers, an under-the-radar mid-major, face a jaywalkers’ row of Bradley, Drake, Evansville, and other such teams in the last weeks of the season. Matching up against one winning school (Missouri State) in their final six games, Wichita State stands a much better chance of entering the NCAA tournament without a blemish than Syracuse. But Syracuse stands a much better chance, even if it’s not a great one, of finishing the tournament perfect.