Sammy Sosa

21st Century Idolatry

In 2130 BCE, it is said that Abraham and Ishmael built the Ka’ba in Mecca. The depth and tone of the stone’s black coloring stood out in the city, and soon it became a place of worship. It was not the Ka’ba that was being worshiped, though it certainly looked the part, but rather idols within the Ka’ba that made for a sanctuary for Christian, pagan, or otherwise. The holy ground became a place of peace, the cornerstone of a peaceful city where war was not allowed and an asabiyya (social cohesion) flourished in the area.

As Muhammad began his mission in 610 CE, the Ka’ba still stood, a place of worship of idols, through perhaps less serene than it had been in the times of Abraham and Ishmael. The Qur’an forbade worshipping false idols and he strove to change the ways of the Ka’ba. He had the idols burned, the Ka’ba renovated, and it still stands today as the object Muslims face during prayer. Of course they do not pray to the Ka’ba, it is simply the direction they face, much as the tabernacle in a church faces east. But the idols burned, and a religion spread that has filled the hearts of millions with wonder ever since.

No, the blog has not turned its sights on religious history. Just making a point.

Today, Lance Armstrong gave up his fight with the USADA and will not contest doping allegations. Cancer survivor, national hero, ambassador and fundraiser for cancer research and by all accounts (excluding Sheryl Crow’s) a very good man. He was also a cheater. This does not make him any less a man in the sense that he is still a cancer survivor, national hero and so on. However, it appears that he did not earn those Tour de France titles fairly. He was surely still in better shape than I will ever be, but he broke the rules. His legacy as an athlete is not just tainted, but irrevocably damaged. Frankly, I don’t know if anyone really cares. We know why we embraced Lance, and we don’t particularly care that we never would have embraced him if he had not won the Tour 7 times. By no means is he ruined as a man because he cheated in sport.

The same sort of thing happened with Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Ray Lewis, Roger Clemens, Michael Vick and so on. We looked on in wonder at what they could do on the field. We idolized their superhuman talent and we (speaking for my generation here) wanted to be them. Bonds is now seen as a pariah who now takes bike rides in his slimmed down form. McGwire was publicly shamed. Sosa has disappeared completely, particularly after trying to look a little creamier. Ray Lewis was accused of killing a man. Clemens won his case but ended a pariah anyway and not someone any kid wants to be. Vick is perhaps the most interesting case here since his rehabilitation has recast him as an animal rights activist and, once again, a tremendous athlete.

This situation is hardly a new one. Think OJ, think Daryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden. Think Mickey Mantle’s alcoholism, drug use and philandering. Ty Cobb was a huge asshole. None of this strikes us as surprising at all since we know these stories, but in the days of Mantle, kids looked on in wonder wanted to be the Mick, have Monroe (a drug abuser and delinquent herself despite they way she rocked a dress) on their arm, and be the epitome of cool and a pro athlete.

Things have changed, at least a little bit. NBA players have become so freakishly athletic that while kids still grow up wanting to drain a 3 like Kobe, swat shots like Dwight or do everything like LeBron, there is a definite disconnect by the time they are 10 that they will never be 6’8″ and a freak athlete. That love of basketball may still remain, but the idol is at least somewhat dead. The co-founder of this blog “6’1, not an Adonis) serves as a bit of a counter-example as he still holds Vince Carter as an idol to this day despite not being able to dunk, but his basketball fanaticism is exceptional, not the rule. The steroids cloud has made it really, really hard to stick with a baseball idol, though Mike Trout and others certainly give hope to a new generation. The NFL is a bit different since no one cares if guys are jacked up, as long as they go out there and risk their future health every Sunday.

So where am I going with this? Nothing is new here about sports figures being real, flawed people. I think we all realize at some point that our heroes are men, and not characters from comic books. But in an information age like ours, will kids have any sports figures to look up to? Is that innocent hope that he/she can grow up and be superhuman gone? If so, is that a bad thing? Do we really want our kids idolizing a ballplayer of any kind when that ballplayer does so little good for the world? Are we that jaded/enlightened/cynical now?

There isn’t really an “answer” to these questions. There are certainly valid opinions on both sides. Maybe it is just a bad year for sports figures and the Joe Paternos of the world will fade into the background as new heroes step forth without issue. All I know is that some day, maybe soon, maybe in decades, we will set fire to the idols in the Ka’ba, hopefully to much rejoicing and rebirth, but almost as surely with a deep sadness that the innocence of sports and athletes is dead. Lance Armstrong was Harvey Dent, except he didn’t try to kill anyone’s son. We saw him as the best of us, a man whose herculean physical strength was matched by an unbreakable will. But he also cheated. Both sides of him are there for all to see. I do not think the sports idol is dead, but I think he is mortal, and some day we will see him/her in flames.

Do we? Should we?

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NFL Week 9

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defied all odds and won a game. This feels a little bit like when I got to talk about the Lions finally winning, except in this case there is not a ton of silver lining. With the Lions I was able to say they were much improved to last year, but the Bucs are still horrible. They just caught a team with issues upfront in their own environment and were able to cash in. The Bucs still suck, but I will say this for the Bucs: Josh Freeman looks pretty legitimate. He probably will not end up better than Matthew Stafford, but he can definitely outplay Mark Sanchez down the road. He has a very strong arm and did far better than expected against a veteran Green Bay secondary. Well done Tampa Bay, you have spurned the Lions’ Den as it should henceforth be known.

The Saints and Colts both remained perfect despite doing their best not to. They both managed to avoid embarrassment against division foes but in very different ways. New Orleans came from behind for the second straight week and fought back against a Panthers team finally figuring out that it has to run the ball to have success. The Colts controlled the first half and held the Texans potent offense down but started giving up big yardage through the air in the second half. Somewhat predictably, both these teams have surprising defenses to thank for their undefeated starts. We all know about the Saints and Colts offenses, but the Saints defense has scored 7 times this year and the Colts have been stopping the run and keeping the score at a reasonable level. Without their defenses, both teams would have two losses without any problem.

Around this time of year, the NFL splits into five groups so let’s look at those groups.

The “We Suck” Group (Not in order)

Oakland, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Kansas City, Cleveland, St. Louis, Washington.

The “Avoided Last Grouping by One Millionth of an Inch” Group

NYJ, Buffalo, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Carolina, Seattle, San Francisco.

The “Not Quite Contenders, But Could Beat Anyone on the Right Day” Group

NYG, Arizona, Chicago (almost in previous group), San Diego, Green Bay, Houston, Atlanta, Miami.

The “One Little Thing Away from Being Scary” Group

Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Philadelphia.

A quick note on these guys. Baltimore needs to stop giving up gobs of yardage, Pittsburgh, Dallas, and Philly all have to develop a running game but for different reasons. Pittsburgh needs to take some pressure off its offensive line and not make it pass block so much, which it does not do so well. Dallas and Philly need to resist the temptation to throw so much.

Contenders

Cincinnati, Denver, New England, Minnesota Indianapolis, New Orleans.

Denver is probably closest to dropping one group of the contenders. They did not look great against Baltimore and struggled to muster any kind of offense against the Steelers. The others are pretty clearly deserving of the top.

The middle three groups are what I would call the rest of the pack. They will fight amongst each other and beat each other up in the scrum for the remaining playoff spots, but will not contend barring some serious changes. Philly, Dallas, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh could all move up, but I would not put money on it. Not surprisingly, the Contenders are all teams who have cleaned up in divisional play. They are a combined 16-1 in their division. Just because it is not college football does not mean small conferences/division games are irrelevant. Division record does not determine excellent teams, but the contenders always take care of the other teams in their division.

Let’s talk about some Awards.

If I had a MVP ballot, it would go as follows:

From bust to bustin fools

  1. Peyton Manning
  2. Drew Brees
  3. Cedric Benson
  4. Ben Roethlisberger

These guys have had undeniable impact on the success of their teams. I put Manning ahead of Brees because, at this point, his numbers are a little better and I have  HUGE bias as a lifelong Colts fan. Sue me. Benson’s value is undeniable, though some props definitely go to the offensive line, but they never get awards. You ask why Favre isn’t on the list? Because I never want to talk about Favre ever again, he essentially purchased ESPN and made them run non-stop stories about him, except instead of having to buy ESPN, he got paid. I do not want to talk about him, let’s leave that to the robots on TV. Big Ben has had a quietly superb but will not receive anything higher than third place votes.

Offensive Player of the Year

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this just like a consolation prize if the MVP race is close? Draw your own conclusions from above text.

Defensive Player of the Year

  1. Darren Sharper
  2. Jared Allen
  3. Elvis Dumervil
  4. Sleeper Candidate #4

Sharper has been a beast this year and has been turning it into points, not just a change in possession. Of course Allen and Dumervil still have time to make hay, but they are not on Sharper’s level yet. Sleeper Candidate #4 is an intriguing guy with his late season surge into this discussion. He has really stepped it up in the second half of the year after flying under the radar for the first half. It is irrelevant who he really is, but this tag will apply to someone.

Rookie of the Year

Offensive

  1. Percy Harvin
  2. Josh Freeman
  3. Mark Sanchez
  4. LeSean McCoy*

The asterisk has to do with Brian Westbrook’s continued health, because if he stays out, McCoy could jump to second or third. I am also putting quite a few eggs in the Josh Freeman basket as he impressed against a veteran secondary. Not many wins, but I expect some numbers. Matthew Stafford would have made it if he had been healthy, very high hopes about him in Detroit. Harvin wins it hands down though at this point in the year.

Defensive

  1. Brian Cushing (LB- Hou)
  2. Louis Delmas (S- Det)
  3. Aaron Curry (LB- Sea)
  4. Jairus Byrd (S- Buf)

This has not been a fascinating year for rookies on this side of the ball, but thus far Cushing has been very impressive, as has Delmas, the second round, and third pick overall, of the Lions. Not a ton to say about them but they have exceeded expectations to be sure.

Comeback Player of the Year

  1. Cedric Benson
  2. Carson Palmer
  3. No one else is relevant in this discussion

Can we give the award to Cedric Benson already? He came back from sucking to be really a great back this year. The numbers lie sometimes, but not on this one. The Bengals are the comeback team of the year.

2010 Fantasy Monsters Who Were Sleepers or Lower Picks This Year

  1. Ray Rice (especially in PPR)
  2. Cedric Benson
  3. Miles Austin
  4. Joe Flacco

I will not go on too long about this, but these guys have been clutch for owners this year. You will not get them so late next year.

CLOWN OF THE WEEK: Sammy Sosa. He Michael Jacksoned himself. I don’t mean died, it is too soon to make those jokes, but he went white. Seriously? What are you thinking Sammy? Did the steroids addle your brain? You know that now you will have a harder time convincing Congress you don’t speak English…

Yeah, creepy.