Thursday, January 3, 2008


So on Sunday I watched the Washington Redskins thoroughly dominate the Dallas Cowboys to clinch the final NFC playoff spot. Watching the Cowboys walk through the last game of the season - one in which they had the opportunity to eliminate their biggest rival from the playoffs - I really got wondering about rivalries in professional sports. Do these players, who are paid an obscene amount of money to represent their team, really care about these rivalries, or are these rivalry games only important to the fans and the sportswriters?

First, let's take a look at how rivalries are created. I see four real ways in which a rivalry can be started: two teams playing in the same division for an extended period of time (think the NFC East, the Redskins, Cowboys, Giants, and Eagles all can be considered rivals); two teams dominate a sport for a time, playing for multiple championships, such that every game between the two becomes a national spectacle (the 80's Lakers and Celtics, or the 90'-00's Tennessee Lady Volunteers and UConn Huskies); the two of the most recognizable players in a sport play for two of the best teams in a conference, meeting in the playoffs multiple times (Jordan's Bulls vs. Ewing's Knicks, or Brady's Patriot's vs. Manning's Colts); or two teams both have storied histories, fabled games, and legendary players, and are in such close proximity to each other, that it only makes sense they are rivals (Duke and UNC, LA Dodgers and San Fransisco Giants, or the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox). You could even break in down to two categories - championship rivalries and division rivalries.

Now in each of the rivalries I have mentioned (and in the countless others I omitted), one win can define a season. Take the 2006 Yankees. The Yankees, despite making the postseason for the 12th straight year, had what many believed to be a disappointing season - losing to the Tigers in four games in the ALDS where they struggled to put up runs with the most potent lineup in baseball. A-Rod had a down year and was booed by fans. For the amount they spent on payroll the Yankees underachieved and as a result Joe Torre was almost run out of town. But will I remember the 2006 campaign for that, or will I think about the fact that the Yankees five-game sweep of the Red Sox in late August was pretty much the reason to Red Sox failed to make it to the playoffs. Yes, I would have loved to see some post-season success that year, but the joy I got knowing that the Bombers kept the Sox out of the playoffs almost (key word almost) made up for my disappointment in their post-season performance. That's how much I despise the Red Sox, and how much that the rivalry means to me. I almost get as much satisfaction out of the Red Sox losing as I do from the Yankees winning. I feel like on Sunday, Cowboys fans felt the same way. Granted, that game had a few mitigating circumstances since the Cowboys had already clinched home field throughout the playoffs, but I still believe Cowboys fans would have loved to be the reason that the Redskins missed the playoffs (yes, I realize that it didn't matter after New Orleans and Minnesota lost, but for argument's sake bear with me).

But that's the problem - it was the fans that would have loved to see it. The Cowboys players looked like they could not have cared less. It seemed that once they got down a touchdown, they mailed it in - like they just wanted that game to be over with. Even their backups who rarely see playing time just did not seem to be playing hard (1 yard rushing for the game, are you kidding me?).

Now I've done a lot of thinking on this topic before, with guys like Roger Clemens and Johnny Damon defecting from Red Sox nation and joining the Bombers, and here is what I've come up with. Fans no longer root for players - they root for uniforms. In this era of free agency, huge contracts, and spoiled athletes, players go from team to team so much in professional sports that it has to be difficult for them to identify with the uniform they are wearing. I mean, can I actually believe that Yankee and Red Sox players care about their rivalry as much as fans when Clemens (Red Sox ace for a decade) and Damon (the epitome of the laid back demeanor of the Red Sox during their 2004 World Series season) can so easily leave Fenway Park to don Yankee pinstripes?

Before I blast them too much, we have to remember that for professional athletes, sports are no longer a game. It is their livelihood. I'm not saying that these guys don't love their sport, that they don't play with a passion, but this is their job. Their career. Let's say you work for Microsoft. Bill Gates offers you $10 million salary for the next four years, but Steve Jobs over at Apple offers you $13 million salary over the next four years. Which do you take? Anyone that says they stay with Microsoft is a liar. Well, isn't that is exactly what Johnny Damon did when he signed with the Yankees? Now I know the argument that $40 million is enough to live extremely comfortably on, and I agree wholeheartedly. But that extra $12 million will mean that another generation of Johnny Damon's family will be able to live without financial problems. Would you be willing to switch your allegiance to ensure that your grandkids could raise their families comfortably? Maybe the example is a little extreme, but that thought has to be on the mind of a lot of guys that leave as a free agent. Just to be clear, being on the other side of these defections is an awful feeling. I remember after the 1998 season, when Bernie Williams was a free agent, almost being in tears when I found out that he was about to sign with the Red Sox (thankfully, Steinbrenner stepped up and gave Bernie $87.5 million over 7 years, $17.5 more than the Sox were offering).

One last point I want to make is that I think the huge money in sports today will make it so that we never see rivalries like there were in the past. In the 80's and early 90's (I'm only 22 so that's about the limit to my sports memories), there were some great rivalries where you would never, ever see someone as good as Clemens or Damon switch sides. Do you think anyone from the Celtics would have gone to Lakers (or vice versa) in the 80's? What about from the Cowboys to the 49ers, or the Pistons to the Bulls in the late 80's and early 90's? Off the top of my head, the only significant contributor from any of these three that switched teams was Dennis Rodman, but that guy is a friggin' martian, and he played on the Bulls five years after that Pistons team was relevant.

In sports today, the only place where you still see rivalries that intense, even between the players, are on college campuses. And the best part is that there are so many. For example, let's look at Duke basketball. Everyone knows Duke - UNC, which last year ended with Tyler Hansborough a bloody mess. But Maryland also counts Duke as its biggest rival, and you could make an argument that half of the ACC does as well. This year is the last that the Tennessee and UConn women will play simply because Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt hate each other so much. College football may have more than college basketball does, where every rivalry game has a name. Alabama vs. Auburn is the 'Iron Bowl'. Cal vs. Stanford is 'The Big Game'. Hell, even little schools like 1-AA's Harvard vs. Yale ('The Game') and D-III's Amherst vs. Williams('The Biggest Little Game in America') have given names to their rivalry games.

No comments: