Our mean-spirited Super Bowl reflex
Have we forgotten why we watch sports in the first place? Sure seems that way.
Football season is over. The New York Giants are again champions after another riveting, last-minute Super Bowl win over the New England Patriots. The Giants were far from great, but the proper response to a spirited title run that began with their coach on the firing line and ended with Tom Coughlin holding the Lombardi Trophy should be, at the least, admiration for a team that overcame every challenge by being better on that one day, on that one drive, on that one down.
Yet outside of the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area, the toughness of the Giants, the season-long surprise of wide receiver Victor Cruz and another memorable Super Bowl-turning catch (this one by Mario Manningham) somehow seem to be secondary memories, supplanted by discussions over who was responsible for losing the game and the lasting price of the loss.
Was it Wes Welker, who didn't haul in a tough ball he usually catches in the waning minutes? Was it the Great Man, Tom Brady himself, who misfired to Welker on the one pass he needed to make and earlier cost his team with the oddest safety in Super Bowl history? Was it Bill Belichick, who is suddenly being cast as a vindictive coach for burying a young, electric player -- rookie running back Stevan Ridley -- who might've helped?
Has Brady's legacy been tarnished?
None of these questions matter right now. Perhaps one day they may be worthy of discussion; but at the moment, their presence in the post-Super Bowl narrative is dangerously unceremonious.
Maybe it's the sports culture's bent toward quantitative analysis -- the need to find a reason for each outcome -- combined with the incessant and instant punditry on television and in the blogosphere, on Twitter as well as in newspapers, and of course on sports radio and websites, but sports, like much of society, have taken an ugly turn. As technology expands and speeds discourse, edges have sharpened. The attraction to and appreciation for high-level competition -- ostensibly the reason we watch these golden athletes -- disappear as soon as the final gun sounds. The blame game is our new national pastime.
That tone did not begin last Sunday, but it was certainly in sharp focus during the Super Bowl and playoffs leading up to it. Lee Evans did not make a catch in the end zone of the AFC Championship Game. Billy Cundiff did not make a kick. Manningham made his Super Bowl catch, but not before he ran a poor fade route that took him out of bounds and cost the Giants a big gain. Welker didn't catch a ball he's caught his whole life. The Giants, as luck and blood and competition would have it, threw dangerous passes and made horrible mistakes and yet did not commit a turnover in either the NFC title game or the Super Bowl, while the 49ers crashed into each other 2½ weeks ago and the Patriots watched two key fumbles bounce tantalizingly out of their reach Sunday night.
These moments, always the grist for the second-guessing mill and the agonizing that comes from watching instead of doing, are nothing new. Scott Norwood, Bill Buckner, Asante Samuel and Jackie Smith know this on the one side; David Freese, Adam Vinatieri, David Tyree and now Manningham know it from the other. What seems different today is that our understanding and appreciation for competition and how hard it actually is to perform have given way in the instant postgame narrative to the search for who is at fault, for who is responsible for this latest loss. The exercise of dissecting the end result and handicapping its consequences has become the only measure of competition.
And we overlook the journey involved, a larger picture, one that is not negated or inflated by catching or missing a single pass with four minutes left.
This is not about choking or legacy, but about the appreciation of competition. If the only takeaway by fans and media pundits from two teams that hit hard and compete hard to win is blame assessment instead of a recognition of a terrific drama, then a very important component of the sporting experience has been lost. The opportunity to succeed is worth the risk of failure. It's called playing.
A couple of weeks ago, Charles Barkley told me he believes this dangerous undercurrent is affecting play.
"Everyone is so worried about whether they win a championship," he said. "They don't care about getting there, about having to beat the best to be the best. All they worry about is what is going to be said about them if they don't get there. I really believe this. Media and expectations have changed everything. Everyone's afraid of it because if you miss a shot, if you miss a play, that overshadows the whole series, your whole career. So guys just want a ring, but they don't want to risk losing. If you don't want to risk losing, you shouldn't even be playing."
In a culture of instant assessment and mean-spiritedness -- someone allegedly deposited thousands of Butterfinger candy bars in Boston's Copley Square with a note that read, "Thank you Wes Welker" -- it's as if the narrative has become tone deaf to actually competing, as if we've forgotten the chief reason we watch.
The notion that careers and memories and legacies are so delicate that they depend on these moments is a false one. For transcendent players, legacies don't hinge on one play, one win, one loss.
Brady's "legacy" (a word that should be buried in the sports lexicon graveyard, right next to "respect") is completely and totally intact. Brady has been in the league for 12 seasons and played in five Super Bowls. Since becoming a starter in 2001, he has played in the Super Bowl for 45 percent of his career. Much seems to be made of the fact that the Patriots haven't won a Super Bowl in seven seasons -- a statistic that underscores just how awry the culture has gone. True New Englanders remember tearing down goal posts for just making the playoffs. Moreover, as the culture moves toward assessing who failed instead of respecting the athletic battleground, the games themselves lose value.
The good news is that "legacy" is actually a very sturdy word. The emptiness lies in the way the current conversation uses it. The legacy of Brady with the Patriots is that he is the greatest quarterback the team has ever had. The franchise was nothing, a laughingstock, for 40 years, and he has helped to engineer something very difficult: an entirely new history.
Julius Erving played 11 seasons in the NBA. He went to the Finals four times and won once. His legacy is completely and totally secure. Roger Staubach lost two thrilling Super Bowls to the Pittsburgh Steelers and won unmemorable ones against Miami and Denver. He is still known for his greatness and participation in the great Cowboys-Steelers Super Bowls because the games endured; those competitions were not subject to the instantaneous monument-building and monument-destruction that surround sports today.
Like everything else in a polarized country, perspective is necessary to fully appreciate any event. The sports conversation is drifting steadily out of balance. The Dallas Cowboys became America's Team in the late 1960s and early 1970s having lost more championship games (the iconic Ice Bowl, plus two thrillers to Pittsburgh and Super Bowl V to the Colts) than they won (Super Bowls VI and XII). It is time to reel it back in and enjoy the game in its totality: the journey to get there, the perspective of history, the actual battle, and the courage to compete.
There is no shame in competing hard and losing. The final score is often the thing we remember the least.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.