Commentary

Cheap shots and the death of honor

Aaron Rodgers, Sidney Crosby and Jeremy Lin have all been disgracefully targeted

Originally Published: April 3, 2012
By Steve Wulf | ESPN The Magazine

Rogers-Crosby-Lin Getty ImagesWhat to make of the way some of our sports heroes are treated by their peers and fans? A lament.

What do Aaron Rodgers, Sidney Crosby and Jeremy Lin have in common? You know, besides being the heroes of inspirational stories that illuminate the value of hard work, unselfish play and being nice to people?

Well, they're also Exhibits A, B and C for the slow death of honor in sports. Each has recently been subjected to treatment that defies common sense, common decency and the commonwealth of athletes. After reading the email bounty on Rodgers, after witnessing that stupid April Fools crosscheck of Crosby by the Flyers' Brayden Schenn, after weeks of watching the now-sidelined Lin get hacked by resentful opponents, I can only ask: What the hell is wrong with us?

Since Saints coach Sean Payton is awaiting word on his appeal of the year-long suspension for the bounties, let's take that email first. Written by Payton crony and convicted felon Mike Ornstein, it read: "PS Greg Williams put me down for $5,000 on Rogers (sic)." Also sick, with a k. At the time it was written, right before the 2011 season opener, Rodgers was the Super Bowl MVP, a residual feel-good story after the feel-bad work stoppage, a credit to his upbringing, his team, the league. In other words, he was not unlike the Saints' own Drew Brees, the Super Bowl MVP from the year before.

[+] EnlargeCrosby
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesIf decency and fair play aren't enough to keep Sidney Crosby from cheap shots, his value to the rest of the players in the NHL should be.

Here's the question the NFL should be asking Payton before Roger Goodell reconsiders the suspension: "How would you feel if the Packers had put out a similar bounty on Drew Brees?"

Take your time, Sean.

I've heard the arguments about how bounties are nothing new or special. I've listened to the complaints that quarterbacks are protected to the point of coddling. I understand that football is a contact, often-violent sport. But do you really want to declare open season on all quarterbacks? If the purpose of the game is to knock the other guy out of it, then it's no longer a game; it's war. If that appeal to better nature doesn't work, maybe this appeal to a fatter bank account will: NFL checks are signed by Goodell, but they may as well also carry the signatures of Rodgers, Brees, Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning

And guess who is the most prominent person behind Gary Bettman's signature on an NHL check? From a practical, financial advisor standpoint, it's baffling why Penguins opponents keep taking cheap shots at Sid The Kid. Yes, I know he can give as good as he gets, but that's part of the reason he is THE BEST IN THE GAME ... maybe ever. Did anybody notice how quiet the NHL got after the Winter Classic last year? Did nobody outside of the Penguins and/or Crosby faithful feel like the league was diminished during the 60 games he missed this season?

So there was Sid, minding his own business while waiting for a video replay of a goal during the third period of the Penguins-Flyers game on April 1, when Schenn skates up behind him, and cross-checks him to the ice. It was a dumb, vicious sand-bagging that set off a series of skirmishes and led to the ejection of Flyers coach Peter Laviolette. But it was trumped by the commentary of one of the broadcast analysts, a former coach, who not only called the hit "part of the deal" but also praised Schenn as "a character kid" with "tremendous character." Really?

[+] EnlargeJeremy Lin
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezThe Mavs left Jeremy Lin looking like this back on March 6.

I happened to be at Madison Square Garden on March 22, when Crosby returned to action after missing those 60 games. You would hope the great hockey fans of New York would break their tradition of relentlessly booing Sid every time he touched the puck, at least the first time he did, in acknowledgement of his return. But no. "Knock him out of the game again!" shouted one Rangers sophisticate.

I hope he was a Knicks fan, too. Then he would know how it feels to have the guy who saved his team's season pounded out of the game. As exhilarating as the rise of Jeremy Lin was, that's how distressing it became to watch him dribble in the paint. Players who usually issue regular-season EZ Passes on defense made sure to punish him for his impudence.

Whether they were doing it out of pride (How dare he make me look bad!) or out of resentment (How dare he get more pub than me!), you still got the sense that Lin was not welcome in the NBA. And the referees seemed to be in on The Big Chill. Go back to the play on March 6 against the Mavericks -- it's on YouTube -- when Lin tried to drive in for a layup. As Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd converged on him, Kidd hit Lin in the head and pulled his hair, then Ian Mahinmi knocked him to the floor. And no flagrant foul was called as Lin gathered himself and limped off the floor because of his hurt left knee, the same knee with the torn meniscus that's keeping him out of the rest of the season now.

Who knows if it happened on that play? What I do know is that the best story of the NBA season is gone, just like the best story in hockey during the last decade was gone for a year, just like one of the best stories in football would have been gone if the bounty had been paid.

Happily ever after? Not as long as we keep sacrificing honor for payback.

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Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer