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Let's go back. Way back. To the playground. One minute, you're picking your nose, crushing a dusty red kickball, draining every last drop of Capri Sun from its half-crumpled foil pouch. And the next? You're racing across the soccer field and past the four-square games, pushing your way through a clump of prepubescent rubberneckers, hoping the teachers don't show up. Fight! Fight! Who's tussling? Over what? Catch your breath. Crane your neck. Fight! Fight! Nobody saw this coming.
Such is the appeal of the Wild-Card Sports Beef.
Sports beefs equal conflict, which makes them dramatic, which means we can't help but watch. To the already-potent cocktail of Shaq versus Kobe and Mark Cuban versus Kenyon Martin and T.O. versus every human being who has ever thrown a tight spiral in his general direction, wild-card beefs add an extra dimension: the element of surprise. The sheer delight -- sometimes awful, yet still intriguing -- of the unexpected. After all, athlete versus athlete beefs are utterly predictable. Opposing players scratch and claw and compete for victories; teammates vie for money and attention and (in the case of the early 1990s Dallas Mavericks) the same girls. Either way, grudges are inevitable. And probably healthy. Similarly, the wonder isn't that the likes of Bobby Clarke and Eric Lindros or Earl Weaver and Jim Palmer wouldn't mind submitting each other to advanced interrogation techniques; it's that players and their coaches/front office overlords aren't going toe to toe all the time. In the non-sports world, who doesn't fight with their boss?
Wild-card beefs are different. They come out of nowhere, hit like flash floods, rush along in strange and unforeseen directions. John Rocker versus New York City? Bizarre. USFL versus NFL? Whoa. Or take the recent, gloriously absurd tiff between the WWE and the Denver Nuggets, between wrestling impresario Vince McMahon and publicity-adverse team owner Stan Kroenke. Game 4 of the Los Angeles Lakers-Nuggets series forced "Monday Night Raw" out of a booked date at the Pepsi Center. Kroenke issued a bland statement vowing to "resolve the situation amicably." McMahon, by contrast, went to DEFCON 1 -- and then unleashed his entire strategic arsenal.
McMahon called Kroenke inept, mispronounced his last name, mocked the Nuggets' owner as "E period Stan Kroenke." He said Kroenke should have had faith his team would still be playing in late May. He cooked up a flier with himself in a halo and Kroenke in devil horns. He declared the Lakers to be his favorite team, then moved the WWE show to Los Angeles, where look-alikes of Jack Nicholson and David Stern watched from the stands as a team of faces in Lakers jerseys pummeled a squad of heels in Nuggets jerseys. In the coup de grace, McMahon ridiculed a Kroenke doppelganger -- and by doppelganger, we mean an extra from the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" video -- before dropping the ersatz Nuggets boss to the canvas.
All this over a scheduling error. What more could a sports beef lover hope for?
If half the fun of a wild-card beef involves watching the resulting fireworks -- and really, it ought to be fun with McMahon involved, given his entire cottage industry revolves around the manufacture, feeding and care of entertaining beefs -- the other half revolves around picking sides in intuitive, from-the-gut fashion. Wild-card beefs are sudden and random; there's no time to study the matter or come to a considered position. Uh-uh. Choose. Who ya got? The shadowy owner who never asked for this headache, hiding behind his semi-annoyed media relations people? Or the obnoxious wrasslin' goon, possibly wronged but definitely milking said wrong for every last drop of free publicity? Where you cast your lot says less about the parties in dispute than about you -- about what you value, about who and what you relate to. You can root for the NCAA's compliance department. You can root for Jerry Tarkanian. You cannot in sound mind or good conscience root for both. Such is the not-so-secret appeal of "American Idol," most reality television and sports in general. We are asked to pledge allegiance, join a tribe. Wild-card beefs ramp up those binaries by making the side-choosing fast and visceral; couple that with surprise, and it's hardly surprising we find them as irresistible as playground scuffles.
Fight! Fight! Who's rumbling? And why? In one sense, nothing matters more; in another, the particulars hardly matter at all. The beef is always the thing. Herein, our favorite Wild-Card Sports Beefs:
USFL vs. NFL
For three mostly inglorious seasons (1983-85), the upstart United States Football League proved: (A) Herschel Walker was really, really good; (B) a project involving Donald Trump can, in fact, fail miserably; and (C) taking on the NFL is akin to parking your peaceful green home planet in front of the Death Star. And never mind on the field -- we're talking in the courtroom. Bleeding money and running out of options, the USFL filed a $567 million antitrust suit against the NFL, claiming that big brother had established a television rights and stadium venue monopoly while conspiring with the networks to ruin two USFL franchises. Howard Cosell and Al Davis were key USFL witnesses in a 1986 trial; after 42 days, a jury found the NFL guilty of achieving and maintaining monopoly status via predatory tactics. Score one for the little guys? Not so fast. The jury also found the USFL's problems were due mostly to mismanagement and awarded the league exactly $1 in damages (tripled to a whopping $3 under antitrust law). Following a failed appeal, the USFL folded in 1988. Two years later, it received a $3.76 check from the NFL -- damages plus interest -- showing that the King of Leagues will not only break your neck en route to a touchdown, but also Ickey Shuffle on your shattered vertebrae.
Pete Rose vs. Bart Giamatti
Pete Rose was an American icon. Bart Giamatti was a former Yale literature professor and university president who became National League president and then MLB commissioner. Early in 1989, baseball accused Rose of gambling on the sport. Rose denied. Baseball pursued. Rose denied some more. Rose sued, arguing Giamatti had already judged the case and Rose would not get a fair hearing. Finally, in August, Rose agreed to drop his suit and accepted a lifetime suspension, under the guise that no official findings would be announced. Giamatti then said he believed Rose bet on baseball. Eight days after banishing Rose, Giamatti died of a heart attack. In 2004, Rose finally admitted he had bet on baseball and the Reds. This feud had no winners.
Lance Armstrong vs. French Media
In one corner: a prickly, headstrong, cancer-whippin' Texan, the embodiment of cowboy tough (forget Dubya's brush-clearing phoniness), a man hell-bent on dominating the world's premier bike race. In the opposing corner: the proud home of said bike race, also headstrong and prickly, possessed of a love-hate relationship with all things American excluding Sharon Stone and Jerry Lewis. Have two feud-ees ever been so perfectly matched? Armstrong wins a record seven straight Tour de Frances, spanking his continental counterparts during the age of freedom fries; French newspapers repeatedly report claims that Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs (with headlines such as "The Armstrong Lie"). Armstrong responds by calling the reports a "witch hunt" and "tabloid journalism." And on it goes. With Armstrong recently unretired, are the two sides destined to spar anew? Probably -- unless this ends like an opposites-attract Hollywood rom-com, with Armstrong (in the type of role owned by his good buddy Matthew McConaughey) kissing the accusatory pages of L'Equipe as onlookers sing along to "Say A Little Prayer" in French.
Art Modell vs. Cleveland
Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell had owned the team since 1961. He was from Brooklyn, N.Y., and still hurt by the Dodgers' departure to Los Angeles, and he hated teams that left their fans, so much so that he testified on the NFL's behalf when the league unsuccessfully tried to stop Al Davis from moving the Raiders. So no one in Cleveland saw it coming when Modell pulled an end-around in 1996 and moved the Browns to Baltimore. Baltimore fans, who still were smarting from the Colts' midnight exit to Indianapolis in 1984, felt they were part of the same dirty deal. In fact, the only way the NFL felt it could come close to placating both sides was to force Modell to abandon all Browns logos, colors and team records and give them to an expansion franchise three years later, and force Modell (who was able to keep his front office staff and players) to come up with a new team name -- the Ravens. Even though Cleveland eventually got the Browns back, Modell is still hated in Cleveland -- he hasn't been back to the city he lived in for decades since he left.
Hootie Johnson vs. Martha Burk
The truly old-school thing about the Burk-Johnson tete-a-tete wasn't that it involved gender equity -- it was that it revolved around a series of sternly-worded missives. All hail the mighty pen! Burk, head of the National Council of Women's Organizations, urged Johnson in a 2002 letter to open Augusta National Golf Club's membership to women. Johnson wrote back that he found Burk's letter "offensive and coercive," then released a statement that the club would not make decisions at the "point of a bayonet." Burk wrote to Coca-Cola, IBM and Citigroup, asking them to suspend television sponsorship of the Masters; Johnson returned fire by dropping all TV sponsorship entirely. Predictably, the national media went into a tizzy. Who's going to blink first? Just before the 2003 tournament, the pair held dueling news conferences, which seemed to promise a climactic showdown. Instead, Burk's scheduled protest rally down the street from Augusta National degenerated into a theater of the absurd, with Elvis impersonators, excommunicated Klu Klux Klan members, anti-Jesse Jackson protestors and a George W. Bush drag queen joining a couple dozen Burk supporters, who camped out in a weedy, ant-infested field and erected a stage featuring -- yes, really -- a giant, inflatable, Pink Floyd-esque pig. Advantage: Hootie.
Mark Cuban vs. Kenyon Martin
Mavs owner Mark Cuban sees his team not as a possession but as part of his family, so when Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin committed a hard foul against Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki in the conference semifinals of this year's playoffs, Cuban wasn't happy. He did have a right to be angry -- the league ultimately fined Martin $25,000 for the foul -- but the situation turned into a feud after Game 3 in Dallas. While walking out of the arena, Cuban saw Martin's mother, Lydia Moore, and upon hearing a fan shout that the Nuggets were "thugs", Cuban reportedly looked at Moore and said, "That includes your son." Cuban tried to apologize via his blog but said later he should have contacted Moore and Martin directly with a mea culpa. Martin had this to say about Cuban to HoopsHype.com: "He's a coward. He couldn't face it. You all read the only apology that he's made [on his blog]. The world got to see it before the person who it was meant for got to see it. That tells you how that goes. I ain't never known nobody apology to somebody through other people." While it appears tensions between Moore and Cuban have died down, the Martin-Cuban feud is still on. After saying he would do right by Moore, Cuban added, "I would also like to know if Kenyon is going to take responsibility for his actions rather than hiding behind 'no comment.' Will he apologize to the wife of our staff member that he called a '[expletive] fat pig' immediately after Game 3? Will he apologize to fans that he threatened to, and I'm paraphrasing here, '[expletive] beat the [expletive] down' during Game 4?"
Charlie Finley vs. Bowie Kuhn
Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley was always calling attention to himself with his marketing schemes and his ideas for changing baseball (he was an advocate for the designated hitter position), but that attention wasn't always a good thing. After losing Game 2 of 1973 World Series to the Mets 10-7 in 12 innings , Finley had reserve infielder Mike Andrews sign a false affidavit that he was injured so he couldn't play for the rest of the series. Finley was furious that Andrews' two consecutive errors in the top of the 12th led to four New York runs and was looking for a way to fire him. Oakland manager Dick Williams and many of the A's players wouldn't stand for it and called out Finley. MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn then forced Finley to reinstate Andrews and fined Finley $7,000. Two years later, Finley retaliated by leading an unsuccessful attempt to get the other owners to vote to remove Kuhn from office. The final blow in the feud came in 1976, when Finley was attempting to dismantle the A's by selling players Joe Rudi, Rollie Fingers and Vida Blue. Kuhn voided all the moves using the commissioner's "best interests of baseball" clause, and Finley sued the league in a $10 million restraint-of-trade lawsuit. He lost the case, and after his wife filed for divorce in 1980, he was forced to sell the team in 1981.
Urban Meyer vs. Lane Kiffin
When Lane Kiffin was named coach of the University of Tennessee football team, it was natural that he would instantly have a cordial rivalry with University of Florida coach Urban Meyer. Cordial left the building this past February, when Kiffin, speaking at booster breakfast, commented on newest UT signee Nu'Keese Richardson: "I'm going to turn Florida in right here in front of you. As Nu'Keese was here on campus, his phone keeps ringing. And so one of our coaches is sitting in the meeting with him and says, 'Who is that?' And he looks at the phone and says, 'Urban Meyer.' Just so you know, you can't call a recruit on another campus. But I love the fact that Urban had to cheat and still didn't get him." What Kiffin failed to realize was that he not only misinterpreted the NCAA rule, but also violated the SEC code of ethics by publicly disparaging another conference school. With the rabid fan bases of both schools, this feud will never end, but temporary bragging rights will be awarded Sept. 19, when the two coaches meet in Gainesville.
Earl Weaver vs. Ron Luciano
Throughout the '70s, Weaver was the scrappy manager of the Orioles who loved nothing better than to antagonize umpires. Luciano was an American League umpire who loved to showboat on calls by pumping his arm and making a mock shooting gesture. Weaver despised him, going back to the minor leagues, where Luciano reportedly ejected him in four consecutive games. Their hatred of each other grew so intense that the American League had to take Luciano off Orioles games.
John Rocker vs. New York City
New Yorkers give a lot of crap, but they take a lot, too -- which means it's easy to make them mad and hard to genuinely piss them off. Well, unless you're former Atlanta Braves relief pitcher John Rocker. In an infamous 2000 Sports Illustrated article, Rocker blasted the Big Apple ("hectic," "nerve-wracking," looks like "Beirut") and its No. 7 train-riding denizens ("kids with purple hair," "queers with AIDS," "dudes out of jail for the fourth time," "moms with four kids"), all while taking a swipe at immigrants (i.e., America). "The biggest thing I don't like about New York are the foreigners," he said. "You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English ... how the hell did they get in this country?" Rocker went on to call New York Mets fans degenerates, but that was beside the point -- the city was already plenty ticked. "Saturday Night Live" lampooned Rocker, and his first post-remarks appearance at Shea Stadium featured 700 police officers and a special protective shield above the Braves' bullpen. Rocker's apology video was booed. His relief appearance was greeted with profane chants. He left the stadium in a four-car police convoy. In 2005, Rocker pitched for the Long Island Ducks and asked New Yorkers to "bury the hatchet;" today, his Web site features a photo of him in an NYPD ball cap. (Of course, it also sells "SPEAK ENGLISH" T-shirts).
Buddy Ryan vs. Kevin Gilbride
Ryan was brought in as defensive coordinator of the Oilers in 1993 after the team's infamous playoff collapse in Buffalo the previous season. He was a critic of the team's run 'n' shoot attack under Gilbride, the offensive coordinator. The animosity reached a boiling point on national TV when Ryan slugged Gilbride on the sideline after an Oilers turnover. Zoom to the 10-minute mark of this clip to watch.
Jerry Tarkanian vs. The NCAA
Everyone called him "The Shark." But to the NCAA, former college basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian was more like a white whale. Was it because he won a national title at UNLV with hot tub-loving student-athletes? Or because he famously suggested in a newspaper column that the NCAA was more willing to punish no-name schools than college hoops blue bloods? (Choice quote: "The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky, they just gave Cleveland State two more years of probation.") Was it simply Tarkanian's habit of chewing towels? Whatever the reason, the coach spent much of his career fighting the "2-A" in court. Prior to the 1976-77 season, the NCAA placed UNLV on probation for violations committed before Tarkanian's tenure and pressured the school to suspend the coach. Tarkanian sued. A state judge issued an injunction reinstating Tarkanian, a decision ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court. The case dragged on for a decade, cast the NCAA in an unflattering light, and led to an overhaul of its enforcement and infractions procedures. Tarkanian later sued the NCAA for harassment, receiving $2.5 million in an out-of-court settlement. Was it worth it? At a 2002 news conference announcing his retirement from coaching, Tarkanian sounded bitter. ''They've harassed me my whole career,'' he said. ''The one thing I've done is I've fought them the whole way. I've never backed down. And they never stopped.'' If that's not the definition of a feud, what is?