It’s safe to say that the conversation about sports in 2013 has very little to do with what transpires on the field. Our time is spent consuming opinion, regurgitating rhetoric, and looking for narratives. But the more I watch my Twitter timeline fill up with snark and crass commentary, the more I realize we want it both ways with athletes. Curse the bland quotes, we want personality! (And if we don’t like the personality then we hold it against the player.) They’re overpaid and selfish! (Meanwhile, team-friendly contracts are immediately met with hyperbolic reaction, one way or the other, and unfair skepticism.)
Exhibit A: Tom Brady signed an extension at a discount of over half his market value, saving the Patriots significant money against the salary cap, and thus allowing New England to sign free agents. Over the next five seasons Pats fans will enjoy having a quarterback who will complete over 60 percent of his passes (Brady’s thrown 5,958 pass attempts in his career, 11th most in NFL history; and completed 63.7 percent which is ninth best all-time); good for somewhere north of 25 touchdown passes (a conservative estimate), 3,900 yards, and whose touchdown to interception ratio will float slightly above 3:1.
There’s also this: Just like NBA, NHL, and MLB teams point to games and assign schedule losses, because of Brady, you can pencil New England in for 10 wins a season and a shot at the Lombardi Trophy for the next five years. All in all, in a quarterbacks league, not bad. Not bad at all, actually.
And that’s before you get into the juicy historical ramifications. We don’t know how Peyton Manning (roughly a hundred more career TD passes than Brady) or Drew Brees (only 10 career touchdown passes behind Brady) will finish their careers. But it’s a safe bet that Brady will pass Fran Tarkenton for fourth place all-time in touchdown passes by the end of Week 3 next season. And he’d only need to average pithy 15 touchdown passes over the course of his deal to pass Dan Marino for third all-time. Book it. And hey, throw in a few 35-plus TD seasons in that span (totally conceivable) and Brady could pass Brett Favre’s mark of 508 touchdown passes for first place all-time.
Whether or not Brady ever hoists another Super Bowl trophy or just spends the rest of his time in the league leading New England into every January for competitive playoff runs and chasing history, I’m totally fine with the arrangement. Sign me up.
Despite this, there have been rumblings that Brady’s deal isn’t as team-friendly as once perceived; that he just turned contract dollars (fake) into guaranteed cash (real); that because of his spouse’s lucrative career, he isn’t that unselfish; that his deal burns the rest of his peers at the bargaining table.
Because, these days, there always has to be a caveat or ulterior motive. Sports in 2013, everyone!
Exhibit B: LeBron James is coming off an amazing year professionally – NBA Champion, Olympic Gold medalist, all of that. And up to this point of the NBA season, the numbers tell me that James is playing at a level of efficiency unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. He’s good for 27 points, eight boards, and seven assists a night. His overall understanding of the game and physical skill seem to be simultaneously congealing.
LeBron is shooting a career-high 56 percent off his 18 attempts a game. Only Kareem, Wilt, the severely underrated Adrian Dantley, Bernard King, Karl Malone, and Shaq have registered seasons matching those parameters. Bird never did it. Same for Magic. Not even Jordan enjoyed that type of efficiency. The King truly is The King, reaching a basketball zenith. And because conversation about LeBron’s legacy, life, and career began in the aftermath of his Senior Prom; we’ve run out of details to talk about.
So we make things up.
Every game, before putting together virtuoso performance after virtuoso performance, James participates in a dunk contest with Heat teammates (an idea orchestrated by Mario Chalmers). The ritual re-validates YouTube’s existence on a regular basis and has quickly become Internet folklore.
Instead of just enjoying the contest along with the ensuing game, we dissect its meaning. And you know what comes next: The backlash, the questions (Why won’t he participate in the REAL slam dunk contest??? Jordan did it!), and the scorn. All of it. When James said he’d cease participating in the routine in warm-ups drills the Internet and media collectively recanted.
The athletes can’t win. Say anything beyond the usual platitudes and you’re bound to be picked apart. Say nothing and you “lack charisma.” If the treatment of James and Brady, two of the greatest players of all time in their respective sports, has proved anything, it’s that greatness is simply a footnote, and never has the term, “Take it out on the field,” had so little meaning.
Ryan Hadfield is a columnist at Metro Boston. Follow him on Twitter @Hadfield__