Two weeks ago, I watched Oscar De La Hoya take a pummeling from Felix Sturm in Las Vegas. Losing wasn’t in the cards for Oscar, who won by unanimous decision. Since a $30 million fight with Bernard Hopkins was contingent on a De La Hoya victory, Sturm would have had to knock his opponent’s block off just to get a draw. In the post-fight press conference, De La Hoya’s trainer, Floyd Mayweather Sr., opined that his fighter looked lethargic because he’d been suffering from back and neck pain. From the crowd’s reaction, he might as well have blamed it on hay fever. “For that amount of money, he doesn’t get to have back pains,” grumbled one high roller.
On my flight home, the theme from Brian’s Song popped up on my iPod. As Johnny Mathis crooned, I got teary thinking about the friendship between two players fighting through medical woes. OK, Brian Piccolo was battling cancer and Gale Sayers just a shredded knee. Still, there wasn’t a scene in that movie where fans and sportswriters rip Sayers for having the audacity to get hurt. After a series of noble comeback attempts, the gutsy Sayers was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the most quantitatively inauspicious numbers of any member. He was a hero cut down before his time.
So why have fans and commentators lost patience with the lamed jock? The oft-brilliant, oft-injured Edgerrin James has rushed for 1,000 yards more than Sayers in three fewer games. Jaguars runner Fred Taylor, who faces constant derision because of his fragile groin, has almost 1,500 more than Sayers. If either James or Taylor retired tomorrow, neither would sniff the Hall of Fame. All fans would talk about is how they didn’t live up to their potential.
These days, it’s all about the Benjamins and the scalpel. When players drove cabs and toiled in the mines every offseason, fans sympathized with their aches and pains. These weren’t Escalade-driving glitterati, five handlers removed from actual people. On the medical front, technological advances have shortened fans’ patience. If modern-day Marcus Welbys can suck fat from the belly and design a pill to raise a dead penis, surely they can cure a stomach muscle pull with electro-something and a magic shot.
Guaranteed contracts and salary caps have a way of sapping the sympathy of formerly altruistic followers. For the past three years, bitter baseball fans could make side bets on whether the notoriously brittle Jeffrey Hammonds—$22 million earned while missing 263 games—or hypochondriac David Segui—$20 million stolen while missing 311 games—would be the first to break down and count his money from the comfort of the disabled list.
When superstars go down, no matter how sympathetic the circumstances, fans know the franchise could be sunk. Before this year’s renaissance, Ken Griffey Jr.’s tenure in Cincinnati was filled with more medical maladies than my 92-year-old grandmother’s assisted-living facility. Instead of cursing the gods, Griffey’s former fans lamented that he was an albatross—worthless on the field and impossible to trade because of his huge salary. In Orlando, Magic followers curse Grant Hill for his chronic ankle problems. At first, they were genuinely distraught that they couldn’t watch Hill play alongside fellow All-Star Tracy McGrady. Now that he’s missed the balance of three seasons, they just want him to do the right thing—retire so the Magic can reclaim some salary-cap room. Instead, Hill is launching another valiant comeback for the 2004-2005 season. For Orlando fans, he’s the dead body in the trunk they just can’t get rid of.
NFL fans have less sympathy for fallen players than the Romans had for blind Christians. In 2002, Browns loyalists, the slightly less attractive, drunker cousins of Bears fans, cheered lustily when Tim Couch wobbled to the ground after getting speared in the back of the head. And he was the Browns’ starting quarterback! Last year, Kurt Warner, everybody’s favorite grocery-bagger-turned-All-Pro, took a beating on St. Louis sports radio for fumbling six times after suffering a first quarter concussion against the Giants. Thirty years ago standing in the pocket and taking a pounding would have been the ultimate test of courage. Now the fans don’t give their hometown QB credit for taking the Rams to two Super Bowls, then getting torn to pieces when the team failed to rebuild the offensive line.
At least Griffey, Hill, and Warner had injuries that old-school fans understand—broken bones, torn ligaments, concussions. What’s truly unforgivable is when players miss time with bourgeois maladies like high ankle sprains and turf toe. Sacramento Kings fans couldn’t understand how key reserve Bobby Jackson sat out the playoffs with a lower abdominal strain. Back in Sayers’ day, when guys broke down they probably didn’t have the necessary ligaments in their bodies anymore. In the 1960s, Sandy Koufax threw until his arm nearly detached from his body; these days managers and players consciously try to avoid injuries. Red Sox doctors know immediately when Pedro Martinez has the slightest tear in his shoulder and, prudently, shut him down. Sandy Koufax throwing more than 300 innings for three years may be heroic. Pedro tossing 200 for 15 years is smart.
There are times when a sports figure doesn’t deserve sympathy. As a kid, I loved Raiders QB Kenny Stabler and lamented his bad knees, but couldn’t help thinking the Snake would’ve lasted longer if he didn’t spend his entire offseason drinking beer on the Redneck Riviera. Mickey Mantle’s bad wheels earned him more empathy before it became common knowledge that he was getting plastered every night. Mo Vaughn’s career may have ended because of bad knees, but it didn’t help that he was Paul Prudhomme fat.
A few years ago, lacking plausible modern-day athletes, ABC made a god-awful remake of Brian’s Song. Only part of the problem was the bad acting, a slight downgrade from James Caan and Billy Dee Williams. Most of the movie’s failings, though, came because the story just didn’t resonate like it did in 1971. If Gale Sayers were around today, surely some smart-ass columnist would scream, “Suck it up! It’s not like you have cancer.”