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Don’t mistake failure for a lack of passion

Millions of people at home are not world class athletes, but that doesn’t stop them from trying to know their heads.

Detroit Lions v Chicago Bears Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Our collective process of consuming and understanding sports has been severely messed up. Somewhere along the way the rich tradition of Grantland Rice and his ilk to turn games of sport into narrative stories was warped into this cruel abomination that squats over op-ed columns and sports television and radio, and all is parroted mindlessly by legions of braindeads. The average sports fan’s conception of what goes on before his eyes is rendered through the intelligence of a rotting macaw—colorful in soiled plumage, bloated from gas, maggots picking at brain matter; eventually one finds the right nerve endings to chew that makes that black tongue twitch one more time.

The tableau of cadavers unfolds itself in the style of one of those old Catholic morality plays. Why did he drop that ball? Look at his body language, he clearly isn’t motivated enough. Why didn’t that linebacker wrap up on the tackle? He was deficient in his work ethic. Why did that quarterback throw a game-ending interception? Well that’s easy; he lacked the will to win!

It’s easy to see why this has become the dominating archetype of conversation. The discussion of passion is one anyone can jump in on, devoid of nerd-ass numbers and intimidating film review, to say nothing of the cold horror wrought by conceding that in sports there may just not be any clear-cut explanation, that losses might just be losses and Rasheed Wallace’s rambling was right all along. Studio analysts, often former athletes themselves, give credence to those who want to play along at home by offering insight into the mind of the athlete, but ultimately they can only speak for themselves; it’s a rotten exercise in projection.

If you listened to any of those dead parrots, you’d be convinced that Golden Tate is failing because his passion for football has receded. Like the tide, you see. In such a universe, everything that makes Golden Tate a world-class entertainer—his skill to play football, to run routes and catch a ball and strut for the enjoyment of himself and others—is ruthlessly stamped out and replaced with a caricature of a pouting child wanting to take his ball home.

Moreover, this image becomes the result of a moral dichotomy set against Tate. If he plays well, he is a good human being; if he fails at that, his passion and hunger for success are lacking and he should be replaced with someone who wants it more. To anyone who isn’t a sociopath, this viewpoint is horrifying.

The truth is that there is probably a good number of reasons why Tate hasn’t played well so far this season. Some probably stem from his own talent. Others might come from scheme, a failure to communicate properly with his quarterback or any number of hangups. In that light, the least sensible explanation is that it’s predominantly a failure of work ethic or a mental weakness.

(And what if Tate does rebound and put up 150 yards two games after this writing? He just found that will to win again, like some lost quarter? Go soak your head. Never speak about sports, or anything more important than this silly playground, again.)

Likewise, for the Lions defense, sometimes they might get whipped because they’re just not that good, talent-wise. Maybe there’s something to be said about a bad defensive scheme. Both seem far more likely reasons for their failings than the notion that 11 professional athletes have given up on the team halfway into a losing game.

The failings of the Lions defense, in talent and in scheme, have been outlined repeatedly. When you get beat, you get beat; what seems like an avalanche is just more inability to stop the beating. With Andre Roberts’ return, the Lions were still in that game against the Bears until the end; that’s not happening if no effort is being given on defense, even if that defense is ineffective at forcing a turnover of possession.

This is all to say nothing of the wonderful idiocy of body language readings. Taking a stab, it’s probably safe to assume no one—not the fan at home nor the howler monkey on sports radio—making judgments on the mental state of alpha predator athletes based on how they sagged their shoulders in a two-second camera shot are actually experts in psychology or any number of behavioral sciences. Relying on a sports commentator or fan to describe body language is akin to going to WebMD, describing flu-like symptoms and determining the cause is dick cancer.

This could go on about anyone or anything else. The allure of talking about passion, body language, the will to win, et al is the niche it finds in our sports imagination, but it’s just that. It has as much substance as Pete the Dragon. Even if you’re trying for a syncretic view of this, perhaps don’t put the intangibles before the rest. It belongs in the backseat, and even there you should probably ignore it most of the time.

But since you’re a Lions fan, one of a particular flavor that uses terms like Same Old Lions and Lionized, I suppose you want to be told your insight into the minds of athletes is special, born of a unique suffering and experience of how you see players give up. After all, you’ve seen shit no one else has seen. You know what a loser looks like because you’ve seen ‘em all. You’ve watched Titus Young have his mental breakdown. You savaged Joey Harrington and then got mad when he talked about Detroit being the worst place he played. You’re convinced Roy Williams gave up on this team, falling victim to the same Goetic demon Alex Karras inadvertently summoned that’s been sucking the will to succeed out of every player and coach that comes through Detroit. Isolated incidents you’re convinced are part of a larger skein. You’ve watched C-beams glitter in the darkness in the Tannhauser Gate.

Or maybe that’s just what your brain is trying to tell you, fooling itself that it still has life as the maggot chews on another nerve.