Bo Jackson and two-sport stars
No NFL or MLB general manager would allow any player to split time today
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Bo Jackson threw out the first pitch before the Home Run Derby on Monday night at Angels Stadium, which seems like a throwaway honor for a guy of his accomplishments. But as Bo was walking from the mound to the plate to accept congratulations, my ESPN colleague Patrick Cain said, "We'll never see one of those again. Can you imagine teams letting a guy play two sports like that now?"
He's right, too. It seems inconceivable that a big league team or an NFL team -- especially an NFL team -- would allow a player to do both. Even a player as good at both sports as Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders were.
Take a look at an NFL team's offseason schedule and see if you think it would even enter into the minds of an NFL GM and coach to release a guy from all obligations from March through October. From minicamps to OTAs (they're probably the same thing) to mandatories and nonmandatories (they're probably the same thing, too), today's NFL player has less than two months to himself from the end of one season to the beginning of the next.
To hear NFL coaches tell it, playbooks are so thick and complicated and filled with nuance that players can barely learn it if they spend every waking hour of the offseason studying it. This is a world where those coaches believe they need to sleep in the office to make sure they can get all their work done from week to week. You think they're going to believe a guy can work it part-time and still master all the complicated stuff?
And if he could, wouldn't it be a refutation of the coach's contention that everything really is this complicated and difficult to learn?
Because of that, it's no surprise that Bo had some nice things to say recently about Raiders owner Al Davis. Despite all his faults, Davis might be the only football guy with the vision to allow Bo to do what he did. (Deion, in my mind, was slightly different because he played cornerback, which requires far less preparation when you have his physical gifts, which you don't.) You can argue with the results of Bo's career, but as someone who was there the day both of Bo's careers were destroyed by a hip injury against the Bengals at the L.A. Coliseum, and as someone who watched him play baseball in person more than once, as a fan I'd trade the longevity for the short-term brilliance. I know -- easy to say from where I sit.
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It's becoming more and more rare for a high school athlete to play three sports, let alone a professional playing two. In high school, the battle for the summertime can be fierce. There's summer baseball and summer football workouts and summer basketball tournaments.
A kid who shows an aptitude for a sport is often channeled solely toward that sport by coaches or parents. They're often chasing something -- a scholarship or a pro contract -- that more than likely won't happen. The age of specialization has created unintended consequences. Here are three: (1) far more pressure; (2) far greater chance for dissolution and disgust; (3) far greater chance of injury because of repetitive movements.
So there was Bo, taking us back to a different time that doesn't really feel that long ago. A lot has changed, though.
It seems to be surprisingly easy to pick sides in the LeBron James-Dan Gilbert dustup, if callers to talk shows and the guy next to me on the plane yesterday are any indication.
Gilbert's rant, in which he threw out a bunch of wild accusations in a letter written ostensibly to Cavs' fans, was almost charming in its tactlessness. If it's possible to sputter and fume in written form, Gilbert pulled it off beautifully.
But it's clear Gilbert tapped into the iconic power of the rant. An alarming number of people are praising Gilbert as speaking for them. The billionaire as Everyman, apparently.
Bare emotion has its power, of course, and it seems everybody pines for the days when players stayed with the same team throughout their careers and the only guys getting filthy rich were the owners. It's a sentiment forwarded by people who would gladly take a new job tomorrow if someone offered them a better deal. We seem to remove human nature from the equation when we suggest athletes live their lives on our terms.
There is an argument to be made that James handled it all wrong, and everybody else has made that argument. His greatest sin might have been the sin of poor entertainment, the kiss of death in today's world. His performance was so bad Leno was cringing.
But Gilbert's rant struck a nerve, too. (We'll leave Jesse Jackson out of this, since there's room to dissect only one crazy rant.) It was a minor version of the rant CNBC's Rick Santelli unleashed in response to the government bailout, and it was credited with hot-wiring the eternal ranting of the Tea Party movement.
But Gilbert is not Everyman. He is not speaking for the scorned fans of Cleveland. He's speaking as a competitive businessman who lost. Besides, get over it already. It's not like James burned down the libraries and tagged the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He's a remarkably self-absorbed basketball player who's no longer playing for your team.
And to hear Gilbert tell it, he's someone else's problem now.
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