Commentary

Some perspective on what's sporting

Sal Alosi, Tashard Choice, Mariano Rivera and the gap between players and fans

Updated: December 16, 2010, 2:00 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Wouldn't it be great if everyone in the NFL cared as much as Sal Alosi? Judging by what is being said and written, the league has reached a crisis point: Players aren't showing the proper respect -- or interest -- in their chosen careers. They're getting autographs from opponents and falling backward into the end zone and laughing on the sideline in the late stages of an embarrassing loss.

[+] EnlargeSal Alosi
Al Pereira/Getty ImagesSal Alosi has apologized, although his passion probably resonates with many fans.

Maybe Alosi, the Jets' temporarily ex-conditioning coach, was just trying to tilt the scale back to the center when he knee-dropped the Dolphins' Nolan Carroll. If there's anything the NFL needs right now, it's the kind of ultra-competitiveness typified by Alosi. For those hankering for the days before pregame handshakes and postgame prayers, when men were men and opponents were hated, Alosi is the new poster boy. We're always genuflecting before anyone we can plausibly affix with the label "throwback," so why isn't Alosi getting a Wrangler commercial instead of a suspension?

After all, if a guy in a sweatsuit can care that much about one lousy punt return, how can Cowboys running back Tashard Choice possibly be emotionally stable enough after a close loss to ask Michael Vick for his autograph?

There's an answer for that, but it's one that most fans have a hard time accepting: There's a distinction between the way fans care and the way players care. Alosi's bizarre, sociopathic behavior was far more consistent with an irrational fan's behavior than a uniformed member of the team.

Alosi lost it, the way a fan might lose it sitting in front of his television or screaming in the stands. The problem for Alosi, of course, was that he wasn't in front of his television or in the stands. He was a kneecap away from Nolan Carroll, which proved a little too convenient.

Some of the Dolphins are blaming this on the culture of the Jets under Rex Ryan, and ProFootballTalk.com's Mike Florio raised the issue of whether Jets personnel were instructed to line up like blackbirds on a wire in order to impede the Dolphins' gunner. That seems unlikely -- at least we can hope -- but Alosi's lack of impulse control lends itself to wild speculation.

[+] EnlargeTashard Choice
AP Photo/Sharon EllmanTashard Choice had a signature moment after the loss to the Eagles.

Choice's behavior, while ill-advised because of its public nature, was consistent with a guy who played a game, did his best and accepted the outcome. With the game over, it was time for him to do some Christmas "shopping" for his 3-year-old nephew. Apparently a Vick autograph on a wristband from Uncle Tashard will do the trick.

(Choice's choice of autographs also points out a discrepancy between the players' opinion of Vick and the public's opinion of Vick. There isn't the moral outrage among the league's rank-and-file as there is in other segments of the population.)

The sporadic uproar over these alleged lapses in decorum -- most of them drummed up by people who have to fill air time or a word count -- routinely fail to account for the difference between fans and players. A columnist in Dallas wants the team to fine Choice $25,000 for the Vick incident. Proof, apparently, that once people get the idea that fines are the answer, it's tough to know when to stop.

Players getting autographs from the opposition is nothing new. It's done in baseball all the time, but it's usually a between-the-tunnels transaction conducted by clubhouse attendants. It's done for charity events and family favors and personal memories. Besides, a lot of people decrying Choice are probably the same people who think it's cool the way soccer players exchange jerseys after matches.

[+] EnlargeDerek Anderson
Michael Zagaris/Getty ImagesDerek Anderson's moment of levity during the game against the 49ers was treated with great seriousness (and an apology) in the days following the game.

So don't misconstrue -- players care. Choice cares, and so does Derek Anderson, even though he was caught laughing on the sideline at the end of a terrible Cardinals loss Nov. 29. It's just a different kind of caring; if you are part of something, if you have the opportunity to impact the outcome, it just doesn't create the same kind of existential angst that comes from sitting at home or in the stadium powerless and frustrated.

It's not the NFL, but if you want the quintessential example of the difference between players and fans, here it is: WEEI in Boston reported that Mariano Rivera -- through his agent -- initiated contract talks with the Red Sox. Is this a breach of etiquette? The ultimate betrayal of a loyal team and its allegedly most loyal and grateful player?

After all these years, doesn't he understand the rivalry?

Of course he does. But you know who Mariano roots for the hardest? Mariano Rivera. The rest is just laundry. That doesn't mean he's not going to do his best, it's just reality. For fans to assume otherwise is to hold athletes to a different -- and unrealistic -- standard than the rest of society.

I always go back to one scene: I was walking through the Kingdome parking lot with a group of writers after the Mariners' dream season in 1995 ended in Game 6 of the ALCS against the Indians. It was a good two hours after the game, but there were still somber clumps of fans walking around the lot or sitting around their cars in a dazed depression.

Amid the occasional gunshot bursts of curses from the clumps, one of the more veteran writers in the group shook his head and said, "You know what these people don't understand? The players forgot about that game an hour ago."

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com