The most shocking thing I saw at the movies last year appeared during the credits to Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour, where I learned that Tony Siragusa, a former NFL nose tackle, played the Russian gangster character — a mound of flesh known as Kostya Novotny.
Now, this is not normally the sort of fact that should frame one’s entire perspective on sports. But here’s the thing: Siragusa is a good actor. He was so good that I didn’t even recognize him, and I should have, because Siragusa had made his reputation as an actor on one of my favorite reality television shows of all-time: HBO’s Hard Knocks, a series about the preseason antics of the 2001 Baltimore Ravens (with a second season focusing on the Dallas Cowboys). Hard Knocks was a documentary, but Siragusa played his role in the same way Puck played his role on the Real World — he was bully, a wise ass, a prankster, and he spouted some of the best one-liners in an NFL uniform since legendary quipster Art Donovan retired. He may have been acting, or he may truly be a big fat idiot, but either way, Siragusa prefigured his 25th Hour, performance. He is a born entertainer.
So what does this have to do with Toni Smith, a women’s basketball player at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, whose policy of turning her back during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner has turned her into a social misfit? What’s truly remarkable is that, as far as I can tell, Smith doesn’t even appear to be acting. This may, in fact, be an actual protest by an actual person, someone who has no endorsement potential and no public image and isn’t (we assume) doing this to ensure herself a role in Spike Lee’s next joint. And that Smith has convinced us of that makes her story as compelling as anything that will ever be shown on Hard Knocks. This is damn good entertainment, and this is what crusty sportswriters like Gil LeBreton will never understand.
LeBreton, who writes for the Fort-Worth Star Telegram, recently called Smith a “confused adolescent brat” who’s trying to “draw attention.” Fine. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that’s true. Let’s just imagine that Smith is pulling an Ed Norton-Primal Fear switcheroo simply in order to piss off crusty Texas sportswriters. Well, then, let me be the first to say: who cares?
People like LeBreton are saying athletes should be entertainers, nothing more, right? But that’s not the only parameter. Not if you read the sports pages on a regular basis. The prevailing view is that athletes should be entertainers unless they try too hard to entertain us, unless they treat it too much like a game. Unless, that is, they showboat, or unless they dance, or unless they proclaim themselves the King of Siam to a room full of reporters. Witness the fate of Terrell Owens, recently and roundly lambasted for touchdown celebrations in which he autographed a football and danced with pom-poms. Whether or not Owens really is a jerk, he’s doing his job as well as anyone in the National Football League, and I don’t just mean as a receiver, though that’s true, too. That moment last season when Owens yanked a Sharpie out of his sock and signed the ball for a fan will be one of the few moments they’ll still be replaying on ESPN‘s NFL Films reruns in 2135, right between cage matches involving supermodels and great-white sharks.
Here’s the thing: Owens’ flourishes didn’t hurt anybody. And there, and only there, is where I draw the line. Should he serve as an example to the nation’s Pop Warner superstars? Of course not, but neither should Tiger Woods’ dirty jokes or Michael Jordan’s divorce.
We simplify personalities in sports. And that’s part of what makes it so much fun, isn’t it? Good guys and bad guys are part of the game. And even though it may not seem like it, even though it might as well be the polar opposite of the Sharpie Incident, Toni Smith’s stand is part of the game, as well. Both are extreme, both are daring, and both are damn good entertainment, and isn’t that why we watch sports in the first place? (Unless I’m wrong, and we’re just there for the national anthem.)
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my athletes to act like foot soldiers. I have foot soldiers to do that nowadays. I want my athletes with personality. I want them to draw attention. I want heroes and villains. I want a subtext that frames the actual event. I grew up a fan of the straight-laced Penn State football program, where showboating is punishable offense, but the truth is, if Penn State didn’t have renegade programs like Miami and Oklahoma as a foil, it wouldn’t have been much fun at all to root for anybody. The 1987 Fiesta Bowl between Penn State and Miami was the closest thing to a John Wayne movie that college football has ever seen.
And so I want it all. I want my Rickey Hendersons and I want my Warren Sapps and I want my Mike Tysons threatening to swallow small children, as long as they don’t actually swallow said children, as long as I have my Grant Hills and Priest Holmes and Curt Schillings playing chess and visiting hospitals full of cancer patients to make me feel balanced. I want extreme behavior, be it Toni Smith’s political stand or Shaquille O’Neal’s racist babble about Yao Ming. I want Bob Knight throwing chairs and I want Mark Cuban bursting onto a basketball court like a primate in an oversized jersey. I want David Wells getting his ass kicked in Manhattan diners at 4 in the morning, and I want Joe Torre handling the whole thing with way too much class. I want Barry Zito, the kooky Oakland A’s pitcher, who recently told the New York Times, “I refuse to be molded into some stereotypical ballplayer that has no interests, really, no life, no depth, no intelligence.”
I mean, what exactly are the rules here? Is it OK for a goof like Tony Siragusa to break the mold, but not for Toni Smith? If that’s what we’re saying, screw the game. I’m going to the movies.