SBJ/January 21 - 27, 2002/Opinion

Giving 110% effort — when we want to

Most major honors for the National Football League season await the outcome of the current playoffs, but the one for most memorable quote was nailed down more than a month ago. Randy Moss, the Minnesota Vikings' talented and highly paid young pass receiver, snared it when, in answer to a question about his up-and-down performance during the campaign, he declared, "I play when I want to play."

Moss' admission that he gave less than the clichéd 110 percent on every down loosed a storm of indignation, not only among the parsons of the press boxes and broadcasting booths but also among his fellow NFLers. The consensus was that someone, preferably a veteran teammate, should take him aside and, under threat of ostracism, impress upon him his sacred obligation to do his utmost, always.

In truth, however, the outcry had other, more tangled roots. Moss' real sin was in exposing sports' dirty big secret, which is that professional athletes don't try hard all the time. Little vacations — a play here and there — are universal, and longer ones — sometimes much longer — are common. A pro who never "mails it in" is as rare as a forgiving fan in Philadelphia.

Part of the reason for that, of course, lies in the human condition; everyone has "good" days and "bad" ones, and jocks are no exception. A particular factor is the length of pro schedules, which have more to do with generating revenue than with establishing who's best. For instance, baseball certainly could crown a legitimate champion with a calendar that includes fewer than 30 spring training games, 162 over the regular season and as many as 19 in the playoffs. Given the game's history on the labor-management front, it's likely to do just that this year.

It's significant, I think, that some of the same commentators who condemned Moss' remark can segue easily into language that provides cover for other underachievers. They'll nod understandingly when an athlete attributes his lapses to playing "out of position" or being uncomfortable with his team "role," and laud the star who "paces himself" (i.e., loafs) to save his energy for crucial games or segments thereof.

Indeed, much of sports' mystique centers on athletes who can elevate their art when the stakes are high. "Clutch hitting" comparisons are a baseball staple, and the quarterback with the knack for engineering last-minute, game-winning scoring drives is especially prized.

But the flip side of heightened big-game performance can be rest-of-the-time mediocrity, and, as such, is less than praiseworthy. "Insofar as the clutch hitter is not a sportswriter's myth, he is a vulgarity, like a writer who writes only for money," John Updike has written.

Updike's observation came in his wonderful New Yorker piece, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," about Ted Williams' 1960 career finale in Boston's Fenway Park. What made Williams great, the novelist concluded, was the thorny perfectionism that alienated many writers and fans from him. Williams, he wrote, was "the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing well done and a thing done ill."

The same can be said about the latter-day basketball idol, Michael Jordan. In his glory years with the Chicago Bulls, he stood out as much for his will as for his physical skills, driving himself and his more easily distracted teammates through the endless strings of Monday nights in Detroit and Wednesday nights in Charlotte with hardly ever a letdown.

Unfortunately, there are far more Randy Mosses in sports than Michael Jordans, but we shouldn't be too harsh, because most of us tend to take after Moss.

Frederick C. Klein is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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