A sports narrative is a good thing except when it’s a loathsome, worn-out and yes, mind-numbingly stupid thing. Too often the narratives trumpeted by fans and the media fall into the latter category.
The good narratives dig beneath the superficial and add a human element to emotional games. They help add context and color to black-and-white box scores. The items below accomplish neither. And more or less every sports outlet is guilty of peddling these narratives (yes, even this one).
At the bottom of each of the the horrible narratives appearing below, in no particular order, I’ve (1) assigned a number of gears I've personally grinded about that particular item (hit the link if you’re unsure); and (2) whether it satisfies the Rule of First Take, i.e., whether First Take’s Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith & Co. have bought into the narrative, which of course is the hallmark of a bad narrative.
The "Must Win” Game
This past Tuesday, down 1-0 in its best-of-seven series against the Hawks, the Pacers faced a “must-win” situation. They won, only it wasn’t a must-win. Don’t blame the headline writers for that one (but blame them, too) -- Pacers forward Paul George uttered the dreaded cliché that the Pacers’ official Twitter later dispatched to all of Pacers nation.
A must-win occurs only in an elimination situation -- from the playoffs or from playoff contention. That’s it! I’m not a complete literalist, I just cannot stand to see a good phrase get abused. Of course I’ve seen worse.
At the end of last May I recall hearing “must win” talk when the Yankees were mired in a long slump after getting swept in a four game set with the Mets. The Red Sox were coming to town and it became a "must-win" baseball game -- in May. The chatter came on WFAN from Frankie in Brooklyn or Lou in Staten Island or I don’t know who -- but I’m calling on the Yankees skipper to set the record straight as he did before the Yankees faced the Sox again in mid-September 2013.
"It's only a must-win when it's an elimination game, but I think it's a really important game.”
And that’s the final score on this one.
Gears grinded: 6 of 10
Rule of First Take: Yes!
Is Game 2 a must win for the #Heat?
— ESPN First Take (@ESPN_FirstTake) June 10, 2013
The "Elite" Quarterback
The “elite” quarterback drivel began in August 2011 when Michael Kay asked Eli Manning, a guest of Kay’s show, if he was a “Top 10, top 5” quarterback in the same class as Tom Brady. Eli took the bait. “I consider myself in that class” he said.
The rest is history, or in this case, thousands of headlines and soul-crushing hours of talking heads debating the inane topic.
Geno Smith similarly got baited into the headline, “Geno Smith: I’ll be an elite quarterback” by answering affirmatively to the question, “Do you really believe in your heart you will be an elite quarterback?”
What do you expect the guy to say?! Well since you put it that way, maybe… (searches soul)... maybe I’m not elite?
SB Nation crunched the Google analytics numbers and found that usage of “elite” in connection with quarterbacks reached its apex during the 2012 NFL season, yet I’m still finding plenty of recent examples. Selected headlines:
Sportspickle’s DJ Gallo did an elite job of adding some clarity to this amorphous label by crafting the 6 levels of eliteness, which include Elite Class I: The Super-Elite (or SuLite) , Elite Class II: The Pre-Elite (or PrElite), Elite Class IV: The Situational Elite (SitLite). Still not sure about the criteria for “elite” status, or how many QBs may wear the pin at any one time, or when an elite quarterback loses his elite-ness? Nobody knows or can ever know because it’s a stupid, meaningless, mind-numbing title that Michael Kay plagued us with.
Gears grinded: All of them.
Rule of First Take: Oh yeah.
Peyton Manning's legacy
Judging from the way fans and sports media refers to Peyton Manning’s legacy, it must be a living, breathing organism. Actually, I think it is! Wrote CBS Sports’ Will Brinson after the first half of Super Bowl XLVIII:
Peyton Manning's legacy is sitting in the corner of the Broncos room crying right now from the abuse it's taking on social media after the Seahawks dominated the Broncos 22-0 in the first half of Super Bowl XLVIII.
I think the teary mess in question is Manning’s dog, Legacy. Probably a labrador. That poor lab, relegated to a lonely corner.
Brinson has plenty of company. Let me tell the story through more headlines:
The bloody aftermath:
If only the Denver Peyton Mannings had beaten the Seahawks.
Gears grinded: 8/10
Rule of First Take: Obviously.
"It feels like the equivalent of losing 2-3 Super Bowls in one night." - @RealSkipBayless on Peyton Manning's legacy
— ESPN First Take (@ESPN_FirstTake) February 3, 2014
"The Next Michael Jordan" and "The Next Wayne Gretzky”
Last June, before Victor Oladipo played in a single NBA game, ESPN TrueHoop asked (citing Magic Johnson and Dick Vitale) if Oladipo was the next Michael Jordan. The use of advanced stats as opposed to pure conjecture does not excuse this crime.
Here’s a partial list of other “next Michael Jordan(s)”: Harold Miner, Grant Hill, Penny Hardaway, Vince Carter, Jerry Stackhouse, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and LeBron James.
None of them did or could (or can) become the next Jordan. The only guy who stood a chance was former University of Pennsylvania standout and international journeyman Michael Jordan, who later changed his name to Michael-Hakim Jordan. His Airness was a wholly unique player and persona. Is there anyone else in the world who can get away with that horrid mustache? Certainly not Victor Oladipo. I rest my case.
The hockey community is guilty of the same, only they’re kinder, allowing the player some semblance of an identity with the moniker “The Next One.” A partial list of Next Ones: Eric Lindros, Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, John Tavares.
Offenders: Stop anointing talented young players the next MJ and Gretzky and let them become what they may. There’s a myriad of ways to discuss or contextualize a player without comparing him to the sport’s undisputed greatest player of all time.
Gears grinded: 7 of 10.
Rule of First Take: Yessir.
In the clutch
Is anybody more clutch than Tom Brady? Is anybody less clutch than Tony Romo? David Ortiz is definitely clutch, I think the universe agrees.
TWO LOATHSOME NARRATIVES MEET! I’VE CROSSED THE STREAMS!!!
Anyhow, the problem with defining “clutch” is that its meaning varies from fan to fan and sport to sport. Some moments carry more weight than others. Other end-of-game heroics or failures resonate more strongly. Some players get more opportunities to capture a playoffs moment than others. Put another way:
Gears grinded: 7 of 10
Rule of First Take: Yes, with the bonus term “Clutch Guts.”
"Brady has more CLUTCH GUTS to me." - @RealSkipBayless #PeytonVsBrady
— ESPN First Take (@ESPN_FirstTake) November 22, 2013
Revisionist history, or “What if”-ing
What if Chris Webber hadn’t called that timeout?
What if the Pistons had drafted Dwyane Wade or Carmelo Anthony?
What if Steve Bartman hadn’t interfered with the foul ball?
What if Bo Jackson could have stayed healthy?
What if Jordan didn’t retire in 1993?
What if Gretzky remained in Edmonton?
What if Drew Bledsoe didn’t get injured in 2001?
Going down these hypothetical roads distracts from the reality that Webber did call that timeout, the Pistons drafted Darko Milicic, Bartman deflected that ball and became a scapegoat, Jackson’s body failed him, Jordan left to play baseball, Gretzky went to L.A., and Brady took over, leading the Patriots to the first of its three Super Bowl wins.
Those are all exceedingly compelling stories in their own right. We can’t isolate an event, turn it on its head, pretend that everything else remains constant -- it can’t --- and construct any meaningful narrative around it.
Gears grinded: 5 of 10
Rule of First Take: Yes! And this one is so good (bad) I have to embed: What if the (2012-13) Lakers removed 34-year-old Kobe Bryant and added … same-aged Michael Jordan?!
Could X athlete have beaten Y athlete if they faced off in their primes?
Alternatively, how would X player have fared if he played today (or back then)? Any derivation results in a futile, pointless question. Athletes are shaped by the circumstances and competition of their day. I appreciate statistical comparisons like this one between Hank Aaron and Miguel Cabrera because it presents information and stops there.
Miguel Cabrera turns 31 today. At the time of his 31st birthday, Hank Aaron had strikingly similar numbers. pic.twitter.com/eNoQzZCZPc — ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 18, 2014
Information good, subjective and unsolvable puzzles bad.
The world might only ever answer one of these hypothetical questions if Ted Williams is unfrozen, reconstructed, reanimated and given doctor’s permission to face live pitching.
Gears grinded: 3 of 10
Rule of First Take: Yes.
That guy is a “Winner”
Calling a player who competes in a team sport a “winner” diminishes the rest of the squad and overemphasizes the binary win-loss measurement, in the same way as tallying Ws and Ls for quarterbacks and pitchers. Worse, it’s a cheap way to describe a player’s actual, discernible abilities.
Does the player do anything other than win or is that just his thing? Maybe he was just born that way. Maybe it’s Maybelline?
Anyhow, you know who’s a real winner? Take it away, Jets owner Woody Johnson (pre-2013 season):
“Our mission is to win games, pure and simple. We think Tim Tebow has been a winner all his life.”
Gears grinded: 7 of 10
Rule of First Take: You know it. Enjoy the “All He Does Is Win” remix.
A "True Yankee"
A-Rod is the captain of the “Not True Yankees,” a professional organization established, I don’t know, 2009 or whenever it became necessary for Yankees fans to carve out a subset of men in pinstripes who are part of the club but not “true” Yankees. A-Rod wore the asterisk for a while because he didn’t win a championship in New York from 2004-2008. He’s still not a True Yankee because Yankees fans don’t like him and never will. Players who’ve never won a championship with the Yankees are automatically eligible for Not True Yankee status. True Yankee status may be revoked (Cano, see below).
Also consider this via Urban Dictionary: “A ‘True Yankee’ carries a magical aura that allows them to play a metaphysical, other worldly form of baseball which results in hyper clutch-ness, which is why Luis Sojo > Alex Rodriguez.”
Got it? Need more rules? I’ll turn it over to some folks on Twitter with additional criteria and rules (some jesting) for being a True Yankee Fan.
Gears grinded: 7.5 of 10
Rule of First Take: No! At least I couldn’t find a reference after searching for longer than I care to admit. But I’d like to point out that Derek Jeter let Skip Bayless have it last year after Bayless insinuated that Jeter may have used PEDs.
Now that’s a True Yankee!
Dishonorable mentions, i.e., topics not elite or clutch enough for discussion:
1. Player can’t win the big one.
2. Player can’t play in cold weather.
3. Steroid-era Players in the Baseball Hall of Fame.