Let me tell you why I don’t like James Harden. It’s certainly nothing personal. I am not the type of fan to dismiss a player on a few interviews or how they carry themselves or their unfortunate choices in facial hair. A player’s demeanor and attitude can go a long way towards enhancing an already high opinion of their athletic ability and transform them from someone I admire into one of my favorite players, but it is rare that the opposite is true. I try and judge and if need be dislike someone on the field of play purely on the merits of their performance. There are exceptions, where by the accretion of ill will and the need to prove time and again that they totally suck I have indeed written a player or two off––ahem, Dwight Howard––I try to keep this a rare occasion in both life and sport. You really have to earn a spot on my shit list when it comes to personality, and Mr. Harden is assuredly not in that swath of the sporting population.

I dislike Harden purely on the content of his game. He is a deadly three point shooter, a fantastic slasher, an above-average passer, and one of the league’s best all-around scorers. Nothing not to like there. But it is the manner in which he can over and over, within the span of even a single game, make you forget about all of that that really puts me out. That’s because his true primary focus on offense, and hell, in his game as a whole, since he has never shown much interest in defense whatsoever, is doing whatever it takes to get to the free throw line. The ability to draw fouls is part of becoming a complete offensive superstar, but in Harden’s case it does not merely accentuate his talents, it sublimates them into afterthoughts. His knack for getting to the line does not underscore his game, it is what his game is all about. Quite frankly James, you look soft son.

He flops, he flails, he sends his arms and legs akimbo, crashing through the lane like an unconscious sky diver, embellishing every single point of contact made on his way towards the hoop, or more usually, the floor. Half the time, it doesn’t even appear he has designs on putting up a shot, but is driving into the teeth of a defense with the single goal of hearing a referee’s whistle sound. He acts as if fouled so often in fact, I don’t believe most refs know whether or not he actually earned a legitimate call. It’s a cheap way to make an NBA living, and to go about your business as a star player. I question a man as the cornerstone of a franchise and as a leader if he earns his buckets acting his way to the stripe and not hitting shots from the field. Not only that, but the way he plays damages the league as a whole, since the NBA has recently solidified to the casual fan its reputation as a game with less and less watch-ability. 

The greats have always found a way to get to the line, from Jordan to Shaq (most times unwillingly) to Kobe to LeBron, but it has always been a part of their game, and not its centerpiece.

Harden’s position as the poster boy for the NBA’s flop-first shortcomings is often brought into severe focus by active defenses, as was the case on Saturday night, when the Rockets hosted the dazzling Golden State Warriors. Golden State players were in foul trouble early and often, and visibly showed their frustration with near the same frequency as whistles were blown. Phantom contact and questionable calls haunted their defensive efforts, and though they held the Rockets under 40% from the field and Houston seemingly could not buy a bucket, the Warriors still found themselves in an eight point first half hole.

They were outperforming Houston when the clock was running, but got killed at the line time and again, with baffling foul calls that sent Klay Thompson to the bench with two fouls in the blink of an eye, left Stef Curry laughing in disgust, and let Harden continue to score without any ability in the early going to hit a shot. It made me shudder to think what a playoff series between these teams would look like, and brought up memories of the 2006 NBA Finals, which were competitively dismantled by Dwyane Wade’s knack for failing down on every drive into the lane. The Mavericks watched in awe as their series lead evaporated and Wade’s free throw shooting eventually turned the tide of the championship series in Miami’s favor. 

That’s why Harden really burns my toast. He doesn’t just offer up an aesthetically, if not morally lacking form of basketball, he hurts the flow of the game as a whole, creates impossible decisions for referees, and hampers the defensive abilities of what as a whole is a supremely talented defensive league. Instead of a wonderful, up and down, back and forth blur of beautiful basketball, I get feigned attrition and finesse-as-function histrionics wrapped in an ugly looking beard. The cynics can claim what Harden does is within the rules and in fact a brilliant manipulation of the NBA’s status quo, but I didn’t develop a love of sports to be a cynic. I want it to be more than that. I want it to not just entertain me, but delight me. Not only to fill my time, but make that time worthwhile. I want the ballet of basketball performed with grace and tact, not reduced to an ugly grind where I watch one player thrash through a defense and shoot free throws. I don’t want to watch James Harden, that’s for damn sure.



Now that the Monday nighter between the Colts and Giants is in the books and your fantasy football scores are final, week nine of the NFL season is officially on record. With it, so is another round of Manning v. Brady, and like most meetings between the two, Touchdown Tom came out on top. Brady is now 11-5 all-time against his only true under-the-center rival, with the Patriots besting the Broncos 43-21 in Foxboro Sunday afternoon. Of course, the most interesting part of this rivalry is that it isn’t really a rivalry at all in the truest sense of the word. Manning has now QB'd two different teams throughout the showdown’s tenure, and as much as we want it to be, it isn’t a classic one-on-one battle between two athletes in the way it is so often billed.

It certainly isn’t Ali/Frazier or McEnroe/Borg or Palmer/Nicklaus. It’s two football teams playing against each other, not two men squaring off mano a mano. And it’s also why Brady is the clear cut owner of the rivalry. There’s simply too many other variables in the equation when football teams play each other, and the Patriots have been better than the Colts and Broncos near unanimously. The Pats have most always had a better defense, definitely a better coach, and usually more talent spread across both sides of the ball as a whole (this year is probably an exception to that last rule, but I digress). It doesn’t mean that Brady is better than Manning any more than it means that the other Manning brother is better than Brady because he owns two Super Bowl wins against Gisele’s better half. It probably isn’t either of the following, but is definitely more “any given Sunday” than “Tom is better than Peyton.” More “heads-to-heads” than “head-to-head”.

The debate rages about which is better while both keep hurling touchdown passes and will continue until long after they’re both gone from the gridiron, and that’s fine. I just don’t think it’s fair to base their merits on head-to-head showdowns. In reality, the nearest comparison to a sporting rivalry that Manning/Brady brings to mind is Magic Johnson's Lakers and Larry Bird's Celtics in the heyday of the NBA’s resurgence in the 1980’s. But even here, the analogy falls apart. One player in five in your starting lineup goes a lot further towards a distinct comparative advantage than the one in eleven ratio that manifests on a football team. That said, we are in all ways lucky as fans to have witnessed these two go at it each of the sixteen times their teams have met. I often drift into this we-had-it-so-good-in-my-day sort of reverie because it becomes part of what you get to talk about with younger fans as the years roll on. 

That’s right kiddos––I will someday get to say––I got to watch Jordan and LeBron in their prime, dominate two completely different eras of NBA hoops. I got to watch Tiger Woods rule over the game of golf in a way that no one else ever will. I got to watch both Pete Sampras and Roger Federer play tennis, and I still can’t say who’s better. Oh yeah, and I got to watch Tom Brady and Peyton Manning throw the football in the same, amazing era of NFL offensive firepower. When all’s said and done, they might be the two greatest quarterbacks that ever lived, and I was around to watch them both go. Even as they age, their talents remain prodigious, their statistics are still both gaudy and in near all cases record-setting, their mutual respect is unflappable, and their auras perpetually inescapable.

So, who else is ready for meeting number seventeen?



The last post I wrote here at Bo Jackson’s Hip was about Richie Incognito, Jonathan Martin, and what their beef down in Miami told us about the state of pro football. I talked about how they represent two ends of the NFL’s magnet, and that the neutral portion that should be at the center of this gridiron polarity doesn’t really exist in my mind. The NFL is exactly what it has lately tried so hard to tell us it is not: brutal, unforgiving, poignantly meritocratic, and obviously chauvinistic. And while I pilloried NFL brass and meat-headed racists like Richie Incognito for permeating the league’s consciousness, I ended with a glimmer of hope from Brandon Marshall about the humanity that the NFL has never really had, and what it might take to make it manifest.

You might go back and read all of that if you want (or the vivid, ugly report that was just released on the whole matter), or just wonder why I followed a path from one football controversy to the next, without even sniffing the Super Bowl, and you might be justified in your criticism. But if you watched that game, come on. What can I say? The Seahawks thumped the Broncos with stellar defense, Peyton Manning shrunk in a big game, and it doesn’t do anything to take away from his legacy as one of the greatest football players of all time. Well, I guess I could have said that, but with a lot more words and links, and videos and what not. But I’m not going to. I’m going to skip the big game and pick up where I left off: with a controversy that calls into question exactly what football is, what it tells us about ourselves as fans, and how it might mirror the American culture at large. I’m headed straight from knuckle-headed bullies and a big guy who had enough of them in Miami to an even pricklier question that arose last week from the heartland.

Missouri defensive end and co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam announced publicly to the New York Times and ESPN that he is a gay man. He told us all what he told his teammates and coaches earlier last summer, before the college football season even started: that he is out, and proud, and gay. The small miracle is that his teammates had enough discretion, loyalty, and respect for Sam’s decision to come out that they went all the way up until last week without saying a word publicly about it. They let Sam do that for himself. The larger miracle is that the NFL, already pushing away the clouds of doubt about concussions and brain injury and human carnage, already trying to wash away the stains of Bounty Gate and Richie Incognito, and still swiping at the less-important dusting of Richard Sherman’s unsportsmanlike exuberance, finds itself thrown into an all new imbroglio that most of us thought was still several years down the line.

Michael Sam is too talented not to be taken in this coming April’s 2014 NFL Draft, and will thus become the first openly gay athlete in the four major American sports. While Jason Collins was indeed courageous and paved the way for Sam’s reveal when he told Sports Illustrated that he was gay, it was while he was an unemployed, and as is the case now, former NBA player. For whatever reason, be it age, a lack of productivity, or perhaps, his sexuality, Collins has not landed on an NBA roster this season. And he probably won’t. And he probably won’t next year. So he is a former player coming out for all intents and purposes, joining others in this honorable line, though his landmark decision to tell the world about his sexual preference stands out as the ladder upon which Michael Sam found the courage to climb up and do just the same. 

Like Collins, Sam isn’t a current professional athlete. While Collins essentially was, Sam most certainly will be. And here, for this writer, is where this young man’s story becomes not only historic and important and brave, but utterly fascinating. Sam, whether you think his intentions were to do so or not, has become the ultimate test case for the gay American athlete, and even more intriguingly, the gay American football player. Sam is poised to become the sporting version of that ideal that Dr. King gave us so many years ago: a man judged not by the color of his skin, but the content of his character. In this case, not the orientation of his sexuality, but his prowess on a football field. If it seems too heavy-handed to invoke the civil rights movement and one of the most transcendent activists the world has ever seen, it speaks both to Dr. King’s very transcendence and brings us to a small but important hurdle that must be cleared before moving on to the real dilemma that Sam creates. To put it simply: Michael Sam is not Jackie Robinson.

While it feels only natural to draw parallels between the Civil Rights Movement in mid-twentieth century America and our most obvious civil rights issue today, gay equality, this is a clear case of apples and oranges. Jackie Robinson was a prime example of an already existent pool of talent that was being kept out of the highest level of competition available. It isn’t that Jackie Robinson came out to the country as a black man, it’s that black men weren’t allowed to play baseball in the Major Leagues until he and Branch Rickey came along. They challenged a gentleman’s [sic] agreement between baseball owners that black players would not find a place on a Major League roster. The stakes were much higher, Jackie faced a level of abuse that Michael Sam will not likely see the edges of, and the cause was of an entirely different variety. Jackie Robinson is the apotheosis of American courage, so we should not so easily throw other men into his company.

This is not said to take something away from Michael Sam, but more to not take anything away from Jackie Robinson. It’s an important point that was discussed on what is probably the smartest podcast in sports, Slate’s Hang Up and Listen, last Monday, and one that I was already making internally before the sharp trio behind HUAL verbalized it in their weekly address to the sporting world. The truth is, there have already been and currently are gay athletes in the four major American sports, which we can assume from innuendo and know from first-hand accounts. Sam’s proclamation and assertion of the value of his lifestyle and character are thrilling and evident, but they are not the same thing as what Jackie Robinson did for baseball, black and white American athletes, and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. Not to mention that Jackie is one of the greatest baseball players of all time, not just a trailblazer. So let’s just stop making what Jackie Robinson did during and after his career part of this issue. Let’s let Sam’s announcement exist as its own colossal step forward for football, sports, and a loud defiance of backward beliefs in conservative creations like the sanctity of marriage and the maintenance of the accepted view of what an American family should look like. 

With that all behind us, or at least me, let’s move on to the very present and very telling realities that Sam’s story has and will continue to illuminate. It all goes back to what I said before about Sam as the ultimate test case. My intent is not to strip his announcement of any of its import by looking at it through an overly clinical lens, but simply to peer at him the exact same way the NFL and its 30 general managers are as we speak. From what a couple of GM’s and execs have told reporters (under the safe umbrella of anonymity of course), Sam’s draft stock might take a hit because of his sexuality. Because he’s now a “distraction” for any team he would join, both internally in the locker room and externally to the members of the media that would likely hound Sam and his teammates. Of course, as a couple of members of the media have deftly pointed out, this is a complete load of BS. Please enjoy both clips, and then kindly join me after the jump. And shouts to Deadspin for the heads up on the first vid.

As Mr. Hansen and Mr. Stewart expertly point out, the NFL is full of miscreants and convicted or suspected criminals of varying degrees, and their distractions didn’t seem to stop anyone from signing them up to play football on Sundays. In fact, quite the opposite, as these less-than-rare controversies have and will continue to melt away faster than snowballs in springtime. If these are the very controversies that our aforementioned GM’s and executives are pointing towards, they have already been proven wrong. It’s why Sam’s sexuality is a different kind of litmus test. If he falls in the draft, it won’t be because he’s undersized or lacks the physical traits to be a great pro, or that there are questions about his character, rather it will be because of bald bigotry and clear narrow-mindedness. It will be because no matter how many states continue to legalize gay marriage––and despite politicians on both sides of the aisle in congress supporting equal rights for homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgender Americans––football, and the entire country, still can’t get on board. It will be because the NFL and the bulk of the American population are choosing to be on the wrong side of history.

Like the women's movement and the battle against Jim Crow, which once begun would not be denied, the victory for those advocating for gay rights is already written on the walls of the United States of America. The gay rights train is barreling down the tracks, with the NFL and conservative America powerless to stop it. The fact that they might try will be yet another black eye for football, and a lesson in the fact that while progress is inevitable, there will always be those that try and slow its pace. Michael Sam is an at least capable and perhaps dynamic talent on the football field, and anyone that chooses to overlook that is making a mistake. They are making a mistake intellectually, spiritually, and in the case of an NFL team that passes on him, a mistake about doing what it takes to make their football team better. Maybe, like the experts seem to think, Sam is a mid-round pick. Maybe he won’t be watched by a camera on draft day with a million dollars trailing him to the stage, or even on the next day of the 2014 draft, but that really doesn’t matter. He is destined to be the first openly gay athlete to be drafted into the NFL and play professional football, and no one can take that away from him.

But if our beloved game of football is too pig-headed and myopic to accept and celebrate Michael Sam, and he inexplicably slips lower and lower in the draft, it will say a lot about the current state of gay, bisexual, and transgender rights in the United States. Sports have an uncanny way of both projecting upon and reflecting the national opinion, and as such, this young man’s professional fate is tied to our own national character. Let’s hope that not just one, but several NFL teams are lined up to swoop Sam off of the draft board, and that the league and the rest of us can continue to take pride in our differences as people, and as a result advocate for the freedoms that are at the heart of the American identity.