Athletes have always feuded, but thanks in part to nifty new social-networking media, the amusement factor has reached record heights. MATT TAIBBI on his seven favorite tiffs.
Athletes have always feuded, but thanks in part to nifty new social-networking media, the amusement factor has reached record heights.
by Matt Taibbi
Maybe it’s just the Twitter age, but athletes seem to be feuding more than ever, and not in the old-school manner, which usually involved only two people and tended to be over and done with once one or the other got knocked out on the field. No, modern sports feuds are long, protracted affairs that, after the initial insult (You ditched my team in a one-hour TV special? You suck!), almost immediately come to involve an entire digital community of coaches, commentators, fans, and other players — all of whom end up choosing sides and throwing their own blows in the cyber brawl. This summer’s ferocious dustup between prodigal ego LeBron James and spurned Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert provided the perfect template for this new kind of bitchy rivalry: Not only did it instantly divide millions of Americans for dark political reasons (more on this in a moment), it rapidly hurricaned into an absurdly broader conflict thanks to celebrities like Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson and Rush Limbaugh and Jesse Jackson bellowing fresh vitriol.
Whether or not these interminable whine-fights are good for humanity, or teach children anything valuable about sportsmanship, is highly debatable. But this much we do know: The modern sports feud is a whole lot more entertaining than the old-school version (not that it wasn’t fun watching Eagles linebacker Bill Bergey and Saints guard Conrad Dobler wordlessly pound the shit out of each other in the late ’70s). The reason for that is probably the same reason you’d rather watch two coeds cane-fighting each other over a Fendi handbag than you would a mugging or prison rape: Pure violence is rarely funny, but two unreconstructed postadolescent millionaires posturing and chest-pounding and spending hours to think of names to call each other through the media, instead of hitting each other — that’s more or less the definition of funny.
A rundown of some of my favorite ongoing sports feuds:
LEBRON JAMES VS. DAN GILBERT
Throughout the 2000s we all thought that no NBA squabble would ever surpass Shaq and Kobe, but looking back now, they were basically like an elderly married couple who go after each other with rolling pins at Thanksgiving dinner but snuggle every night in private. Doubtless the two of them think they hate each other, but every time either of them sounds off — most recently Kobe, squawking, “I got one more [ring] than Shaq!” after last season’s finals — you feel like telling them to get a room already. This is not the case with the burgeoning LeBron–Gilbert fiasco, which has real, deep-seated, stab-you-in-the-heart hate potential. The ominous racial overtones make this an unfortunately perfect feud for the Tea Party decade. White people see an ultimate 21st-century black pop-culture icon like LeBron James flamboyantly dumping a once-proud but clearly dying symbol of roll-your-sleeves-up, 20th-century white industry like Cleveland for Miami, a city where English hasn’t been spoken for 50 years and the leading industry is pussy — and they all want to have a collective aneurysm over the collapse of black “values.” It goes without saying that if any one of those critics had a chance to be a 6-foot-8 getting-laid machine, they’d opt for South Beach in a heartbeat. But Gilbert’s post-Decision freak-out about how LeBron has “gotten a free pass” on some unconscious level spoke to much deeper (and more absurd) feelings about how terribly unfair it is that white folk can’t say mean things about black people anymore. Shaq and Kobe can make up someday, but this LeBron–Gilbert thing will go on forever — or at least until Gilbert delivers on his insane vow to win a title before LeBron does.
MARTIN BRODEUR VS. SEAN AVERY
Hockey purists who spent the ’80s watching violence–addict goons like John “Rambo” Kordic and Bob “The Bad One” Probert beat the snot out of each other must be horrified to see that the sport’s reigning feud now is between a gourmet food aficionado (Devils goalie Brodeur, known as the NHL’s best cook) and a catwalk-gazing fashion plate (Rangers wing Avery, who wants to be a fashion magazine editor someday and once described one item he liked to wear as “a lovely cashmere throw”). The two clashed after Avery waved his stick in front of Brodeur’s face in a 2008 playoff series; Brodeur refused to shake Avery’s hand postgame, and the two have been calling each other names since. Avery rolled out “fatso” and “whiner,” while Bro stuck with the simple but elegant “him” before finally settling on “the Vogue intern.” Hockey writers have unsuccessfully tried to drum up interest in the probably fictional Sidney Crosby–Alex Ovechkin rivalry — thousands of trees have given their lives to debate the question of whether or not Ovechkin was mock-impersonating Crosby at the 2009 skills competition — which means the sport’s best hope for a major media sensation would probably involve Brodeur dumping an asparagus-cream bath on Avery at a de la Renta runway show.
PETE SAMPRAS VS. ANDRE AGASSI
Tennis feuds are awesome because they almost always involve a pair of hyper-touchy country-club orphans who’ve been permanently marooned in preadolescence by parents who sent them to gladiatorial prisons like the Bollettieri camp while the rest of us learned to say please and thank you and cope with authority and social failure. Most of the best modern tennis spats involve female players, who often venture into vicious commentary about their rivals’ outfits and boyfriends. Who could forget Anna Kournikova’s reported reaction to being double-bageled by Martina Hingis at the 1994 Juniors? “You won, but I’m prettier and more marketable than you.” For sheer pettiness, though, it’s hard to beat Sampras and Agassi, two great champions who carried the sport for more than a decade and fell out earlier this year over an Agassi autobiography that accused Sampras of being, of all things, a poor tipper. The feud bubbled over in a charity doubles exhibition with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at Indian Wells, California, when the microphoned players did dueling Heathers-esque impersonations of each other on court (Sampras mocked Agassi’s walk; Agassi turned his pockets inside-out and said, “I don’t have any money. No, wait, I’ve got a dollar”) before Sampras launched a billion-mph serve at Agassi’s head (it missed). Sagely commented Federer: “Being a father, I thought maybe we have to give both guys a time-out or something.”