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Loosen up

Sports prodigies are so well programmed they are downright bland

Posted: Friday July 9, 2004 11:02AM; Updated: Friday July 9, 2004 5:45PM
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The more I've watched sports in recent weeks, the clearer it's become: Today's young athletes have all the polish, if not the personality, of their medallions. They are walking, iPod-ing automatons, programmed to be as bland as possible.

Flanked by handlers and minders and agents and image consultants and other various plenipotentiaries, today's sports prodigies make the presidential candidates look like loose cannons. Dwight Howard is a high school senior one day, a top pick in the NBA Draft the next. His reaction? Pre-packaged banalities -- "This is a dream come true, but I just want to help the team get better" -- straight out of Bull Durham. Oh for the days when Drew Gooden was drafted by the Grizzlies and exclaimed: "I didn't even know Elvis was from Memphis. I thought he was from Tennessee." (This is the same Drew Gooden who once told an SI writer, "My girlfriend ain't Asian. She's Thai.")

Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon at the callow age of 17 last week. I had the privilege of being among the throngs who trailed behind her like a rudder this week as she made the green-room rounds in Manhattan. Sharapova didn't make a false move -- and if she had, someone in her entourage would have stepped in. Asked by Matt Lauer on the Today show whether she resented the comparison to Anna Kournikova, Sharapova remarked: "I respect Anna a lot, and she's done a lot for the game and -- as well as so many other people that I respect on the tour that have helped the tour." How was she going to spend her Wimbledon booty? "I just wired it to my bank." How we miss Martina Hingis who, bless her retired soul, filtered no opinions and was all but genetically incapable of spewing cliches.

Granted, some of this sentiment owes to naked self-interest. The quasi-job of a sports writer is infinitely easier (and more fun) when you have pitcher Bill Lee keeping a straight face while he tells you he's a practicing "Rastafarian-Buddhist-Communist-Roman Catholic." Or Marvin Barnes declining to get on a flight headed from the Eastern to the Central time zone because, "I ain't going on no time machine." Or Carl Everett declaring, "The Bible never says anything about dinosaurs. You can't say there were dinosaurs when you never saw them. Someone actually saw Adam and Eve. No one ever saw a Tyrannosaurus rex."

Apart from the laughs, candid athletes serve a vital purpose. The sports cosmos needs those quotable notables to leaven the intensity, to humanize the cast of characters. What are sports but a reality series with preposterously well-paid actors? Good speaking lines and memorable dialogue give dimension to the dramatis personae. Notice how every sports movie has a loveable, cartoonish cast member -- Nuke LaLoosh, the Hanson Brothers, Daniel Stern's Cyril from Breaking Away -- serving up memorable one-liners.

Fans marvel at the superior skills of athletes, but they also like to feel a connection to them. If athletes are painfully opaque -- their remarks and sentiments a collection of p.r.-generated pablum -- eventually the public will lose interest. Just want to help the team? Planning on giving 100 percent, 110 percent, 200 percent? Trying to overcome adversity, prove the doubters wrong, shock the world? Spare us.

Here's hoping that a few of today's athletes learn to loosen up. As things stand, Darryl Dawkins and Oil Can Boyd and Charles Barkley and those dozens of other athletes who once filled up notebooks and b-rolls are, lamentably, going by way of the dinosaurs. Mythical creatures that they were.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim covers tennis for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.