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Zero tolerance

Athletes can't get away with what they used to

Posted: Monday February 6, 2006 3:34PM; Updated: Monday February 6, 2006 11:01PM
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Max McGee caught seven passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Packers to victory in Super Bowl I.
Max McGee caught seven passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Packers to victory in Super Bowl I.
Walter Iooss Jr./SI

A lot's changed in XL Super Bowls, and I don't mean halftime entertainment. Remember Max McGee, 34-year-old bald guy, forced into action when the Packers' regular right receiver went down? Became a folk hero that first Super Bowl, not just because he'd caught a few touchdown passes, but because he caught them hung-over.

Could that happen today, XL years later? It could not. When Olympic skier Bode Miller told the octogenarian crew on Sixty Minutes that he had gone down a slope "wasted," there was such a firestorm of public reaction that he almost got left behind for the Winter Games. He had to apologize up one side, down the other just to stay on the team. Magee, folk hero; Miller, public enemy No. 1.

Athletes today are being kept on a short leash, in case you didn't notice. Terrell Owens was drummed out of the NFL this past season for flapping his gums. Keyshawn Johnson had to find other employment a year or two before for flapping his. Used to be, we'd put these guys on the cover of a magazine for bringing a little color to the games. Was it so long ago that Dennis Rodman was on the cover, celebrating the inner punk in all of us? Or Brian Bosworth, Jim McMahon, John McEnroe or -- Lord! -- Muhammad Ali? There was a time our athletes couldn't be too much fun. We didn't have to always approve their me-first approach to life, but we could handle the arrogance for the sake of entertainment. Ilie Nastase was a big dope, of course, but he made us laugh.

There is zero tolerance for any kind of buffoonery these days, any kind of childishness, the slightest malfeasance. Owens pulls a Sharpie out of his sock to autograph a TD ball and he becomes a national embarrassment. What exactly was he interrupting that we couldn't stand a little horseplay? Last year NASCAR driver Kurt Busch was fired because cops smelled alcohol on his breath during a traffic stop. This is a little more serious, but when the team owner explains the dismissal by saying that the sponsor could no longer take Busch's "notoriety and embarrassment," you have to call timeout, especially when the sponsor is Crown Royal whisky.

But these are go-along, get-along days, now that our games have become so holy, expensive and important. No athlete, whatever his talent, dare hold himself above the corporate tableau that they've become. In the old days it was nearly impossible to "embarrass yourself out of a sport. Now, you don't want to fly up in the face of a teammate who does soup commercials with his mother, that's for sure. One of you is expendable, and it's not always going to be the guy who catches the most passes.

All the kooks, nuts and malcontents are being forced into purgatory these days. No loose cannons like Ron Artest allowed. Games are too important, if increasingly colorless. How long this little period lasts is anybody's guess. Until we get bored again, probably. For the moment, all athletes are advised to hunker down, smile, look commercial-ready. And if you do find it necessary to ski, catch passes, or drive in runs hung over -- keep it to yourself.