Deuce Lutui may be a funny guy, but at last check the Cardinals' right guard has never hosted an HBO comedy special or opened for Chris Rock at Caesars Palace. It's hard to understand then how Lutui's comic stylings could have been so hilarious that he cracked up quarterback Derek Anderson on the sideline during Monday Night Football, even as the 49ers were drubbing Arizona in Glendale 27--6. The Cards were comical, but not in a ha-ha kind of way.
Anderson made himself look even worse after the Nov. 29 blowout by launching into a profane tirade when a reporter asked about the sideline chucklefest. He seemed genuinely offended that his lightheartedness could possibly indicate that he was regarding an embarrassing loss with less than appropriate gravity. "I take this [expletive] serious!" Anderson said during a postgame rant that quickly went viral. "Real serious. I put my heart and soul into this [expletive] every single week!"
To which many fans no doubt angrily responded, "Then [expletive] act like it!" They wouldn't have been shouting only at Anderson but at every athlete who seems less emotionally invested than the people who pay to watch him. They would have been yelling, for instance, at center Anderson Varejão and some of his fellow Cavaliers for hugging former teammate LeBron James, then treating him as though he had returned to Cleveland last Thursday to accept the key to the city instead of to face its wrath.
The day after being shellacked 118--90 by James's Heat, the Cavs defended themselves against criticism that they had effectively kneeled like loyal subjects for the return of the King. "No one knows what was said, and the things that were said probably couldn't be repeated right now," protested guard Daniel Gibson. If only the Cavs had put up that kind of spirited resistance against James himself instead of letting him score 38 points, including 24 with a side order of trash talk in the third quarter, without so much as an aggressive foul.
That kind of apparent apathy can really frost a fan base. Let's assume that Anderson does care deeply about winning, and that Varejão desperately wanted to beat James. That's still not enough—appearances matter. It may seem irrational, but fans want their own passions validated by seeing the athletes they're rooting for show that they feel just as strongly. Watching their team get humiliated on national television is about as funny to Cardinals supporters as passing a kidney stone. If Anderson can't change the game's outcome, they want him at least to show that he shares their pain. Cleveland fans don't want to be reminded that some Cavaliers still consider James a friend, because it makes a mockery of their own unbridled animosity toward him.
It's not just fans who want players to stop acting as if they're all fraternity brothers. "I thought it was Christmas day and he got the gift he wanted, he was hugging LeBron so hard," ESPN analyst and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy said of Varejão. "You're not going to knock a guy down later if you're hugging him before the game." Magic Johnson, who was equally critical of the Cardinals' quarterback, told late-night host Jimmy Kimmel that if Anderson had done that on a team Johnson coached, "He would have been cut today."
You might make the argument that the players' approach is healthier, that they have the proper perspective. But who wants perspective? Beyond reasonable sportsmanship, fans are looking for fewer smiles and more sneers, less amiability and more animosity. Players need to realize that some of their warm and fuzzy schmoozing with the enemy really grinds fans' gears, particularly rituals like these:
The Batting Practice Love-in This is when ballplayers from opposing teams gather around the cage during BP and fall all over one another, laughing uproariously, as if they are in on the world's funniest joke. We get it. Scott Boras got all of you $10 million more on your contracts than you're worth. Laugh about it over lobster and Cristal after the game. No one wants to see a Brave and a Phillie yukking it up, or a Tiger getting a piggyback ride from an Angel. It's unnatural.
The Midfield After Party It's amazing that mere moments after spending three hours trying to concuss one another, NFL opponents can take off their helmets and exchange pleasantries as though they're mingling at cocktail hour—amazing, and a little disturbing. How can they be that buddy-buddy while the fans' blood pressure is still spiking?
The Tip-off Festival of Fist Bumps It's harmless enough when NBA players greet one another at midcourt before the tip—and preferable to the peck on the cheek Johnson and Isiah Thomas used to exchange. Still, it's refreshing when players show that they're not all best friends. Bulls center Joakim Noah and the Celtics' Kevin Garnett have developed an intriguing personal feud; they showed a good, honest mutual dislike as they refused to shake hands before the tip-off in Boston last Friday. Give us more of that.