Out of Focus
Issue   |   Tue, 02/07/2012 - 20:37

Popular sports discussion has changed immensely in the last few years, transforming everything from how games are covered to the topics that keep talk shows going strong. Among myriad other novelties, we now hear about trades and injuries on Twitter before the athlete in question has even learned of his fate or gone to the hospital for an MRI.
In addition, the only limiting factor in how many games we can watch simultaneously is the number of screens in the immediate locality, whether they be televisions, smartphones or iPads. This enormous jump in accessibility, coupled with the meteoric rise of fantasy sports, has caused the growth of more sports talk shows than we ever could have imagined 10 years ago.

TV personalities such as Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith and the duo of Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon have become as famous as the athletes they discuss, and their shows need fodder for daily arguments, new topics to keep viewers tuning in the next day.

The repercussions of this insatiable desire for instantaneous, fresh perspectives and analysis have changed the very content of sports discussion in many ways, but one strikes me in particular. No longer does the ‘L’ word in sports stand for loser — rather, ‘legacy’ is now the term that rules the radio and television waves to an alarming extent.

This is not to say that discussing legacy is meaningless; the word resonates with everyone on a personal level, as leaving a legacy is not limited to the sports arena but enters the thoughts of people in any walk of life.

The importance of the word in the context of sports, however, has gained an inordinate amount of sway over our thoughts. Almost as soon as Novak Djokovic fell to the ground after defeating Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final earlier this week, the ruminations began on what the victory meant for the legacies of the two players, not to mention those of semifinalists Roger Federer and Andy Murray.

What happened to enjoying a match that perhaps has no equal in tennis history without reading into the future of the players? This comes with one caveat: in the particular case of tennis, more than other sports, such discussion may hold merit — we are possibly watching the highest level the sport has ever reached, so the legacies of the titans that battle for six hours in a major finals match is a salient question.

Yet, in other cases, the discussion of legacy blatantly intrudes on the present, and the moments in time that eventually determine legacies in the long run are blemished by the constant discussion. Indeed, the very essence of the word legacy as a long term, reflective idea contrasts sharply with how the media treats it today. A prime example of this tendency is splashed across ESPN in the week leading up to the Super Bowl, when the demand for information is so great that writers grasp at any storylines possible to find an interesting angle.

This year, no grasping was necessary to find a naturally compelling examination of legacy, as the Manning brothers both featured prominently in the news. Peyton Manning, the injured superstar of the Indianapolis Colts, watches in his own home stadium as his younger brother, Eli, takes on the New England Patriots in the rematch of one of the greatest Super Bowls ever played — the headlines for this story almost write themselves.

A multitude of analysts have spent time dissecting whether Eli’s legacy as a potential two-time Super Bowl champion could be better than Peyton’s, who is almost universally considered a superior quarterback but has only one championship to show for it.

Peyton’s recurring neck problems and the looming possibility that he may be released by the Colts make the discussion all the more intriguing. At the same time, we seem to forget that so much can still change in this situation, and that throwing out potential scenarios is a waste of time on par with actually listening to what ESPN expert Trent Dilfer, the king of quarterback mediocrity, has to say about players that are better than he ever was.

Eli could go out on Sunday and submit a performance reminiscent of the one that he orchestrated in the 2007 Super Bowl, the greatest upset in NFL history, and still lose, or he could take the field and throw two picks but still celebrate with his team if the defense stifles Tom Brady and the Patriot offense. More likely, he will play a good game and the outcome will depend on the countless other factors that affect a football game.

In any case, a dissection of Eli’s legacy compared with Peyton’s can wait until next Monday, at the very least. The temptation to grab these easy topics must be hard to turn down for people whose jobs depend on entertaining the sports fan, so asking to suppress the ‘L’ word after the game is over may be too much to ask. But comparing Eli Manning to Tom Brady and then to Peyton Manning before the Super Bowl has even been played seems like an extraordinary farce.

At the end of the day, both Manning brothers and Tom Brady are elite quarterbacks that have proved themselves on the biggest of stages, and separating them is a matter of degrees of excellence. Similarly, Djokovic, Nadal and Federer make for the most fascinating threesome at the top of the tennis rankings in the sport’s rich history, so the status of their ‘legacies’ is constantly in flux depending on the last tournament played. More egregiously, ESPN has already run a poll on SportsCenter asking whether Tim Tebow is headed for the Football Hall of Fame (no word on whether anyone besides Skip Bayless actually voted ‘yes’)!

With that said, here comes a plea to the mass sports media: Can we reserve judgment on how posterity will view these athletes until posterity actually gets here? If that’s too much, can we at least wait until after they play the games? Otherwise, we must all resign ourselves to watching endless debates about potential outcomes and their repercussions that become meaningless the instant the games begin.