Maybe I’m just old school, but I remember when I was a boy in Chicago and our hero, Ernie Banks, was nearing the end of his storied career on the Cubs. Banks was no longer the slugger he had been, and he’d been relocated from shortstop to first base, where hitters fade away like old soldiers. But I don’t recall his manager or the Cubs organization calling him out, dressing him down or berating him in any way. They treated him respectfully because you just didn’t humiliate players then. You let them retire gracefully, and if they refused to do so –- Willie Mays, I’m talking about you –- you let them pursue their bliss elsewhere.
Today, however, humiliation seems to be in vogue. And by “humiliation,” let me make it clear that I don’t mean management commenting on a player’s age or diminishing skills. Nor do I mean trading him -- even a player, like Mays, who had spent his career with a single team and had been identified with it. Nor do I mean gently nudging him aside the way the Orioles finally nudged Cal Ripken to third base because he wouldn’t do so of his own volition. What I mean is something much closer to what you do when you catch your spouse cheating and you want to make him/her suffer, or what you do to some arrogant SOB who had always been lording it over you and who suddenly becomes vulnerable, or what the entertainment industry did to Pauly Shore. Humiliation isn’t a dose of reality. It’s dose of ugly.
And we sports fans have been seeing a lot of ugly lately. Whatever you think of Allen Iverson -- and, for the record, I happen to think that no one played the game with more reckless intensity and with less regard for his own safety -- he didn’t deserve what happened to him in Detroit and then in Memphis. Iverson, in case you forgot, averaged 26.4 points per game in Denver playing alongside ball hog Carmelo Anthony and shot 45.8 percent from the field. Then he was traded. I’m not saying that the Nuggets didn’t get the better of the deal; of course they did because Billips was exactly what they needed and Iverson was acquired as a salary dump.
But virtually from the moment he arrived in Detroit, Iverson, through no apparent fault of his own, was treated ... well, like Pauly Shore. His minutes were cut, plays weren’t called for him, he was badmouthed in the press, and he eventually wound up on the bench after constant chatter that he had to learn to accept a backup role. Did I mention that he averaged 26.4 ppg and led the league in minutes played the season before? Now all of a sudden he was he was treated as if he were a leper -- worse, a leper who had lost his crossover in the matter of a few months. (The Pistons have just done the same thing to Rip Hamilton, who never made a peep.) I won’t go into the details of Iverson’s very brief Memphis tour. Suffice it to say that he complained about backing up Mike Conley. Case closed.
In Iverson’s case, this might have been the league’s revenge against a superstar who was cocky and independent, the NBA’s chief ambassador to the ghetto, and who clearly frustrated the powers-that-be. He was never their kind of guy and they punished him for it. But how do you account for Mike Shanahan’s treatment of Donovan McNabb, a sweetheart of a guy who always played by the rules? What’s even more surprising, how do you account for it when the ‘Skins went out and traded for McNabb?
McNabb suffered all sorts of humiliation in Washington, including being benched for the last two minutes of a game against Detroit, after which Shanahan classlessly added to the humiliation by saying backup Rex Grossman (yes, that Rex Grossman) had a better feel for the team’s two-minute offense than McNabb and that McNabb lacked the “cardiovascular endurance” to run the team’s drills. (In plain English, he’s too fat.)
Shanahan might have made him stand in the corner of the training room with a dunce hat, but he did something worse: benched McNabb for Grossman the rest of the season. No matter how you feel about McNabb’s performance, he didn’t deserve this. This was just Shanahan being a first-class jerk.
The oddity of it is that most managers and coaches are in the business of having to get along with their players, if only to help attract desirable new ones in free agency, so humiliation would seem to be a very bad strategy. Who wants to play for a martinet who enjoys humbling his own players? It just seems stupid, which is why the Giants’ Tom Coughlin underwent that sensitivity conversion a few years back.
In any case, managers and coaches of yore didn’t act this way and not only because it wasn’t a prudent thing to do. After all, players were pretty much powerless back then and there was no such thing as free agency, so you didn’t have to be on your best behavior. Yes, many of them were yellers and growlers and foot stompers, but you don’t hear of too many “humilators” for one simple reason: it just isn’t a decent way to treat people, athletes or not, and coaches were not some separate breed of human as they seem to be now. Those were more courtly times than ours. Men had a sense of decorum.
And there was something else then that has changed that helps explain humiliation. No one back then doubted the power of the team’s leader. Now players routinely do, and humiliation is a way for the coach to show who’s boss. It’s a demonstration of power but also of insecurity in a very insecure profession. By publicly embarrassing McNabb, Shanahan wasn’t doing anything to help the ‘Skins -- many players defended their quarterback -- but he was building himself up at McNabb’s expense. The hardly subtle message was: If I can do this to McNabb, for whom we paid a king’s ransom, just imagine what I can do to you. He subjected Albert Haynesworth, for whom the ‘Skins had also paid a king’s ransom, to the same treatment, though no one but Haynesworth complained, because he seemed like a slacker. But McNabb?! Over the hill, maybe. Slacker, no.
Finally, though, it may be less a matter of power than of revenge -- not the white, Protestant ethic revenge against Iverson for having too many tattoos and disdaining practices, but plain vanilla revenge for having to put up with coddled athletes at all. Old coaches never had to worry about appeasing their troops; the troops had to appease them. Now, of course, unless you’re a Phil Jackson or a Bill Belichick, the balance of power has shifted. Star players are the ones who make the big dough, the ones who determine when they are healthy enough to play and when they aren’t, the ones who may even call the shots on who will be their teammates and what plays the team will run. This is a new world, and it is one that is not very hospitable to coaches and managers. It’s the players’ world, and coaches and GM’s are just living in it.
So when an opening presents itself to bring a star to heel -- an aging Iverson, a declining McNabb, a no-longer-relevant Rip Hamilton -- there are some coaches (Shanahan) and some GMs (Joe Dumars) who just cannot resist the temptation to crush him.
And they get away with it because we generally acquiesce. You don’t hear a lot of anger from fans about the way Iverson or McNabb or Hamilton was treated. You don’t hear that they deserved much better for all the thrills and wins they provided us. Rather, you suspect that fans, who love their sports heroes, also harbor a bit of resentment at them -- for the money they make, the power they have, the girls they get, the way they occupy the national spotlight. It is almost as if humiliation isn’t just the coaches’ payback. It’s also the fans’.
But watching Iverson’s sad departure from the NBA, I can’t help but think of Ernie Banks and the respect he was accorded by management and fans even as he headed into the baseball wilderness. It was better then. There was an understanding that sports heroes were allowed their pride unless they went out and somehow squandered it. There was something noble about them and about how we treated them. The last thing management would ever think of doing is humiliate them. There was no need. They were big, but everyone else seemed to be bigger then, too.