Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Thoughts on the Return of Pig Ben

Pig Ben returns to the field Sunday after serving his four game suspension for conduct unbecoming a grown up person. The questions swirl around.

What kind of reception will the fans give him?

What does this mean for team chemistry? What kind of reception did his teammates give him?

Will he be sharp? Or play more like Carson Palmer has of late?

I think Pig Ben is going to play lights out, perhaps better than he's ever played heretofore (and it's been a pretty spectacular career already), because athletes, the ones who perform at this level, are mostly driven and myopic and have a unique sense of the world and their place in it.

It makes me wonder about the weirdness of professional sports and the rules of conduct in the inner-inner-sanctum thereof.

The smallest slight is coaxed, nurtured into a dis of monumental proportions. Then, once it has been built up into an epic insult, it is fed off of as motivation. The New England Patriots trotted out the tired old "no respect" saw year after year, even though most people recognized their greatness, even while we, er I, resented it. Lather, rinse, repeat. Michael Jordan used to convince himself that fans, media, and other players had been critical just to get himself even more psyched for games. So the slights don't even have to be real to be used as fuel.

Enter Pig Ben. Since his meeting with Judge Dread, he has been saying and doing all the right things. He's been talking about the fact that he had a lot of growing up to do and he was working on that. He's been talking about his obligation to his teammates and the community. Meanwhile, he's been working out like a lunatic (he looks to be in the best physical condition he's been in since his rookie year) and doing yoga with his mom. Take it for what it's worth and everybody's mileage may vary on his credibility.

Publicly, he has been humble. And humbled. But inside? Inside, I expect that he feels that he has to quiet all the critics, make them -- us -- choke on our words. And the only way to do that is win football games, play better than he's ever played, better than anybody else is playing. Some people, most people, would wither under that kind of scrutiny, pressure and general condemnation. But I expect it will have the exact opposite effect on Pig Ben.

Roethlisberger's BFF Ray Lewis can probably explain it. In January of 2000, Lewis was arrested in the stabbing deaths of two people. Lewis' attorney (also Pig Ben's attorney), arranged for Lewis to testify against the other two defendants and the murder charges against him were dropped, reduced to the charge of obstruction of justice.

Almost a year to the day later, Lewis' Ravens won the Super Bowl, in no small part because of Lewis' play on the field in that game and throughout that season. The guy has had many great seasons, but perhaps none greater than that year. Normal people, after an ordeal like that -- being involved in or at the very least, witnessing two killings, being investigated, indicted, testifying and all that jazz -- would be thrown off our games. We would just be a mess. But not Ray.

Then there's the other example. Evil Hoodie got caught with his hands in the cookie jar, busted red handed while violating a league rule about filming other teams. Evil Hoodie was fined and the team was docked draft picks. The rest of the NFL reveled in the great comeuppance. But like Ray Lewis, rather than be disturbed by the whole kerfuffle, Evil Hoodie was even more defiant, more determined to run roughshod over the league and thumb his nose at the commish. His team rallied around him, ripped off 18 wins in a row, often rolled up the score on opponents in the process. It led Bill Simmons to dub that season "the Eff You Season," a totally accurate term.

The point is, these are not normal people. The things that would throw most of us into months of self-recrimination, doubt and inertia, instead drive them forward to their greatest performances. It's an alternate reality, through the rabbit hole, out the back of the wardrobe and into the NFL.

That quality allows them to be the elite. They are all undeniably great at what they do, and yet, would you want to spend a night on the town with Ray Lewis? Be married to Bill Belichick? Go on a date with Ben Roethlisberger?

It's an upside down world, the one of pro athletes.