At the risk of plagiarizing DMX, that's the question of the week: why is it that we can't get enough of the athletes we're supposed to scorn? We've got principles, after all. We know good from bad, right from wrong, the clean bright breath of should from the malignant stink on a heaping pile of shouldn't. We respect the rules, is the bottom line, and we'd never even dream of breaking them ourselves...but, well, there's this thing, Meat, and if you really want to know—
We just can't get enough of watching someone else break them for us.
Without delving too deep into the psychoanalytic ramifications of vicarious wish fulfillment, this latest Spot runs down a list of the all-time renegade jocks, a cadre of stars who toed that fine line between existential audacity and outright personal ruin. The mavericks highlighted here subverted paradigms like they were going out of style, and even when their abandon caught up to them—which, we should note, it very often did—there was always something vaguely heroic about the thing, something in the boldness of the way that seemed to mitigate the strung-out sting of the end. It's like the old saying goes, Meat: if you're not living on the edge, you're taking up too much space. And if you're too scared of heights to play out there with the big boys—
The least you can do is fawn over them from a distance. After all, why else would God have invented sports journalism?...
Number Five: Jim McMahon
...and by the far the most rambunctious alum in the history of Brigham Young University. After escaping the moral strictures of Provo, McMahon wasted little time in establishing himself as the crown punk of the NFL; witness his first official press conference in Chicago, which found the rookie sporting sunglasses and sipping a beer. Jimmy Mac would go on to make a name for himself with his play on the field and his very un-Mormon antics off it, including a much-ballyhooed headband spat with Commissioner Pete Rozelle and his infamous mooning of a media helicopter before Super Bowl XX in New Orleans (home of the latter-day Saints, incidentally). The Bears quarterback even refused to marry a second wife, which, well...somewhere, you've got to figure that Joseph Smith was sitting at the right hand of God and wagging a prophetic finger in divine reproach. Or then again maybe not.
Number Four: Billy Martin
Some dudes just plain love to fight. Doesn't matter who, doesn't matter where—they'll take whatever you got, and then they'll move right along to the next guy. So it was with Martin, who spent most of his four-decade career as a player and manager bumping up against just about everyone: opponents; teammates; umpires; George Steinbrenner; Reggie Jackson; the rowdies at the Copacabana; a fan in Detroit; a cabbie in Chicago; a sportswriter in Reno; a bouncer at a Texas strip club; the traveling secretaries for the Twins and the Rangers (on separate occasions); even, improbably, an Illinois marshmallow salesman, who needed fifteen stitches after he crossed the then-Yankees skipper in a Minnesota hotel bar. Unfortunately, Billy finally met his match when he went head-to-glass with the windshield of a pickup truck on Christmas day in 1989, proving once and for all that ethical consistency does in fact have its drawbacks. And that your friends at the Spot aren't above a bit of pointless gallows humor every now and again, if only to keep things cheery.
Number Three: John McEnroe
Four words, Meat: you CANNOT be serious. When he first hit the worldwide tennis stage in the late 70s, McEnroe was the epitome of an enfant terrible: brash, arrogant, and blessed with enough talent to back up his talk. And hoo boy, was there ever talk. The seven-time Grand Slam champ was alternately alienating and endearing over the course of a fifteen-year career, earning the nickname "Superbrat" from the British press and prompting the New York Times to label him "the worst advertisement for our system of values since Al Capone." Thankfully, McEnroe has mellowed some in his old age, to the extent that CNBC programming directors saw fit to give him his own talk show in 2004. Now, about the 0.0 (not a typo) Nielsen rating that said talk show posted on multiple occasions in its short lifespan—well, you can't be, you know, serious...
Number Two: Lawrence Taylor
In the world of biographical analysis, there's the Man, the Myth, and the Legend...and then there's Lawrence Taylor, who somehow managed to exist in all three forms without being constrained by any of them. The Man was 240 pounds of freewheeling fury, a physical freak who succeeded in nothing less than redefining the very essence of defensive presence. (Insert Joe Theismann joke here.) The Myth was no less formidable: a cartoonish megamorph on the Manhattan club scene, forever suspended in a neon starscape of hard drugs and easy women. As for the Legend—that one's still in the making, but suffice it to say that LT's pretty well set on doing things his own way. After all, anyone who can go from self-professed crack addict to high-profile celebrity golf hound must know a thing or two about defying convention.
Number One: Muhammad Ali
As if this one needs explaining. In between floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, Ali in his prime carried himself like something out of George Wallace's worst nightmare: an articulate, extroverted black man who had no quarrel with the Viet Cong and kept close company with the honorable Elijah Muhammad. He was the greatest, simply put—and he didn't mind telling folks about it, which only served to cement his rep as a dissident Negro hoodlum. All told, the man who had been Cassius more than lived up to his own billing, ultimately crafting a public persona that was a little bit Malcolm X, a little bit Martin King, and a whole lotta badass motherf-cker. In fact, the champ was so badass that he probably wouldn't have hesitated—not even hesitated—to include the "u" at the end of that last sentence, but come on Meat:
That's why some cats get to be cultural icons while the rest of us pussies sweat about obscenity laws and content guidelines. After all, imagine what'd happen if we all decided to rock the boat...