"You play to win the game." This simplistic quote made infamous during a post-game rant by Herm Edwards, tells you almost everything you need to know about sports. Sure, sports fans are inundated these days with statistics, quirky facts and emotional stories of redeemed athletes; but at the end of the day, we all tune in for one reason: To see who wins the game. That's it. Unless you're a granny watching your little Johnny play his first game on television, there's only one thing stopping you from giving in to the wife and flicking over to Desperate Housewives: that never-ending intrigue of "who's gonna win."
We don't cheer for our sports figures to be the highest-caliber citizens, nor do we long for them to organize an annual charity match. As corny as it may sound, we want, over all else, for them to win, for them to lead our beloved teams to victory. Of course, it's always heartwarming to hear stories about athletes looking to use their fame and wealth to make a difference, such as the €800,000 soccer academy in Sierra Leone that was founded by Craig Bellamy, the former Liverpool forward and current Cardiff City captain, in 2008. These stories go a long way towards humanizing the players we root for week after week, sometimes even managing to further endear themselves to us as athletes.
However, it seems as though for every tale that we hear of a superstar athlete doing his best Bono impression, there is unfortunately a sex scandal or drug overdose to balance the equation. Although such acts of charity and debauchery can seem at the time as if they will go on to define the player's career, they can be reduced to a mere footnote in most cases by success on the field.
The most recent example of this comes in the form of Michael Vick. Vick was in his prime and was one of the top ten players at his position when he was charged in 2007, with financing and directly participating in an interstate dog fighting venture, a revelation which disgusted and horrified almost every sports fan in the country. He later went on to serve 18 months in prison. The general consensus was that it was unlikely that Vick would ever play in the NFL again.
However, in September, after not having started a game in over three years, Vick was given the chance to be a starter again by the Philadelphia Eagles after their original starter was traded. He is in the midst of the most productive season of his career, has been the catalyst for several comeback victories and has his team sitting in first place in their division. The Virginia-native is also widely regarded as the favourite to win the league’s Most Valuable Player award. All of this surprising success on the field has arrived in conjunction with his personal rehabilitation off the field. He has been praised (by most) for his extensive work with the Humane Society in decrying the acts he previously engaged in. However, the speeches he has given to school children for the Humane Society would barely crack the headlines if his unprecedented play on the field wasn’t ruling the back pages anyway. When you’re playing well (and more importantly, winning), people will generally become more interested in what you do off the field, whether it’s good news or bad news. That’s just how it works in sports.