In Sports, Who Has It Worst?
David Beckham wins by default. At least as far as Major League Soccer is concerned.
And it’s not just because of his looks. The Milan-bound Brit shoulders the most pressure in the MLS.
Why? Well, how many other MLS players can you name? Or recognize?
Although he is not the first nor the only talent to transfer from the Old Continent to the U.S., he certainly has the highest profile. What’s more, he’s been imported not so much for his capabilities on the pitch as for his impact off of it—and paid handsomely to do so.
Settled in California in the unassuming town of Beverly Hills, Beckham isn’t just the face of the LA Galaxy franchise, or even People Magazine.
Instead, he’s charged with being the ambassador of football (read “soccer” for clarification) to the North American continent, which is slowly grasping what the rest of the globe has been so enthralled with over the years.
It’s a tough gig. Labeled the team’s—even the sport’s—saviour, his Galaxy finished with a dismal sub-.500 record, beating out only in-state rivals San Jose for the second-to-last division spot.
They didn’t even qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League.
Though his perfume sales are high.
Often overhyped, overpaid athletes who are playing in media circus towns sporting the most pressure—like Beckham—are expected to perform, to put up numbers, and to win—big.
So, who has the toughest job in sports this year?
Bear in mind there is no quantifiable formula to determine results. The concept of pressure is relative to the intensity of media scrutiny, fan and franchise expectation, personal performance, and salary earned.
With this two-piece editorial in mind, I brought the discussion to a pub this past weekend where a debate raged on the four most pressure-ridden athletes on the North American pro team-sports scene. Beckham was a toss-in.
The discussion was lively, and the opinions wide-ranging. Holding steadfastly to a few preconceived selections and persuaded by other well-argued cases, I arrived at four representatives, one for each of the major pro leagues on the continent.
Toughest Job in Baseball
With Beckham a unanimous lock for the MLS, the most common answer to follow is Major League Baseball's Alex Rodriguez, a man cited to be carrying “the weight of the world into each at-bat” (Joel Sherman, “Time to Face Facts: A-Rod Simply Doesn't have 'It'”, New York Post, 06/06/2006).
Despite all of his record breaking, awards, and All-Star nominations, A-Rod has failed to silence his critics by winning in the clutch, most notably in the postseason, as his talent and renown are overshadowed by the glaring lack of championships.
In a city used to the Big Time, it can’t be easy. The New York Yankees, who are first all-time with 26 World Series titles, are currently riding their third-longest championship drought, not having won since 2000. Worse still, in 2008 they failed to make the postseason for the first time since '93.
Expectations of power hitting and statistical perfection by the media and the fans are only heightened by A-Rod’s astronomical salary, controversial personality, potential affairs, and the 2007 contract opt-out fiasco led by everyone's favourite player agent, Scott Boras.
Conscious of the critical attention that orbits around his person, Rodriguez told Sports Illustrated that he “doesn’t know if it's [because he’s] good-looking, [he makes] the most money, [or plays] on the most popular team" (T. Verducci, "A-Rod Agonistes,” Sports Illustrated, 09/25/2006).
How about all three, and then some.
But things may be looking up for A-Rod. The Yankees are bulking up their roster, and new teammate C.C. Sabathia, the all-time highest-paid pitching free agent, will attract great attention, particularly should his start in pinstripes not meet expectations.
In NBA, Bryant Is the Sure Shot
In Los Angeles, the situation is reversed. Teammates—and specifically ex-Laker Shaquille O’Neal—are a main part of the reason why Kobe Bryant is feeling the heat.
Despite rumours and demands for trades, and past vocal accusations aimed at management, team direction, and even teammates, Bryant is still the main event at the Staples Center.
Not only is he another attractive star in Tinseltown, dragging the added weight of a sexual assault allegation and the reputation of an unmalleable character, but Kobe, dubbed by coach Phil Jackson as “uncoachable,” stars for a franchise used to breeding champions.
Bryant, despite all of the wondrous statistics that a one-man wrecking crew could accumulate, hasn’t delivered the big prize—at least not since Shaq left for Miami, taking his winning ways with him. Bryant reappeared in the NBA Finals last season, but fell short against the destiny-driven Boston Celtics.
Ironically, Kobe’s three titles won alongside the "Big Aristotle" will remain a thorn in his side if he isn’t able to lead the Lakers to victory without O’Neal in the near future.
His stats are secure, but his legacy depends on winning championships.
What of the runner-up, King James? LeBron is certainly close. Yet his young age, modest supporting cast, and comparatively lower-level Cleveland media market are reason enough for him to fall second behind Kobe. Wait until he’s a Knick, then it will be no contest...
Tune in tomorrow for Part II to see who rounds off the list when it comes to the NFL and NHL men of pressure.