ROME -- This will be one of the most unusual sports columns you'll ever read. For once, it won't say an athlete is a bum, child molester, serial baby momma maker, drug dealer or criminal. This is about inspiration and it begins with the stunning portraits on the walls of the Sistine Chapel.
Deep inside Vatican City, in a darkened room, is a fusillade of sounds and images. Hundreds of people are staring upward at the ceiling and seemingly every language spoken on the planet is being spoken now. A handful of people are weeping, actually weeping, as they look at Michelangelo's portraits of the scenes from the Book of Genesis that adorns the walls of the chapel.
Michelangelo's clever habits and mechanical genius have been documented for 500 years but seeing them in person changes everything. Dreams begin, lives are altered and instant sobbing commences by some in the jammed room. Visitors are repeatedly warned that flash photographs can damage the portraits of dancing angels and soul snatching ghouls but some are so moved they brave the shouts of guards and snap photos anyway.
|It's hard to find greatness like Michelangelo's statue of David in sports these days.|
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There is nothing like this now in my primary world of interest, the sports world. Oh, there once was greatness throughout sports, and the athletic movements of the human form are as graceful as any swath of colors or blending of paints.
There was greatness like Russell and Chamberlain; Unitas and Ali; Jim Brown and Ruth; Jesse Owens and Jim Thorpe; Jerry Rice and Michael Jordan. Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi and Red Auerbach.
Sports were once populated with extreme greatness. Historical greatness.
But not any longer. At least, not now.
Where has our sports inspiration gone? Where are the great thinkers and achievers in sports?
Like other aspects in today's American culture, such as politics, the profane and pedantic in sports have bogged down the prolific. The squabble culture has filtered down to sports, weakening greatness the way tension does a small piece of yarn.
Money and fear rule sports today. It's the opposite of the way it once was in America when money and fear were mere afterthoughts, not central themes.
• • •Many athletes are afraid to be great because they know if they fail all of us –- media, fans, other athletes ... all of us -- will pounce.
The reason LeBron James selected the safety net of joining Dwyane Wade in Miami rather than creating his own legacy in Cleveland or Chicago is because he feared trying to be great. Part of that is on him; part of it is on us. James knew that if he didn't win a championship in Cleveland or elsewhere he'd be branded as overrated. So James took the easy way out. There are a million other examples throughout modern sports.
Alex Rodriguez eventually passing 600 home runs is a meaningless achievement due to his association with performance-enhancing drugs, yet it will be celebrated heartily by some, if not many. That's how desperate we are for greatness and heroes now.
Fear is the greatest motivator in sports today, not inspiration. Fear of failure. Fear of criticism. Fear of not making exorbitant amounts of money.
That's why greatness is rarely reached legitimately today despite athletes being more physically talented, educated and possessing more opportunities to be great than ever before.
The greatness levels in American sports have possibly fallen to a long-time low. David Stern is the only great commissioner and he'll be retiring soon. There are no great general managers and a handful of great coaches with Phil Jackson, Bill Belichick and Mike Krzyzewski leading the way (Joe Paterno's greatness has faded in recent years.)
Are there great players in baseball? Probably. But the sport remains so soaked in steroids it's difficult to tell who is legitimate and who isn't.
In the NFL, Brett Favre has eroded his greatness with thumb sucking insecurity and even Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have let moments of greatness slip through their grasps.
Tiger Woods' chasing of every pancake house waitress in North America has seriously eroded his greatness to the point where he might be a mere mortal again.
It's possible -- possible -- that at this moment in time there are only a handful of truly great American athletes: Kobe Bryant, Michael Phelps, and Serena Williams; Brady and Manning probably, Derek Jeter and Floyd Mayweather maybe. Woods ... we just don't know what's happening inside his head right now.
Think about the 1950s, '60s, '70s and into the '80s. There was an army of greats in each decade. There was an army of greats sometimes on a single team. The Packers dynasty. Brown's legacy. The Steelers of the '70s spawned a legion of achievers. Jimmy Johnson dared his Cowboys to be great and they were. On and on it goes.
Even the monuments of sport, famous buildings like Yankee Stadium, are being replaced by uninspired monstrosities standing corpulent, soulless.
Today's athletes dream more about shoe deals and soda commercials. They want to be LeBron Gates not LeBron Greats.
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About a 90-minute train ride from Rome is Florence, where Michelangelo's David stands as a 17-foot tall marble masterpiece. The line outside to see it is about 100 people long despite the stubborn humidity. Inside, everyone again stares upward, in a trance. Few can believe what they're seeing.
There were Michelangelos in sports. There were. A great many.
Now, with a few exceptions, there are almost none. Hopefully, in the decades to come, all of that will change.
But for the moment it's the anti-Renaissance.