I don't have a real rooting interest in the game tonight. But a part of me is rooting for the 49ers, only because I'd like to see a championship for Randy Moss-- one of the most transcendently gifted and criminally mistreated athletes of my life.
I typically don't get particularly exercised about sports, but Moss has become one of those issues on which I'm willing to rise to genuine anger. At his peak, Moss was, in my estimation, the most dangerous weapon in the history of football. Take it from a Bears fan who often had to watch him brutalize our defense twice a year: you felt genuine fear when he lined up. He was exhilarating and dominant. And he did it with, shall we say, frequently uninspiring quarterback play. Recently Moss declared himself the best WR ever, provoking guffaws from many who prefer Jerry Rice. But Rice, of course, had either Joe Montana or Steve Young throwing to him for the large majority of his career-- two QBs who are probably among the top 5, and certainly among the top 10, to ever play the game. Daunte Culpepper had a few glory years, but some poor ones as well.
The football case, I'm sorry to say, is not really what's defined Moss's career. Today, he is commonly talked about as a disappointment or worse. And it is eminently clear to me that this interpretation is totally bound up in his race. The case against Moss on the football field is like a rundown of every racist sports trope you can think of: his production is all about natural talent and athleticism, not work ethic; he lacks character/leadership/team spirit/toughness; he never got the most out of his talent; he loafed and dogged it; and he generally did not play "the right way," a vague term that is almost always applied to white athletes who are sold as hustlers and hard workers. Moss's off-the-field sins, which many people casually assume are significant, are largely minor. He has been associated with smoking weed; if he does smoke, it's a habit he shares with millions of Americans, and which large percentages of Americans believe he should be legally allowed to do. A notorious incident in a playoff game, where Moss mined mooning the crowd in Green Bay, has been replayed endlessly. I honestly didn't think it was that bad at the moment, despite Joe Buck's absurd howls; afterwards, when I learned that Green Bay fans are notorious for actually mooning opposing teams, I found it funny and totally fair. Much more serious is an allegation of domestic violence. The charges and an attendant restraining order were later dropped by his accuser, and there was never a formal exploration of the facts. I take the accusation very seriously, but I also don't feel that I can fairly judge him for an accusation that was later rescinded.
A strong case can be made that Jerry Rice was a better WR than Moss. It's fine to think that Moss should have accomplished more in the last years of his career, when he bounced around and wasn't productive. But the notion that he is some sort of terrible disappointment, or that he's some terribly malcontent or thug, is just ridiculous. And given the way that the complaints about him always echo typical attempts to undermine black athletes, I have to believe that race is a factor. This is especially the case because of Moss's self-presentation-- thick Southern accent, oftentimes a big afro, considerable (and admirable) disdain for hoary old sports cliches.
Compounding all of this is Moss's relationship to Boston, home of the New England Patriots. I was listening to the BS Report, Bill Simmons's podcast, and his regular guest Sal Iacono said something like, "It must kill you that Moss might win a championship." That's hardly an unfair thing for Iacono to say, as many Boston fans indeed have animosity towards Moss. But while listening I couldn't help but ask myself, why? He was transcendent for the Patriots. Yes, the relationship turned sour. But it takes two to tango, and he would hardly have been the first Patriot to leave the team under bad terms during the Belicheck era. Making this worse is the fact that, during their undefeated regular season, everyone involved with the Patriots went out of their way to say what a model citizen Moss was being. It was only later that Moss was suddenly regarded as a malcontent. For all that he accomplished for that team, to be turned into an object of derision so quickly is shortsighted and unfair.
Boston teams, fans, and media have a really ugly history of this sort of thing. Once there is a dispute between a Boston team and a player or coach, the Boston media immediately begins to undermine him. Anonymous quotes are printed, "team sources" reveal embarrassing details, and efforts are generally made to insist that the person on the outs was a bad citizen. It happened with Nomar Garciaparra, it happened with Manny Ramirez, it happened with Terry Francona, it happened with Antoine Walker, and it happened with Moss. Speaking as someone from New England, it's deeply depressing how much of the fanbase tends to march in lockstep with whatever story ownership has dreamed up. Boston's history of race problems-- which continue, according to many black residents-- makes all of this a little bit darker. I wince every time I hear Patriot fans wax on about how much more they like Wes Welker than Randy Moss. The love for Welker is the perfect complement to the disdain for Moss: Welker is a gamer; he thrives on superior effort; he maximizes limited talent; he has heart, guts, character; he "plays the right way." The contrast between them is indeed illustrative, but not in the way most people pointing it out think. Personally? I'd rather have a one-armed Randy Moss than Wes Welker.
I am not making a blanket accusation of racism against Boston sports fans, of course-- I know and love many. And I am not making a blanket accusation of racism against critics of Randy Moss. But I am asking that people think a little bit harder before they make these kinds of critiques. Sports are all bound up with racial politics, and our sports narratives have a long history of echoing racist tropes long after it has become verboten to express them explicitly. I also think that sports fans in general should be far, far less credulous towards stories of bad behavior from players and coaches who are out of favor with team management; local sports media, after all, has far more incentive to tell ownership's side than that of employees. Finally, I'm asking that you appreciate the career of one of the most electrifying athletes of all time. Constantly complaining about what someone didn't accomplish is unfair, when they did accomplished so much. And it's a perverse habit, anyway; it takes enjoyment and makes it into disappointment.