Athletes talking shit to each other is hardly a new story. Every kid who ever played sports in high school knows that shit-talking is a time-honored tradition in competitive athletics. The winners shit-talk the losers; the losers shit-talk the winners; the fans shit-talk the players, shit-talk the other team's fans, shit-talk each other. Screwing with people's minds is an American pastime.
It is also, among athletes, a very Darwinian process. Those who take it personally and let it negatively affect their game are weeded out, until you have, in professional sports, a group of men who are not so easily rattled.
Whenever a "war of words" breaks out between two teams, as it did last week in the run-up to the Jets-Patriots game, we learn a lot more about the quirks and insecurities not of the players who speak out, but of the reporters who beg them to. Next time a player sounds off about his next opponent, watch the clip closely. He'll seem exasperated, and the key quotes will come in some final, dismissive flurry of words muttered in the hopes of ending the line of questioning. The reporter wants this soundbite, he needs this soundbite, and he will do anything to get this soundbite. Antonio Cromartie's "Fuck him" line about Tom Brady was, I suspect, less about Brady as a person and more about the ceaseless monsoon of Brady-scorched-you-the-last-time-you-played-and-appeared-to-be-rubbing-it-in-while-he-was-doing-it questions. Look at the full exchange:
Cromartie, in his first year with the Jets after four years with the Chargers, backed up Ryan Tuesday when he was asked by the Daily News if he's ever seen Brady pointing after the Patriots score.
"We see that a lot. He does it a lot," Cromartie said. "That's the kind of guy he is. We really don't give a damn, to tell you the truth."
Okay, what kind of guy is Brady?
If you asked me about kittens all day for a week, when all I was trying to do was take a shower and go home, then, yes, eventually I'd say, "Fuck kittens." Because what I'd really be saying is, "Fuck you."
That's not to say that players aren't complicit in making this bullshit machine hum. They know what the reporters come for, and they know what will keep them coming back, to that same locker, whenever they need to whip up a story. Some players obviously enjoy it and take pride in being the mouthpiece of the organization. But most players understand that it's a media game played on the media's terms, and they choose not to participate. When interviewed, they speak in banalities and platitudes, offering little or no original insight. This is because little or no insight is required to keep the machine churning. Reporters usually have the stories written in their heads. They just need the player to agree so they can plug in his quotes to complete the piece. That's why you'll often hear questions like: "The last time you played this team, you turned the ball over four times and lost the game by three points. How important will it be to win the turnover battle this weekend?" A less leading question risks a more thoughtful response, one that might contradict the premise of the story the reporter has more or less already written. So the sportswriters' questions supply their own answers.
That's the case even with the questions that lead players to insult their opponents. "Okay, what kind of guy is Brady?" Take the bait and call Tom Brady a little bitch. That's the story just aching to be written, not because Cromartie wants to call Tom Brady a bitch, but because the media want to call Tom Brady a bitch, so they find a guy who will say it for them. But Brady knows this. He knows that Cromartie, in this situation, is little more than the least-composed member of the Jets' defensive backfield, coaxed over the line by a relentless, conflict-loving New York media (who of course will turn around and scold the Jets for engaging in the conflict the media concocted). For this reason, Brady probably didn't take any of the Jets' chatter very seriously, whether it was Cromartie's jabs or whatever nonsense head coach Rex Ryan was spewing.
And herein lies Rex Ryan's genius. By controlling the media narrative — "This is about Bill Belichick versus Rex Ryan," he said, just about writing the headline for everyone — and by letting Cromartie attack the Golden Boy, he could also control national expectations for the outcome. No way can Rex Ryan beat Bill Belichick. No way can Cromartie beat Brady. This might be a stretch here, but I'll go so far as to say that Ryan's manipulation of the media actually pushed the line further than it already was, resulting in a -9 for the Patriots. Nine points is a bit much against a team that looked so good in beating the Colts the week prior, unless you believe that it's a battle between Belichick/Brady vs. Ryan/Cromartie. Then I'll take the Pats to cover.
Meanwhile, behind closed doors, Ryan was building up his players for an ass-whooping. It's obviously impossible to know exactly how he did it, what he said, what message he conveyed and how he conveyed it. But Sal Palontonio's postgame interview with Bart Scott offered a small glimpse into Rex Ryan's psychological approach during the week. Scott's emotions were raw, and he vented about the lack of respect that the Jets' third-ranked defense was shown in the week leading up to the game. He also sent a parting shot to the Patriots' D, which, he said, couldn't "stop a nosebleed." I pay close attention to sports media, and no one was bashing the Jets' defense or making unfavorable comparisons to the Patriots' defense. But Bart Scott believed otherwise. This tells you exactly what Rex was telling his team. No one respects us. They think this entire league is about Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Well, fuck them! It's about the guys in this room. I believe in all of you. Fuck everyone else. Bart Scott may have been talking, but those were his coach's words — literally. This is how Rex Ryan described the Jets' third-quarter defense in their loss to the Bears in December: "We couldn't stop a nosebleed."
The best, most effective shit-talk all week, I'd wager, was whatever Ryan told his own guys in the locker room. The Cromartie-Brady dust-up was a made-for-television event. It was all pretend. If they saw each other in a bar, they'd be all smiles and hugs. (The players who really hate each other don't talk about it in front of cameras, because they know how truly personal it is.) But Bart Scott's anger was very real, even if the disrespecting critics existed only in his head, courtesy of Rex Ryan. That is how you motivate jaded professionals. You lie. And it's a lie you can live with, because you know that in the world of professional sports, you have to find ways to keep your players riding that edge. That edge is what the Jets had and the Patriots didn't. The lesson of last week's war of words isn't that the Jets successfully screwed with New England's mind. It's that Rex Ryan successfully screwed with everyone's mind.