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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Unsportsmanlike Conduct

Posted By on Thu, Aug 14, 2008 at 7:41 PM

I'm pretty sure there's no penalty for taunting in hockey. I'm positive there isn't going to be any penalty for Mario Lemieux's taunting Pittsburgh about his new hockey rink, either.

But I kinda wish someone would highstick him anyway.

At a groundbreaking ceremony for his new $290 million arena today, Lemieux told reporters it "wasn't a possibility" the Penguins would ever leave Pittsburgh ... despite the team's threats to the contrary, and Lemieux's well-publicized trips to other cities. 

"We had to do a few things to put pressure on the city and the state, but our goal was to remain here in Pittsburgh all the way," Lemieux is quoted saying in the Tribune-Review. "Those trips to Kansas City and Vegas and other cities was just to go, and have a nice dinner and come back."

Is anyone surprised by this? Probably not. The Trib's editorial page will harrumph and use words like "perfidy," but for the rest of us, the surprise isn't that Lemieux was playing a game. The surprise is that he was such a bad sport after winning it.

He's apparently forgotten how sports stars are supposed to act when they get the big paycheck. Sure, you threatened to hold out or play elsewhere, but when the contract is signed, you smile for the cameras and say you're "just glad to be back playing for the best fans in the world. This is where I hope to end my career." You DON'T say, "Yeah, I took those dumb shits for everything I could. I WOULD have settled for $5 million less. But what the hell, it all gets paid by higher ticket prices anyway. Thanks, suckers!"

There are people who should feel betrayed by Lemieux's admission. I'm thinking of all the fans, the talk-show hosts and the people who called in, the folks who posted on blogs ... the rabid mob that bellowed FOR GOD'S SAKE DIDN'T THE REST OF US REALIZE THE PENGUINS WERE PRACTICALLY LOADING UP THE MOVING VANSRGHGHGHGHADHHXVXCSDF?!?!?!?!?!?!!!.

But it won't happen. For one thing, sports fans aren't as stupid as they like to pretend. I'm sure a lot of them knew it was all bullshit too, but were happy to help Mario out. At worst, some might feel like the loser in high school who gets pushed over by the starting quarterback: As he picks himself out of the cafeteria trash, bits of snickerdoodle in his hair, he says breathlessly, "He -- he -- NOTICED me." 

In fact, the worst part about Lemieux's admission is he could say exactly the same thing on every talk radio show for the next six months. He could publicly light cigars with hundred-dollar bills, grind the embers out on the foreheads of homeless people, and laugh at their torment. And 10 years from now, he could start the whole give-me-a-new-arena process all over again ... and nothing would turn out any differently.

(Not that the Penguins would ever do something like that, of course. I mean team CEO Ken Sawyer told the Trib that "A new arena means we're here, in Pittsburgh, forever." Really, who could doubt such a heartfelt statement now?)

This is the thankless thing about opposing new stadiums. You can gripe about the Steelers and their already-healthy profit margins, and no one wants to listen ... until suddenly a few years later, people are wondering where the Rooneys get off asking for public money to build an ampitheater next door. You can argue that, just because a city retains a team doesn't mean residents will always be proud of it. But no one wants to hear it ... until the Pirates go a decade-plus without a winning season. You can point out in advance that Mario Lemieux is going to bullshit an entire region, and it won't prevent the tactic from working.

But hey. I'm sure that Pens fans are happy, and that local politicos would rather have Lemieux gloat than risk the ire of Pens fans. Plus, Lemieux is a great athlete, supports local charities, and does wonderful things. I guess we should be GRATEFUL he stuck around long enough to rub our faces in today's freshly-broken dirt. 

But the next time an hockey player breaks his word, or sells the Pens out for a better deal elsewhere, I don't want to hear anyone complaining.

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