If you follow tennis, you may know that Maria Sharapova was suspended in 2016 for using a drug called meldonium that had very recently been added to the WADA ban list. Her predictable excuse was that she didn't know it was banned—it had been administered to her for a decade under a different name—and for all we know, that may be true. It didn't sway the authorities, of course, who suspended her for more than a year. She returned to the WTA Tour this April, but French Open officials denied her a wild card, which also effectively kept her out of Wimbledon. That meant this month's U.S. Open was her first grand slam in 18 months, and because the sports-media complex loathes nothing so much as holding an athlete accountable, ESPN treated the comeback like the glorious return of a conquering hero.
Sharapova drew Simona Halep in the first round—an extremely tough opponent—and won in three sets. Tom Rinaldi was on hand to conduct the on-court interview on Arthur Ashe Stadium, and if you didn't know the circumstances behind Sharapova's suspension, you might have thought she was making her brave return from some harrowing injury or other personal tragedy. (I'll let you take a wild guess as to whether Rinaldi ever mentioned the word "suspension.")
The four-minute exchange was your typically insipid TV pablum, totally incurious and utterly forgettable...at least until the very end. That's when Rinaldi asked what she "learned" from the match. You can watch her response, in all its cringe-y glory, starting at the 3:31 mark of the video below:
GAHHHH. No. No. No. So trite, so awful, so fake. I've watched it 100 times, and will watch it 50 more, but I wish I'd never seen it even once. Here's that exchange, transcribed:
Rinaldi: There were so many questions surrounding your return, at least from the outside, what did you learn tonight?
Sharapova: That behind all these Swarovski crystals and little black dresses, this girl has a lot of grit, and she's not going anywhere.
In one sentence, she managed to embody the worst of Hollywood (the hacky self-directed motivational speech), the worst of modern sports culture (nice product placement with the crystals!), and the worst of self-worship. Plus, the acting—this whole thing was obviously prepared ahead of time, which is even sadder—makes me want to hide in a corner in the fetal position. "I may be stylish and attractive, but I'm also a real gutsy scrapper!" Sharapova has been sports royalty almost from the start of her career, and to cast herself as the plucky underdog because she got suspended for taking a banned substance—with ESPN's complicity—is the worst.
On to the superlatives!
The Ambivalent "This Sport is Back" National Reaction of the Week: FOOTBAW
I have to confess something bizarre: I didn't watch a minute of college football this past weekend, and this is coming from a college football addict. I gave up the NFL regular season for my own sanity a few years ago—I can't spend two weekend days in front of the television without feeling like human slime on Sunday night—but my typical college football Saturday began with Gameday at 11 and ended at about 2 a.m., watching with bloodshot eyes as Hawaii tried to score its 70th point to squeak out a narrow win over San Jose State in a game that featured zero running plays and lasted approximately five hours.
So why was I absent on Saturday? Part of it, I won't lie, is that I've become a deranged tennis junkie in the past two years and was glued to the U.S. Open. Even so, missing the start of the season would have been an unthinkable act of blasphemy even a year ago. The truth is, the anti-football takes are getting to me. I won't pretend that I think the sport is dying—or that it will lose its centrality to American life—but the negativity surrounding almost every aspect of the sport has become overwhelming that the prospect of engaging is less appealing than ever before. It felt like a relief not to watch Saturday's games, even though there's still so much to love about the atmosphere.
Yet between the violence, the injuries, the cheating, the sad hyper-masculine culture, the rampant and unshakable institutional corruption, the unavoidable politics, and even the bad officiating, football has become an oppressive entity in American sports life. It almost feels, at this point, like you are making an ethical decision just by sitting down and watching it. And while I'm not one to pretend there's some artificial separation between sports and political ethics, I do want my viewing experience to be joyous and light. Particularly in the year 2017, a little escapism goes a long way. Watching football, or even the prospect of watching football, makes me feel like there's an anchor tied around my waist. When I sit down on my couch and take remote in hand, I don't want to feel that I'm supporting something ugly by the simple act of turning on the TV—it's too much thought, too much stress, in a moment that should be pure relaxation.
Look, fundamentally I'm a hypocrite, so I'll get over this, and I'm sure I'm not done with the sport. And clearly, football will continue to dominate the national sports landscape. But it can't be a good sign that even a former junkie like me is getting cold feet in September, right? Or maybe that's just self-importance, and football will reign forever. Maybe. But it feels like something has changed.
Worst Protest Ever: Cleveland Police Union
Here's the situation: You're a police union, and you're mad that a group of players from the local professional football team will protest the state of affairs in our country by kneeling during the national anthem. How do you react?
If you're the Cleveland Police Patrolman's Association, the answer is: By protesting the anthem. Seriously. The CPPA is refusing to participate in the flag ceremony at the Browns' home opener because they're mad that team management is allowing its players to exercise freedom of expression. I guess that's their right, but isn't it a little counter-productive? Like, isn't it basically saying, "these people are criticizing our country, so to protest them, we're not even going to represent our country"?
I look forward to a year of national anthem news, which is definitely going to be productive and not at all soul-wearying and petty.
The Weirdest Two At-Bats of the Season: Jose Ramirez, Cleveland Indians
Hey, how about some fun video!!! No more of this sad angry commentary! Here's Mikie Mahtook with what must be the funniest screw-up by an outfielder since Jose Canseco took a home run ball off the noggin:
And this is weird—later in that same game, Ramirez managed to hit the top of the wall again:
This just proves, yet again, that there will never be a sport quite as strange, or quite as wonderful, as baseball.