In situations like this, the modern sports fanatic’s impulse is to find a convenient place to dump all that rage and thwarted ambition.
Point a bony finger at someone – anyone – and break out the tar and feathers, usually while blithely ignoring the evidence and other, often more crucial plot points.
It’s ridiculous, but these are the times in which we live.
Ask Brian Bratton, the latest to be daubed with radioactive ink because of his inability to come down with a last-second end zone grab in last Sunday’s East Division final (which would have put his Montreal Alouettes a point-after attempt away from tying a game they lost 27-20).
Bratton’s not the first athlete to be scapegoated – paging Mr. Bill Buckner – his particular misfortune is the non-catch happened in the era of social media, whose adherents demand a culpable party be identified for immediate and permanent stigmatization.
In this case, the object of some CFL fans’ irrational ire is a quiet 30-year-old from South Carolina who spends his off-seasons counselling wayward kids and poor people.
There’s nothing remotely fair about it, and some of the treatment Bratton has suffered from “fans” on Twitter and Facebook has been downright ugly.
“I got a lot of messages of support, I got messages that were, uh, not so good … it’s disappointing, but I have thick skin,” said Bratton, a two-time Grey Cup champion and six-year veteran who is viewed as the consummate pro inside the Als room. “I was a guy who accepted everybody [as online friends and followers] to try to give them that personal touch, to let them into my life a little bit. That might have backfired a little … people are passionate about their team, they’re disappointed like we were disappointed, and the first thing they’re looking for is: ‘Why?’ ”
While Bratton said after the game the play would haunt him as long as he lives, the fact is pro football players learn to deal with such things.
“We’ve all had those moments. We don’t want ’em, but you have to walk out with your head high,” fellow Als receiver S.J. Green said.
The rangy Green grew up in football-mad Florida and, like Bratton, he learned from childhood many fans have no tolerance for costly mistakes.
“Coming from where I’m from, we start them early, 5, 6, 7, eight years old. The guys in the neighbourhood, they bet on the games. That young,” he said. “Seeing it from that perspective told me football was big, people care about it and if you don’t make that play or if you come up short, there can be a lot of bitterness.”
Serious, discerning football fans understand Bratton didn’t cost the Als the game.
Had Green not knocked down a sure interception on the previous play, perhaps quarterback Anthony Calvillo would be wearing the blame.
Had Bratton caught the ball and the Als somehow won, Toronto receiver Andre Durie would be the one getting carved into small pieces on talk radio and Argos fans’ Twitter feeds (his fumble gave the Als the ball in the final minutes).
As it happens, Bratton’s was a tough play to make.
Defensive back Pacino Horne leaped to try and intercept the ball – and nearly did – as Bratton twisted in the air. The ball ended up hitting his right shoulder pad and bouncing away.
“I’ve seen the replay, I can’t tell if he got a hand on it, he definitely blocked my view … I felt it hit me and then it was on the ground. It’s a tough play, people probably don’t know unless you’re in it,” Bratton said. “I’ve played it over and over, but I’m moving on now … what can you do? You can’t turn the clock back, you don’t let one play ruin the whole season of good plays.”
He’s right. But football is an unsentimental game; Bratton is set to become a free agent on Feb. 15, and is coming off a pair of injury-shortened seasons.
It’s an open question whether the Als will seek to re-sign him.
It seems wrong, somehow, that Bratton, a guy who has provided yeoman service for so long and played much of this season on one leg could be remembered for a split-second play at the end of a playoff loss.
It’s a small tragedy in the great scheme of things. What is off-putting is too many fans don’t recognize it.