Taylor: Luck’s fame could make him a divisive figure

July 28, 2011, 1:46 a.m.

I was recently asked who was the most polarizing athlete on the Farm. My answer: star quarterback Andrew Luck.

I admit that might seem a little surprising given last year’s record-breaking season, his decision to honor us with one more year instead of immediately cashing in at the NFL Draft and his numerous fans both on campus and within the ranks of the media and pros. I also should probably own up to the fact that having been away from Stanford for a while, my knowledge of current athletes is a little rusty. But this was more than just picking one of the few names I know: Luck might just turn out to be the most divisive person on campus this year, not despite the positive effect he has had on Stanford football but because of it.

It would be wrong to attribute all of the program’s recent success to a single player, since, as the sports cliche goes, you win or lose as a team. But it’s undeniable that he is by far the most famous college athlete on our campus. He caught national attention last year with a season that would have earned him the top pick in the NFL Draft—that is, until he brushed the chance aside in favor of earning his degree—and when he returns for that final year of college football, all eyes on and off the Farm will be turned his way, scrutinizing his every move. Opposing fans will be looking for weaknesses; the Red Zone will be praying for another record-breaking season; NFL scouts will be analyzing his natural skills and physical condition. Commentators and pundits—aside from delighting in the obvious headline puns provided by his name—will be watching slow-motion repeat after slow-motion repeat of his every play.

Perhaps he will have that ultimate season, leading the Cardinal undefeated to the inaugural Pac-12 title, capturing an improbable—for Stanford—national championship, winning the Heisman Trophy, justifying a No. 1 draft pick—again—and, of course, graduating from the Farm in June. But life isn’t normally that perfect. There are a million things that could go wrong: a moment of indecision, a misplaced pass, even the threatening specter of injury. Hollywood ending or not, though, there will be innumerable moments to discuss and argue about.

And that is exactly why he will be so divisive. Freshmen will arrive on campus not only already knowing his name, but with all sorts of opinions about his strengths and weaknesses. Foreigners like me who may know practically nothing about football will at least know what a quarterback is. And as for the rest of you, seasoned Stanford fans or hardened enemies, don’t try to tell me you won’t have an opinion. Simply put, the more people who watch, the more they’ll disagree.

The typical idea of a polarizing athlete is one who breaks the rules, legal or athletic. But I disagree. Take, for example, soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo: he clearly has phenomenal ability, but he infuriates fans with his blatant cheating. He should be polarizing, but he’s not. Everyone I’ve ever chatted to about him—including a fair share of fans of his former club, Manchester United, and current team, Real Madrid—has basically had the same opinion: he’d be great without the attitude. There isn’t a black and white difference of opinion; those who cheer for him only do so only as a result of team loyalty.

Where Ronaldo becomes divisive is in the fact that he is a player who can win or lose games. Everyone watching knows who he is, and everyone knows who to blame when things go wrong. For another soccer example, just see how Argentinian fans treated Lionel Messi, unequivocally the best player in the world today, during their team’s less-than-stellar performance in the Copa America. The quarterback position in football is the same, if not even more critical. Most soccer players can play in different roles, but it would be unthinkable to switch a lineman to quarterback.

Because Luck has brought so much attention to himself, because he has set the bar so high and because his position on the field is so critical, his mistakes—and he will make mistakes—will stand out more than those of perhaps any other college athlete this year. And because it is always easy to do so from the sidelines, we will blame him, we will criticize him and we will have easily enough material to endlessly argue amongst ourselves.

With any Luck, you find Tom Taylor the most polarizing columnist on this staff. Air your grievances at tom.taylor “at” stanford.edu.

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