The more Warren Sapp talks, the more we have to commend the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters for their ability to separate professional substance from personal style. When they decided to send Sapp to Canton in August to collect his yellow jacket, they overlooked the spigot under his nose in favor of work he did on the field -- a careful division of the phony from the genuine.
As an athlete, Sapp constituted something of an original, a new prototype for defensive linemen. As a personality, he routinely descended into farce.
Sapp always longed to cross over from jock royalty to full-scale celebrity. He followed Jose Canseco's credo -- "I'm not just an athlete, I'm an entertainer'' -- from the moment he arrived in the NFL. To this day, he is never as funny as he tries to be, and he laughs endlessly at his own jokes. But Sapp's disdain for his sport's willful smothering of anything resembling a personality still merits a nod to the effort.
His obsession with Michael Strahan, however, reveals the fundamental weaknesses of his act. Seething envy, the usual suspect behind most Sapp comments about Strahan, doesn't even crack the Top 5. The shots have become startlingly redundant and rehearsed, so scripted that they could be political sloganeering if the slogans veered miles off message.
"For all of the people who are not historians of the football as I am, Michael Strahan started his career at right defensive end in New York to replace Lawrence Taylor. The great Lawrence Taylor. In those three years he (Strahan) had 12 sacks, which averages out to four a year. So they put 'B-U-S' and they said, 'Wait, before we call him a bust let's move him to the left side.' Hey, there you go. 10 1/2 sacks a year, 128. He's a great left end. Simeon Rice (had) 122 (sacks) at right end and ain't never been moved.''
Let's set aside the facts that Reggie White also played most of his career on the left side and that Strahan was a better run defender than Sapp. Let's look past the oddity of Sapp still railing about the former Giant even though Hall of Fame voters put him, and not Strahan, into Canton this year. If his intent was to talk about Rice, why did he make most of the argument about Strahan?
As much as he chafes at Strahan's daytime-television fame, Sapp knows that invoking the co-host of "Live with Kelly and Michael'' gave him a huge platform. He couldn't draft off his ex-teammate's name. Simeon Rice alone wouldn't add buzz to his remarks.
After the Hall of Fame vote, Sapp expressed some surprise that the panel rejected the allure of the "media darling" Strahan and admitted him instead, but he seems more distracted by Strahan's celebrity than anyone else. Sapp is now, via his NFL Network perch, a member of the media, and he clearly finds the former Giant irresistible. He willingly casts himself in Strahan's shadow, forgetting that apathy, not hostility, is the opposite of adoration. Strahan, meanwhile, barely notices Sapp anymore.
In this go-around, Sapp was bested by a public relations guy. The Giants' Pat Hanlon tweeted on Tuesday night: "Warren Sapp should take Brian Cashman's advice …"
When comments bring out the Bill Maher in a team flak, the commenter has long ceased to be a provocative antidote to NFL culture. These days, Sapp's big act of rebellion appears to be not raising his hand before he wisecracks from the back of the classroom.
Even when he appeared on "Dancing with the Stars," to hilarious effect, Sapp did nothing terribly original. That path for NFL players began years earlier with Jerry Rice, who endured the mockery and accusations of post-NFL desperation that attend such pioneering. Sapp drafted off him, too, years after dismantling Rice's anterior cruciate ligament by grabbing his facemask and hurling him to the turf in a motion that twisted his knee out of joint. (See the 3:45 mark.)
In his autobiography, Sapp wrote that he had heard Rice was upset he didn't call him to apologize. "You don't apologize for a clean hit,'' he said disingenuously in "Sapp Attack.'' He also went into a long rationalization for laying out the Packers' Chad Clifton in 2002. He often sounds like a lawyer mounting a defense on details more than the man behind the nickname QBKilla.
He advertised his book's candor, but when questions arose on the publicity tour about his bankruptcy and his divorce, Sapp did a lot of bobbing and weaving.
Sapp eventually mustered an apology for Jeremy Shockey, whom he accused of being a snitch in the Saints' bounty affair, in part because the unsubstantiated broadside threatened his commentary gig. Again, Sapp had tried to position himself as a rebel, taking on the commissioner's prosecutorial zeal, but all he really did in the end was malign a fellow player. It's an old act.
Maybe at one time, Sapp could be simultaneously entertaining and genuine. He definitely worked to befriend members of the media, if he thought they could help him. Most, at some point, saw through Sapp and still appreciated him as an athlete. That's how he got into Canton, where he will receive a bust, a jacket and a microphone.
Ten years ago, his Hall of Fame speech would have been anticipated as a treat. Now, we have to wonder if it will be a cynic's drinking game. Sapp stopped being able to surprise us a long time ago. The induction ceremony gives him a fresh chance to be unpredictable, and genuine for the first time in ages.