Warren Sapp was not a dirty player
Warren Sapp is enjoying something of a national renaissance after spending a few years in the literal “Black Hole” that is the Oakland Raiders franchise (team motto: controversy free since noon yesterday!). Sapp has a television gig with Showtime’s “Inside the NFL,” is a commercial pitch man for Fantasy Football and just last week made it past the first few episodes of “Dancing With the Stars.”

How impressive were Warren’s dance moves? Let’s just say that that I am a big fan of Misty May Treanor’s (ahem) well-rounded body of work and I thought Sapp was the star of the week. Sapp won over the judges in spite of a purple suit that made #99 look like the spawn of an unholy alliance of super villain The Joker and Grimace from Ronald McDonald-land.

Despite the feel-good aura around Sapp, the future Hall of Famer is still stepping into controversy. A couple of weeks ago Sapp made the claim that University of Florida coach Urban Meyer was “a classless dirtbag” for running up the score on the University of Miami Hurricanes. Many responded that Sapp should not cast stones considering the reputation the Hurricanes had for running up the score during the early 1990’s.

Now I won’t defend the University of Miami (after all I am a Florida State graduate!!), but the next argument trotted out by the media against Sapp for his comment was both unfair and inaccurate.

In an attempt to re-write history, many pundits brought up the Chad Clifton/Mike Sherman incident of 2002 to paint Sapp as a dirty football player whose opinions on matters of class left a lot to be desired. Coupled with Elbert Mack’s suspension for a really stupid cheap shot on Falcon quarterback Matt Ryan in Week Two, images of Sapp’s devastating block during the Super Bowl run were brought out again. That my friends is a bogus argument of the first degree.

I do not take issue with the fact that many argue Sapp is a controversial figure. Sapp didn’t exactly cover himself in class as a player. After all, Sapp had a well-documented reputation for being rude during interviews and downright inconsiderate to fans.

Instead I DO take issue with castigating Sapp as a dirty player. Say what you will about Sapp, he was not a dirty player. Sapp’s inaccurate portrayal as a dirty player came because of the block on Clifton and the former lineman’s heated exchange with Sherman, the former Packers coach.

The block occurred on a Brian Kelly interception during a closely fought contest with the Green Bay Packers. Kelly picked off a Brett Favre pass and zig-zagged from one side of the field to the other, as any good defensive back is coached to do.

Clifton, not paying particular attention to his surroundings, was leveled on a block by Sapp. Many felt the block was a vicious example of football brutality. To me it was an example of what can happen when you don’t pay attention. Sapp’s job on an interception return was to become a blocker. Given that Kelly had a reputation for broken field running on interceptions, it was only logical that Sapp take out Clifton on the chance that Kelly may have cut back towards the middle of the field from the sideline.

Clifton’s responsibility on an interception was to avoid being blocked in an attempt to make a tackle. Clifton did not do his job while Sapp did his. The fact that Clifton was seriously injured on the play was unfortunate, but it was not the result of a dirty play.

After the game coach Mike Sherman got into Sapp’s face and harassed him over the play. Sapp got right back in Sherman’s face and infamously yelled, “If you’re so tough, put a helmet on.”

That sound bite and video clip were played over and over for the rest of the 2002 season until it eventually died away only to be resurrected again recently. The lesson to be learned here is not, “How dare anyone pick on Warren Sapp.” He is more than capable of defending himself.

Instead the lesson for any pundit is that it is quite easy to manipulate history, but if you do so you run the risk of looking foolish. Anybody using the Clifton incident to paint Warren Sapp as a cheap-shotting brute took a very lazy view of history and their opinions should be summarily discounted.