One of the pleasures and privileges of spectator sports is affixing cartoon images of hero and villain upon those we see as deserving. Since we are discouraged from doing such things to family, fellow workers, students (and everyone except Cuban dictators), sports teams and players such as, say, Alex Rodriguez, are delightful target — even if booing him 12 years after he left Seattle is as irrational as it is irresistible.
Saturday brings a new villain to town: Brian Mullan.
He’s the guy who almost a year ago broke the leg of one of the Sounders’ best players, Steve Zakuani, with a tackle so vicious that Zakuani had to undergo multiple surgeries and won’t return to game action until next month at the earliest.
Mullan, a top player for the Colorado Rapids, was whacked with a 10-game suspension, tied for the longest suspension in MLS history.
But Zakuani had to spend five days in a Denver hospital before returning to Seattle via private jet. Besides the broken tibia and fibula, nerve damage to his right foot was severe enough that his career was in jeopardy for a time. The rehab has been excruciating.
He’s running now, getting healthier after losing 18 pounds, but it took a year-long bite out of his career.
So Sounders fans have a reason to work up a lather when Mullan steps on the Clink pitch at 1 p.m. for his first appearance since the episode. Mullan made things worse with his post-match remarks that displayed a galling insensitivity.
“It was a tackle I’ve done a hundred times,” he said, “and I’d probably do it again.”
But in the post-game interview, he had no idea of the extent of Zakuani’s injuries, even though he went off the field on an ambulance gurney. Months later, Mullan, who declined to talk about the episode prior the Saturday match, now is remorseful.
“I still have a hard time with it,” he told Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl in a lengthy story in February. “It wakes me up in the middle of the night, and I can’t get back to sleep thinking about it.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t know the extent of [the injury] until I was on my way home from the stadium. I had done the interview after the game and had no idea of the severity. It came down pretty hard afterward.”
At 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds, Mullan, 33, doesn’t look like a bully, and his previous behavior betrayed no tendency for mayhem. Before the Sounders game, he had gone five MLS seasons and 121 games without a red card. And he’s had great success — he’s been a part of five MLS champions, tied for most in league history.
“I lost the ball and saw an opportunity where I thought I could get it back,” Mullan told SI about the moments before the tackle. “And unfortunately the outcome was devastating.”
A month later at the Clink, during the 11th minute of a match against Toronto, many fans lifted placards bearing Zakuani’s jersey number, 11.
“I have those pictures up in my house,” Zakuani told SI. “It’s something I’ll keep the rest of my life.”
After Mullan returned from his suspension, Zakuani texted him. They talked on the phone. There are no hard feelings from Zakuani, for which Mullan is deeply grateful.
Now, the question becomes: How will he be received in Seattle?
The Twitterverse has been alive with suggestions this week. I don’t suppose anyone can begrudge fans who pay for the privilege of attending, and who give freely of their hearts, to unload on Mullan. It won’t be the worst thing.
The better thing would be to maintain a silence at his introduction, sight or ball possession. The best thing would be polite applause.
For crustier fans, that’s sounds so Seattle — hugging instead of hollering. I don’t care. If the notion of sportsmanship is utterly abandoned, if games are given over to the Gregg Williamses of the world, sports drift more quickly toward “Thunderdome.” Grudges only inflame contempt. Nothing good comes from belligerence toward an unintentional, albeit ghastly, moment that is severely regretted, and already forgiven.
One can choose to disbelieve Mullan’s subsequent remorse. But to call him a liar atop a scoundrel is too much for me. A terrible sports mistake was made a year ago, but the price has been paid by all parties.
Besides, we still have A-Rod.