Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Go Team Go

So, the Super Bowl has come and gone. Another football season, full of rushes, passes, long marches down the field; bone-crushing tackles, swaggering narcissism, and head injuries. For the life of me, I don't understand pro football any more.

But I used to enjoy it. (Caution: nostalgia ahead.) The game could be violent, yes, but it wasn't showcased. There was a certain grace and beauty to the game, which, while it hasn't been entirely lost, is well hidden these days, and only shines through on occasion. The rules were the same throughout the game, too. You didn't need to worry if there was less than two, or five, minutes on the clock, and if the player ran out of bounds before or after that. If the clock stopped, it started when the ball snapped. When the quarter ended, the back judge would pull out a gun (yes!) and fire it! Yes, they were blanks, but what a unique way to end a period. There was cold, and snow, and muddy fields. Players played and officials worked on Sunday, then returned to their jobs for the rest of the week.

Things aren't the same.

I do recall when players all weighed less than 300 pounds; William "Refrigerator" Perry was a novelty. The likelihood of a player suffering a career-ending injury didn't seem to loom over every play as it does now. Of course, there's a lot of difference between a fast moving linebacker that weighs 230 pounds and 275 pounds. It has to be that way, though, right? We need our 315 pound linemen because they have theirs, and they would crush us if we didn't have them. Certainly. Get that weight together with a high rate of speed, and things don't bounce when they collide; they break. I do not find it surprising, at all, that the rate of injury in the NFL is on the rise, especially head injuries. There seem to be some players that relish driving an opponent into the ground as hard as possible. The league definitely fines a lot of them; every week it's announced who gets fined for doing what to whom. Well, that's done a lot to put an end to it, hasn't it?

These players want you to know what they just did, too. How many times, in just the last season, did you see a catch, run, tackle, or sack, followed by the player that just did it slapping his chest, pointing at the opponent, and/or doing a dippy dance? To unleash a really overbaked cliche, there is no "I" in team. They know that, these players. They don't care about that team. The team is a means to an end, for making themselves look good. Yes, we know, you think you're the greatest thing to ever appear on our television screens. Unfortunately, I don't care, once the teams line up for the next snap, that it was you. Think about the two teams that played in the Super Bowl this year. Aside from the quarterbacks, how many players on those teams could you name?

There's a new breed of fan to go along with the violent, all-about-me game, though. They love it! They scream into the ever-present camera their love for their team, and whatever just happened on the field. They appear each week in their jerseys, faces painted, wearing strings of beads in the team colors. They have sunk hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, into showing their support and loyalty to their team. The team made up of isolated, highly, highly compensated, players who just love this town, until their contract expires. But that doesn't matter! They're OUR team right now! Uh-huh. Until the owner decides he can make more money somewhere else, and moves your team.

Do I sound sour? I am. Pro football seems to me to be more about showing who's boss by how hard you can hurt someone, and preening about it afterward. I am in the minority, however. More people than ever are living and dying by their teams' collective efforts to win, and love the big hits and "smashmouth football" (thanks John Madden, for another weird term). The players and owners want you to think they do it for you, the fans. They do it for the money. The owner pays the best players he can get, so they can win, and winning brings more people in to the games and buying more merchandise. The players want to win because of those bonuses in their contracts, and to get one of those rings, the ultimate "look what I did" symbol.

I realize this is how all pro sports work. Football reminds me of these facts far more often than the others, although pro basketball comes in a close second. Major League Baseball, for all it's faults, makes an effort (except for the Yankees, and everyone hates them anyway) to make those players available to the public. Our local team recently held TwinsFest, where every single player on the roster was there at least two of the three days. They weren't constantly available, but they would rotate around. You could wait in line if you wanted to, and pay for an autograph if you liked. If you knew how to find them (an open secret, at best) when they weren't at the "autograph stations," they were still happy to chat briefly, or take a picture with the kids. They had even set up appearances in the "Kids zone," where only kids were able to ask questions of the players there. Once the season begins, they're still out and about on off days, showing up at restaurants, or during the time school and baseball overlap, dropping in on schools. It's much easier to connect with a baseball player than a football player, it seems, and I think baseball is much the better for it.

Let me end with a suggestion for you. If you like sports, check out your local high schools. Here you will find students playing the sports that they love, and doing it for that reason, their love for the game. Except for a very special few, this is the last team that they will play with, in an organized league. They play for their school; their fellow students know them, and they cheer for these players because hey, those are our guys! Sometimes, if you're lucky, you will get a glimpse of someone that is a phenomenon, and you wait for the day when they've "made it big." This is where all those pros begin, and where most of the careers end. I used to think those tears you'd see, when the championship game ended on the losing team's faces, were because they lost the big game. They shouldn't be so upset, look at all they did just to get there! I know why now. This was the last time they just played the game they loved. There will never be another time for them.

I've been lucky enough, for the last 21 years, to be my former high school's "Official Timer," to quote the rule book, for boys and girls basketball. There I've seen more than 1,000 games, and there have been some spectacular ones. A pro basketball game, which goes three overtimes, seen from your TV, is fun to watch. I can tell you from experience, a high-school basketball game, which goes three overtimes, in the high-school's gym, surrounded by 2,000 fans, most of whom are connected to the teams in the game, is an experience! You owe it to yourself to be a part of a game where the players love what they're doing, and with all the passion of knowing that, for most of them, their time is limited. You don't find that sort of game with the pros!