One autumn Sunday my brother tuned in to watch the game. When a “Law and Order” rerun came on instead of pickup truck commercials, cheerleaders and mayhem, he turned to his wife, Sue, who was reading the newspaper, and asked, “Why do you think they’d cancel the game?” Sue looked around the side of her paper and said, “For stupidity?”
For some, Sunday’s game is not important enough to even proclaim the whole thing as stupid. A friend of mine was once on a business trip the week before the Roman Numeral Game in one of those Florida cities whose sole purpose is to host Super Bowls and Shriners conventions. When I asked her how the scene, the atmosphere, the hype was, she replied she was only vaguely aware of it. “It was like bad background music I could tune out.”
You have to respect someone like that.
I’m a fan and I’ll be watching Sunday. I’ve loved football since I played the game in high school. I’ve been known, along with teammates decades after we last suited up, to start moving furniture around into the 4-3 defense. This usually happens late at night. Those are the times we forget what a perfectly abysmal team we were.
Our coach, Joe “Moon” Baxter, knew what sort of team he had but was not a snarling martinet like many creeps seen patrolling sidelines. Once he called us into a circle surrounding him at practice and began his instructions by saying, in his Ozarks drawl,
“Well, boys, we ain’t real big. But we sure are slow.”
(Coach Moon had breath so bad that even if he was behind you it could chop block you to your knees. When one of us wondered if Coach had ever gone to college, another spoke right up, answering, “Colgate?”)
I have to remind myself that Sunday’s game is not a game. It’s a TV show. Like any good program, it’s got multiple story lines to seduce eyeballs to the flat screen. There’s the novelty of playing the game in the Northeast in February. There’s the cuteness that it’s the Marijuana Bowl. And there’s a loud mouth, chest-beating athlete named Richard Sherman, who sounded off incoherently after a victory, looking crazed, furious and stupid.
Turns out Mr. Sherman is a Stanford grad with a degree in communications, which proves that irony sometimes doesn’t have to be teased out but is gift-wrapped. Mr. Sherman seized the opportunity to get his name on the lips of many people who don’t know the difference between encroachment and interference, though neither, for the uninitiated, is as gross as it sounds.
As author Robert Lipsyte, Island resident and America’s closest observer of the number sports runs on our culture, observed in his brilliant memoir, “An Accidental Sportswriter”: “Now that sports has lost almost all of its moral cachet and is accepted as a branch of the entertainment industry, the customers seem to want the same rigorous scandalmongering that music and politics enjoy.”
Communication expert Mr. Sherman banked on Mr. Lipsyte’s wisdom and is now cashing checks.
Coach Moon was not much of a communicator, although he tried. He once — in a circle again on the practice field — tried to give us tips on a healthy diet. “Boys, you are ath-a-letes, and y’all got to start eatin’ like ath-a-letes. Eat something right, instead of those ole greasy cokes and carbonated hamburgers.”
We all nodded, holding in the laughter the way a blimp holds helium.
Those volatile sideline stalkers say football is supposed to teach you things: courage, reliance on teammates, having a goal and sacrificing all to achieve it, how to drive through pain, etc. Kind of like being an Army Ranger.
I won’t be the only one who will be slightly sickened by the teary-eyed flag worshipping, honor guards and fighter jet flyovers at the Super Bowl. (To get an idea of exactly how shameless and — here’s the word again — stupid this whole top-of-the-lungs patriotic carnival is, read “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” by Ben Fountain.)
But Coach Moon once taught us an essential lesson after we were assaulted — and not just on the scoreboard — at an away game.
The final score was 72-0. But it was worse than that. I remember lining up across from a guy who looked like he’d been working in a steel mill the past 10 years after he got out of prison. “I’m going to beat your brains out all night,” he greeted me.
True to his word. And I wasn’t the only one. On the silent bus ride home we had the thousand-yard stares of tornado survivors.
Coach Moon took a spot in the aisle in the middle of the bus. He told us he was proud of us and that from every defeat there is something positive to take away. “I know we feel like we fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down, but I got the stat sheet here, boys,” he waved his clipboard, “and I’ll be danged if we didn’t make more first downs than those boys. Now that’s something.”
Just as we were thinking that Coach Moon was right, there was something positive we could take away, someone mentioned, after our leader walked back to his seat behind the driver, “Hell, yes, we had more first downs. They didn’t need first downs. Every time they touched the ball they scored touchdowns. Kickoffs, punt returns, first plays from scrimmage. Every time.”
Lesson: Don’t buy the hype, stay allergic to spin. When it seems really bad, it is.
Enjoy the game — uh, sorry — the show on Sunday.