I’m writing this with sadness.
Football, pro football with all its dizzying excitement, improbable twists and excitable fans, is dying.
It will soon go the way of jousting, sitting on exploding airbags and gladiators. All we’ll have left is video highlights and tall tales of players doing crazy things.
The Us of the future will giggle nervously and poke fun at how dumb the players were to risk their lives, sorta like watching old news clips showing DDT sprayed in the faces of babies.
Now wait. Before you label me one of those bleeding-heart wimpy puff-balls who meditates more than he masticates, I was a maniacal football fan, and wish I still was.
I loved the Pittsburgh Steelers. I grew up near downtown Pittsburgh. I knew the Steel Curtain, heard the Immaculate Reception play out on radio, celebrated injury to the opposing players.
I even once screamed to our quarterback that we had his mother hostage in the stands and would hurt her if his playing didn’t improve. A chant developed that I think he heard.
I laughed about, even bragged about, Steelers or ex-Steelers doing crazy things like shooting at police helicopters. C’mon. It’s just those tough, wild, indestructible Steelers blowing off steam. No harm, no major foul.
This was horseplay — not criminal, or bullying or major sleaze.
Even getting rough with a girlfriend or spouse was OK so long as no major injury was reported. And nothing was major in the old days — maybe it was the media or maybe just the American idea of what was acceptable when it came to abusing women. It also seemed, likely due to the absence of news accounts and a culture of ignoring women’s problems, that the ladies eventually accepted it all as part of the raucous life of pro sports, with its cash, other benefits and glory.
So what’s different now?
1) It’s hard to be a loyal fan. Most of the players’ flaws and bad deeds get exposed, and they’re not just drunken pranks or youthful missteps.
Every other day, some rule is getting broken, with the young player standing in front of the mic apologizing in halting language that always mentions god but never seems serious. You can usually hardly hear him and he looks like he can’t wait to get away to vape up some new mix of THC and crushed Oxy.
2) Players change uniforms more often than Bill Belichick chastens reporters. I tried looking up stats to back this up but didn’t immediately succeed. It sure seems, though, like you just get to learn how to pronounce a new Steeler’s name to find out he’s been traded to the hated Ravens.
3) The league suspends the rulebreakers so often that fans cannot get to know them, or like them. Does any fan anywhere actually understand what a player is or is not allowed by rule to ingest?
4) How do you root for a man or woman to continue to blow his brain apart? Scientists have confirmed concussion damage. It’s become so real and serious to me now that my visceral reaction to what used to be considered a great, ball-jarring hit — a fist pump and scream of joy — has changed to a wince and quick prayer for the player hit, even if he’s a Raven.
Hearing that the wife of beloved Steeler Troy Polamalu wanted him to stop playing because she worried he would not be healthy to enjoy his children almost made me cry.
5) Fans don’t know the rules.
What’s pass interference? What’s a reception? What’s roughing the quarterback? An intentional helmet-to-helmet hit? Too much dancing in the end zone?
It’s not our fault. The rules are fuzzy, or maybe they are too numerous. It seems simpler to decipher a Sherlock mystery than who gets penalized when a receiver and defender vie for a 45-yard pass.
6) Does anyone really care about their hometown teams? Or, only their fantasies?
C’mon, admit it. Wouldn’t you rather see a touchdown by your fantasy quarterback than the guy running your hometown team? Be honest. Maybe not in the run-of-the-mill game but how about if that TD determines if you win money?
How much does gambling play into the fan mindset every Sunday? Admit it, you don’t give a rat’s behind whether your Chicago Bears score if you’ve already got the spread covered.
7) Do the players want to be Steelers … Jets … Jaguars? Do they care where they play?
Money seems to be more important. Is camaraderie just for show? Is all this talk of tradition and history pure bull?
7) Lots of players just disappear into Injuryland.
Two weeks off here. Two months there. A rising star one week and unable to walk on a Turf Toe for the next month. Who was that guy again?
Of course, advances in science and medicine have made it easier to see or prevent serious injuries. And players have done well through collective bargaining to protect their right to treatment and time off when hurt. But again, with so many players out recuperating, who can keep track of who’s who?
Please, don’t get me wrong. Don’t jump to conclusions.
I’m not one of this cranky old privileged mostly white fat men saying players have gone soft. Far be it from me to call these athletic superstars — super human specimens actually — crybabies or wimps.
I never played tackle football. I got so messed up playing touch and flag and basketball that I sit back in awe that anyone survives years of playing tackle, let alone at high levels.
I also understand the theory that more injuries come when players are stronger and faster. And, you will not find me trying to argue against rule changes to lessen the chance of someone busting up a spine on the turf.
So, you might ask, what is my point.
Like I said, I’m simply expressing disappointment, sadness. It’s over.
While it lasted, it was exciting — a great escape from the world of smoky steel mills and neighborhood malaise. Pro football gave depressed cities lots to feel good about, or at least feel tough and proud about.
But, we gotta move on.
Games on Sunday with all the haphazard ref calls, injuries, debates over rules and glum news on who got suspended for what do not leave me satisfied. I’m more anxious after watching the games that I used to be worrying about the entire upcoming workweek.
But, again sadly, I have no solution.
Maybe it’s some ramped up, speedier baseball. One-strike baseball? Or soccer with more pizzazz. Or maybe we expand America’s Got Talent to last all Sunday afternoon, with city-by-city talent wars.
I do know one thing, though. There’s no resurrecting football.
Some smart folks realize it, too. They’re adapting.
I’d love to see that happen in Springfield. Lots of smart people run Missouri State, or work there.
Hey, Top Bears out there. Have some guts. Cut bait.
Kill the football program. Explain how you came to realize that — despite the pressure and all those years of tradition — it’s wrong to encourage kids, even subsidize them, for blowing their brains apart. Especially when it’s supposed to be your job to grow those same brains.
Put the money into some really cool things to expand the baseball experience, or maybe another existing sport that’s already doing well. There’s gotta be some clever way to use that Bear mascot to launch a survivor-type college challenge that combines training, smarts and competition. Challenge the students to create a new competition that attracts the nerds to do the puzzling and the brawny students to do the work.
And, by the way, please give some raises to coaches other than those running the big sports.
As it is, you’re putting all your eggs into the basket carried around by a high-paid, mostly unproven football coach who spouts cliches, proudly didn’t review old films for clues to bad performance and hails from the Pittsburgh area, where fanaticism is often mistaken for expertise.
As for me, I’ll keep watching the Steelers — sadly — and I’ll even slip into a round or two of “Here We Go.” But, don’t look over my way too often. You might get sad, too.
Watching an old fat white man crying in his beer, especially when his team is winning, can be really, really depressing.