It’s Friday night, January 26th. The clock is looking at me with its 9:11p. m. eyes and I’m just a little giddy. Why? In only two days I know the Giants will (I hope) be pounding the ball into the cracks of Baltimore’s defense. Another New York victory will ensue and the city that knows no sleep, rest or passivity will erupt yet again. What a wonderful game and what a wonderful town, right? I guess. Still, something is bothering me. Something is gnawing at me. It’s like the un-definable bitterness you get at the back of your throat when drinking black unsweetened coffee. I keep trying to taste it and feel the depth of my distaste but I just can’t pinpoint it.
Don’t I want the Giants to go to the Super Bowl? Of course I do. I’m a fan, a columnist and a sports editor. As Voltaire would say, this is "the best of all possible worlds" for me. That’s not making it go away. The stagnant state of my repulsion remains.
This is when an odd train-of-thought occurs. As I stare at the New York Times in search of some mental solace I happen to cast my eyes on an article regarding the rolling blackouts in California (as if Silicon Valley wasn’t taking enough abuse on Wall Street). Immediately, two questions popped into my head. If the entire flow of all the electricity in the world stopped would the NFL still matter? If electricity stopped existing would football still matter?
Well, I sit there for all of a blink of an eye, admiring my fleeting lucidity, and then I attack the question; these two very different questions.
Would the NFL matter? No. As a matter of fact, Hell No! The Tiki Barbers and the Jason Sehorns would still exist but they wouldn’t be millionaires. In a matter of years, no one would know or care who the Giants or the Ravens or even the NFL as a whole are. Millions upon millions of dollars would have to be spent on other things. Actually, overall, this doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.
What about football? Would football still matter or mean anything? It would. I guarantee it would. What is now on television would instead exist in "real life." It would exist in the empty parking lots and in the broken down parks. It would matter to the people who played and the people who watched. No one else.
Look around sometime. I grew up in Ridgewood, Queens. We lived on a long, heavily populated block where kids would play tackle football in the cement streets. Why not go inside and enjoy all the plush comforts of domestication? Why risk injury from your friends and possibly harsh consequences from your parents? Simple. We were kids. We loved football and we had no clue as to what "ulterior motives" even meant. We did know what football (and consequently, pain) meant. We also knew that, at least in an abstract way, we loved football. When one of us intercepted a pass and then got absolutely slammed across a deteriorated station-wagon or a third-hand sedan, we weren’t thinking: "Ka-ching! This’ll kick in my incentives package." I’m also pretty sure we weren’t thinking: "Damn this’ll look tight on my highlight film!" All we thought, all we would ever want to think, is: "Victory!" Of course, there was probably also some thought about finally shutting up those jokers from the end of the block. But that’s all that mattered: football and winning.
No fat contracts paid for with cash wrought from the collective wallet of the fans. No Nike ads that canonize a pair of freaking sneakers while exploiting the minds, bodies and souls of third world workers. No overpaid and overfed cocky play-by-play announcers who are miles removed from the grassroots of football. Football. Nothing but football.
Yes, I know that according to our society, this is the most efficient way for me to watch the highest caliber players. Regardless, I can’t be the only one that’s had it just about up to here with the whole, "Well, you have to remember football is a business" phrase. That is crap! The NFL may be a business, but football isn’t. MLB may be a business but baseball isn’t. The NBA may be a business…get the point?
And don’t go thinking that this is sprung forth from some sort of youthful idealism. Find an old-timer and ask them what the Dodgers meant to people when they were still in Brooklyn. Ask them about the first ever Subway Series. Ask them about the Jets and a brash young quarterback by the name of Joe Namath who tore down the mighty Colts. Ask them about the Gordie Howes, the Bill Russells, the "Tiny" Archibalds, the Mantles, the Babes, the ’69 Mets and the Celtic dynasty. Ask them about the days when it took a quarter to catch a subway ride to a game and players had to work second jobs. They’ve seen the timeline of sports unfold before them. Let them tell you what sports used to mean.
Why all the ranting? Well, I think that I (like so many fellow fans) have lost most of my faith in professional sports. I love sports and will continue to love sports until the day they fold my cold hands on my chest in one final athletic act. But when an "athlete" has the gall to baptize sports as primarily a business, I could just puke.
If you want to see sports, and I mean really see sports in its truest forms, I have a few suggestions. Catch a game in the intense football rivalry between Beach Channel High School and Far Rockaway High School. While there, take in the elements and the environment. Watch the proud fathers, mothers, coaches and sons. See the pride in both the fans and the athletes.
Or you can go to a little league game and watch a ten-year-old steal second base, not for a five-year contract with an option for a sixth, but just because he or she wants to win. Then, take some time out, and listen. Just listen. Listen to the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, coaches and teammates as they root in an odd symphony of cheers. Then open your eyes and look around. Look at the eager and proud faces of the mini-van moms and the double-shift dads who cut corners, juggle schedules and work the over-time just to provide their children with opportunity to experience sports.
Well, now it’s Sunday night, and the Giants have taken quite the serious butt-whooping. They couldn’t run, they couldn’t pass, they couldn’t win. There’s always next year.
But as I ride the subway home I smile happily, almost childishly. I know another NFL season is over, but that’s really quite alright with me. Why? I know there’s another whole eleven months for me this year to enjoy un-bastardized, amateur sports. See you at the game.
(As previously printed in the John Jay Times)