Why Sports?

As a lot of you (translation: my dad) have noticed, I haven’t written in a while.  There are a lot of reasons for this.  Work doesn’t like it when I spend time writing for my personal blog, I like to drink, TV has some really cool stuff going on, I like to drink and I’m also pretty damn lazy.  Also, I like to drink.  But in reality, it might come down to one damning thing.

Sports just aren’t as fun anymore.

Let’s do a little history lesson.  First off, I didn’t get “big” into sports until my dad had moved away to Illinois.  This isn’t any criticism, but there really wasn’t any history of me sitting on the couch watching my dad get pumped up about the Bears, so a lot of my loyalties have varied and the start of my histories with certain sports tie in to when local teams were good.

Now that you know that…

I got off to a good start.  My first sports memory was the 1984 Tigers winning the World Series.  I didn’t have much of a memory of that team, but I do remember the end of that final game.  From there it was on to the ’85 Bears, whom I picked up with my dad and will still argue are the best team of all time.  In ’87 Michigan State’s football team went to the Rose Bowl for the first time in over 20 years.  In ’88 the Pistons should’ve beaten the Lakers in the NBA Finals, and in ’89 they did.  That same year Michigan fired their basketball coach then won the NCAA basketball title (at that age you could switch collegiate loyalties as often as you changed underwear, so at least once a week).  In 1989 the Lions drafted the greatest running back not named Jim Brown; in 1991 they were a win away from the Super Bowl.

And those were just the local teams.  For some reason I liked Jose Canseco, so I watched the A’s win the Earthquake World Series in ’89.  That same year – as with all summers from the time I was 10 until I was 16 – I spent the summer at my dad’s place in Illinois and watched the Cubs on WGN every afternoon.  They went to the playoffs that year and I’ve been a fair weather Cubs fan ever since.  I loved Joe Montana, and I watched the 49ers win Super Bowls 23 and 24 as Montana cemented his legacy as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.  My brother picked up hockey and the New York Rangers in 1994, so I learned the sport along with him (while wondering why Chris Osgood left the net).  And perhaps the biggest “betrayal” for any Michigan sports fan: in 1993 I discovered my dad was a Bulls fan and picked them up when the Pistons were down.  I stuck with them through the 72-win season in ’96, although the Dennis Rodman pickup helped me justify that one.

By 1997, the Red Wings had gotten off the schneid, beaten the shit out of the Colorado Avalanche, and would win 4 Cups in just over a decade.  The Pistons got over the teal era, and won one of the more unexpected titles in NBA history while going to 6 Eastern Conference Finals in a row.  The Tigers got over 13 consecutive losing seasons – including the worst year in American League history – by going to the World Series on a walkoff home run by Magglio Ordonez.  Michigan State’s basketball team capitalized on sanctions at Michigan and went to 4 straight Final Fours and won the national title in 2000 (my collegiate loyalties were locked in when I decided to go to East Lansing to study journalism for 6 weeks before I found out what journalists make).  The Spartan football team became a power and we’ve won 10+ games 4 times in 5 years, won a Rose Bowl, don’t measure our success on whether or not we beat Michigan, and talk about national titles without being called delusional.

I even gave up on the 49ers and shed my fair weather reputation when they fired Steve Mariucci and became a full-time Lions fan.  Then the Lions hired him and I completely understood what the 49ers were doing.  But while the Lions went through a stretch that would rival or even exceed the stretch the Tigers put us through, they weren’t contracted or moved, they didn’t have the Thanksgiving game taken away from them and they’ve even made the playoffs.

Things were good.

But dig deeper and it’s not hard to poke holes in the facade.  For a sporting society that lives on the idea of “Second place is the first loser”, a 4-team city (not counting the 2 Big 10 schools in the area) that hasn’t won a title since 2008 – with no teams that scream out that they’re favorites to win anytime soon – doesn’t leave a fan happy.  The average title drought for the teams in this city is over 26 years (the Lions surely don’t help that average), and within those droughts are some painful sporting legacies:

  • Tigers: David Ortiz’s grand slam in the 2013 ALCS, six total runs scored in 2012 World Series, pitchers forget how to field in 2006 World Series
  • Lions: only team to go 0-16
  • Pistons: team wide mutiny after starting 37-5 in 2006 Eastern Conference finals, destroyed by LeBron games in 2007 ECF, utter disaster of Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon deals
  • Red Wings: blew 3-2 lead to lose 2009 Stanley Cup Final

But that’s not it.

Should the Tigers have won a World Series by now?  Probably.  Should the Wings have repeated in ’09?  Possibly.  Could the Pistons have won more than 1 title in their 6-year run?  Definitely.  Should the Lions…hmm…um…

Every city’s got one of those teams.

And yes, these things start to wear on fans.  This isn’t the World Cup where a tiny country can be thrilled that not only did they qualify, but they also played a powerhouse to a scoreless draw.  Or the Olympics, where we watch a guy almost drown while simultaneously celebrate his ability to complete.  This is America.  We don’t just go to enjoy the games, we pull for our teams to win championships and we know exactly when the last time it happened for all of our states (1957, 1984, 2004, 2009).

But no, it’s not the woulda-coulda-shoulda that takes the fun sports.  In fact, to a large extent that’s exactly what makes it fun.

But it’s not that either.

Everyone in America watched the Great Home Run Chase of 1998.  We watched as this man who seemed destined for years to break the most hallowed record in American sports fought off a personable upstart, and then hit the magical mark of 70, a mark that seemed almost as unbreakable as the 60 that Babe Ruth hit in 1927.

Then 3 years later someone else hit 73.

I, like everyone else, was blinded to the fact that Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds were chemically enhanced when they broke the record.  And as the years went on I didn’t much care, because it turned out that everyone in the game was juiced.  I care that it was clear that those chemical enhancements cheapened that magical summer, that 73 isn’t anywhere near as romantic as 60 or 61*, that there are many who still believe that 755 is the home run record.

But no, that’s not quite it either.

It’s who I’m giving my money to.

As I’ve said before, I believe sports owners to be among the most despicable people on earth.  The history of professional sports is littered with stories of owners doing whatever they could to pay the players – the people the fans are coming to see – as little as possible, to treat them as chattel, to restrict their rights, to control what they wear.  It continues to this day, with the NFL fining players $10,000 for wearing Beats headphones to mandatory post-game press conferences.  “Guys, we know Beats is the big thing now, but we’ve got a contract with Motorola which, believe it or not, is still in business.”  And yet somehow the fans paint the players as greedy whenever there’s a work stoppage.

But no, we’re still not quite there.

No, it’s the fact that these people I give so much money to – and I’ve given a ridiculous sum of money to professional sports owners over the years – not only don’t give a fuck about anyone to whom they’re responsible (fans, players, employers, families, etc.), but they think we’re stupid enough to buy their shit.

That’s it.

I started thinking about this post as I boatgated before the first game of the Lions’ season.  It was that day that the infamous video of Ray Rice knocking out his now wife went public.  The Ravens acted quickly, cutting Rice.  The NFL was in a bit of spot, because they’d already determined that watching a guy dragging his unconscious fiance out of an Atlantic City elevator was only worth a 2-game suspension.  Nevertheless, the League suspended him again, a suspension that has been reversed because it turns out that you can’t suspend a guy for the same action when the only thing that changed was that the whole world saw what you’ve already clearly known.

Over the next few weeks I watched intently as Roger Goodell insisted they hadn’t seen the tape when they clearly had.  As Vikings ownership suspended Adrian Peterson for beating the shit out of his 4-year-old son, then activated him, then suspended him again when advertisers yanked their support.  As the NFL somehow made people who had beaten their wives and children into sympathetic figures.

Sports just didn’t really feel great anymore.

That was over 3 months ago.  I sat there watching that video thinking to myself, “Do I really want to support this company anymore?”  When does the NFL become Wal-Mart, or Apple, or GM?

Including that Monday Night game, I’ve been to 4 NFL games since then.  I am the problem.

The NFL handed out painkillers and steroids like they were tic-tacs until Lyle Alzado died of a brain tumor and went public believing that the two were related.  They fought the disability claims of players who were living in their cars with dementia caused by constant helmet-to-helmet collisions.  They ignored the somewhat obvious fact that concussions could have long lasting impact (you know, beyond the 3 plays that the NFL thought they had), despite the fact that concussion issues were a plot point in Varsity Blues, which came out in 19-freaking-99 (thanks Bill Simmons…asshole).  And now they’re trying to convince us they’re concerned about domestic violence while giving a 2-game suspension to a guy who knocked out his wife and then dragged her out of an elevator.

Hell, we can’t even escape politics on the field.  When players throughout the country have expressed their Constitutionally-protected right to express their opinions (whether the venue for those opinions were appropriate is for everyone to decide on their own) about high-profile police killings they’ve gotten shot down by fans and police spokespeople.  Never mind that it was members of those police departments that led to the demonstrations in the first place.  No, it’s the young black man – and it’s always a black man – expressing his opinion who’s the problem.

And yet through this entire mess, the NFL has lost not one single viewer.  Not even me.  The only Lions games I’ve missed this year were because there were more important Tigers games taking place at the same time.  And until they start losing viewers (and, more importantly, money), what the NFL does about these public relations disasters won’t matter.

Sports have just gotten less enjoyable.  I’ll get enraged by people at the bar who have differing opinions about trades the Tigers have made.  I’ve had the text message equation of a knock-down, drag-out brawl with a friend of mine who suggested I had gone off the deep end because of how I felt about Brad Ausmus’s bullpen usage.  I was genuinely afraid he was going to have a stroke, which leads me to believe he’s got a mindset about sports not far off from mine.

Which brings me back to the whole point of this post.  Why sports?

And then I think of this picture.

2014-10-26 16.42.24-2 (2)

That’s what sports is.  That’s a picture taken after the Lions had beaten the Falcons in London on a last-second field goal in October.  My friend and I hadn’t been getting along all that great, mostly because I’ve got thin skin and take things personally.  But after that game, we just celebrated and chatted with foreign (wait, I guess we were the foreigners) football fans in a magnificent stadium.

It’s an excuse to travel to see  faraway friends, like the friend who moved to Germany for business.  That’s why we were in London in the first place.  Without the Lions, I don’t know if we’d make that trip.  You’d like to think that friendships survive thousands of miles, but you don’t know.  Having your teams to talk about makes it easier.

It’s complaining with your dad over text about our football teams.  It’s a bit hard to be sympathetic to his plight.  As bad as the Bears have been, they still have 1985.  While I haven’t been a full-time Lions fan since birth, geography has required me to follow them since I’ve been watching football.  We don’t talk on the phone much anymore – why bother when texting and email is so much easier – but every Sunday we text about our teams.

Talking to strangers has always been an issue for me.  I can’t talk to women.  It’s a crippling issue that has kept me single far longer than I’d like.  But I can inject myself into a random conversation about the 2002 Fiesta Bowl or whether Roger Clemens belongs in the Hall of Fame like it’s nobody’s business.  I spent a long chunk of my life feeling weird about myself, and being involved in a sports conversation makes me feel normal.

So I guess that’s why sports.

One thought on “Why Sports?

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