It’s coming back to me. I remember my lament while walking a newspaper reporter’s daily beat: “God,” I wailed, “Why didn’t you make me a sports writer?” I was suffocating in objectivity’s claustrophobic cave, squeezed by concepts of “fairness” and “evenhandedness” – with no opinions allowed – while they were paid to yelp, bark, and foam at the mouth. It was a grave injustice to all the rabid dogs shot by a local sheriff.
Take the 2015 Super Bowl coverage.
As a Patriots fan, I say this: The Seahawks and their supporters should walk tall. Two great teams and two great coaches displayed the violent game’s allure. At its best, football is a blend of brawn and brains, demanding a chess master’s brilliance, a ballet dancer’s athleticism and a leviathan’s strength. Coaches rattle each other’s psyche from across the field, which Pete Carroll of Seattle and Bill Belichick of New England did with aplomb. Forget the NFL’s scandals and shelve those in-creeping doubts about the very nature of the sport until tomorrow. This was too good – especially Jermaine Kearse’s wild fourth-quarter catch. My team’s quest for that elusive fourth ring lay dead on the field.
It leapt back to life with Malcomb Butler’s end-zone interception. Popcorn and beer spilled in barrooms and living rooms from Boston to Worcester to Bangor to Hartford to Nashua to Concord to Burlington to Springfield – and my brother-in-law needed no paper bag for my sister, who was about to hyperventilate on their couch three feet away from me.
Hearts sank in Patriot Hater Land, which is all America outside New England’s six states.
Three seconds later, the yelpers began barking and foaming, taking their cue from the immediate tweet of former Dallas Cowboy running back Emmitt Smith: “That was the worst play call I’ve seen in the history of football.” Smith thought it was obvious: Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson should have handed the ball to running back Marshawn Lynch.
Of course. Smith was one of the game’s greatest … running backs. We’ll let him luxuriate in his understandable bias and professional pride – just like regular journalists assume CEOs will champion capitalism. We quote the biased, then roll up our sleeves and do our jobs. Clearly, the play did not work, but strategy and execution are two different things. What was Carroll’s plan? Was it cogent? Find a sympathetic former coach if Carroll is unavailable or merely taking the fall, which he did. At least show respect: “Pete’s a great coach, no doubt, but I’m not sure why he selected that play. Lynch is a human bulldozer.”
None of it. Don Banks of Sports Illustrated barked: “Really, a truly horrendous brain cramp at the absolute worst time.” Ian O’Connor of ESPN yelped and called it the “worst Super Bowl play of all time.” He fumed: “All Carroll had to do was apply a little common sense to the final seconds of Super Bowl XLIX, and no, it wasn’t too much to ask.” Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times foamed at the mouth. His team lost “because of the worst play call in Super Bowl history, a decision that will also go down as one of the most regrettable ever in Seattle sports.”
Call a sheriff – and not the Andy-of-Mayberry kind.
Other writers thought more. The play call, initially suggested by Offensive Coordinator Darrell Bevell and approved by Carroll, was anything but a brain cramp: Seattle was juggling 26 seconds on the game clock with only one time-out to spare – and New England was lined up for the run. A complete pass would score the winning touchdown; an incomplete pass would buy them time and force the Patriots to keep an eye on the receivers. It was one more complicated move on the Carroll-Belichick chessboard.
The problem was the players, not the call: They don’t move like pawns. Wilson and Butler are living human beings, NFL athletes in their prime, no less. A split second made the difference between a Champaign bath and locker room silence. The writers would have hailed Carroll as “sly” and “wily” and “crafty” and “shrewd” if his strategy had worked: “ingenious,” even — maybe the philosopher king reigning over a new NFL dynasty that de-throned Sauron-like Belichick.
As it was, they slammed a dunce cap on him.
Going with the flow
None of this is a surprise, of course. Foam soaked the lead-up Super Bowl coverage of “Deflate Gate” (a developing story even as I speak: Michael Hurley writes that the balls were only “just a tick” under the 12.6 PSI threshold).
Granted, I’m a Patriots fan, but I root for them because I lived in Boston and its vicinity for 21 years and in New England since 1765, not because its coaches and players are paragons of virtue. I’d probably curse poxes if I lived in Ohio (“Spygate” was overblown, but the team’s arrogance during its near-perfect 2007 season was palpable). Nevertheless, parents must have called in their kids upon hearing the growling of Chris Chase on January 21st in USA Today: “The New England Patriots cheated in the AFC championship. As such, the team should be disqualified from the Super Bowl.”
Much could be said about proportional punishment: Judges fine culprits for minor misdemeanors and require community service; they don’t banish them to maximum security prisons. Far more important, there is no crime yet. The NFL has not released the results of its investigation.
Whatever happened until innocent-until-proven-guilty?
Are the Patriots capable of cheating? Of course. They play in a league that turned a blind eye to rampant steroid use and brain injuries. Professional football has become a cheater’s sport. Punish my beloved alleged crooks if they’re guilty – after the verdict is in.
Meanwhile, tomorrow will soon arrive and those doubts will creep back: Is this brutal game – which I like – worth the price? My preferences should not blind me to football’s glaring flaws. Perhaps hockey or Rugby offer better options as contact sports. They’re rough but not as ferocious. Foaming over Carroll’s call and “Deflategate” may be distracting us from those more serious questions, which demand real thinking.
But I must stop. My sole motive here was to fulfill a dream and write a sports column, which means I must banish sober consideration over long-term consequences. Besides, a man with a cowboy hat and sunglasses has just stepped out of his car. He’s carrying a long object with a scope. It’s time to leave.