October 10, 2012

Over the last month, I have been engaging in an activity that I haven’t enjoyed for a decade or two: spending large chunks of my Saturdays and Sundays on the couch watching American football. I know, it seems odd that a relatively sports-crazy guy like me living in this land here of the free (to quote Los Lobos) would have gone so long between bouts of the pigskin, but it’s true. I watched a lot of football back in the early to mid-’80s, with my flatmates at the University of Virginia, but it didn’t take.

Don’t get me wrong—it’s a perfectly fine game, if a brutal one, and I can appreciate the train wreck appeal of watching Sheldon Brown lay into Reggie Bush as much as the next guy (as long as the next guy isn’t Andy Reid), but there are just too many ways in which I’d rather be spending my weekends. In essence, I was passing for a fan—a term that suggests itself for the obvious pun of the forward pass and for the less obvious one of my being a white Latino in Charlottesville, Va.

In order to get myself into the proper mindset, I have gone so far as to drink significant quantities of beer, a beverage I stopped favoring as soon as my income level climbed north of the Bourbon-Whisky line. Thus appropriately mind-setted, I have watched a smattering of college games (the SEC because that’s obligatory these days, Virginia when possible, Penn State from a rubbernecking sort of curiosity, Michigan because I always had a soft spot for the Bo Schembechler-era squads) and, on the pro side, Philadelphia and the New York teams.

I have to admit that in my 20-plus years in town, I have never warmed much to either the Gents or the Jests—see “Why I Hate … The N-FU-L” for an explanation of why I euphemize pro teams and league—perhaps with the Gents that has something to do with my growing up an Iggles fan. And I’m afraid that I will never be able to give my heart over to Gang Green as long as they keep wearing those awful, washed out white uniforms.

But I do enjoy having the two most prominent Latinos in the game today, Gents WR Victor Cruz and Jests QB Mark Sanchez, playing in my hometown. (Unless you consider Chad Johnson-Ochocinco-Johnson a Latino—which he isn’t except through marriage. I love the guy, mainly because he does things that make it clear he’s living in some football fairyland. Like change his name just to spite the league commissioner and try to make nice with his Nuyorican wife after having head-butted her during an argument. That’s not how the Bronx girls play, Chad. They’ll go on reality TV and Twitter instead to make sure everyone knows what a jerk you are, if only so you have a harder time getting laid.)

Here are a few random notes from my lost gridiron weekends:

Whenever I watch Michigan these days, I’m stunned that I ever rooted for those bozos. It was out of some sort of self-imposed, faux-regional alignment stemming from a love of the Detroit Tigers. (I didn’t say it made any sense.) Their opening week 41-14 shellacking by Alabama was richly deserved. And glad to see the Wolverines squeak by Air Force, 31-25, the next week. (Really? Air Force?)

I stopped watching them after that, but I see that after thumping a patsy Illinois team, 45-0, they’re 4–2 and ranked No. 25 in the AP poll. Some of their supporters are even suggesting that now the big boys of the Big Ten have to take Michigan seriously now. Oh, boy.

Honestly, Schembechler’s corpse probably decided a few years back that it might be better if nobody knew where to find it, turned on the coffin’s voicemail autoreply, and hightailed its big-ass bones over to Woody Hayes’ box.

Despite not having set foot on the UVa campus since the late ’80s; despite the school’s semi-constant pleas for money and my steadfast refusal to grant them any; and despite the fact that as a student, I pretty much ignored the football Cavaliers while lavishing full attention on the basketball squad (it was the end of the Ralph Sampson era, after all, and included a magical post-Sampson run to the Final Four in 1984)—I do maintain a vestigial tribal affiliation with Virginia football. I feel a modicum of pride that Mike London is one of only a few black head coaches in Division I. Of course, it’s sometimes difficult to find UVa games even in the thousand-channel cable universe, but I managed to watch them defeat Penn State, 17-16, on Sept. 8.

It was an exciting game in some ways—down to the wire and with lots of scoring opportunities—but just awful in others. After UVa QB Michael Rocco connected with TE Jake McGee for the go-ahead touchdown, the Nittany Lions drove the ball 48 yards in a minute and a half and set up for a last-second, 42-yard field goal, but nobody took it very seriously. PSU placekicker Sam Ficken had already missed three FGs in the game, and he held true to form in his last attempt. Ficken knew it was wide left the moment he kicked it. So did rookie Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, whose severely dimpled chin could do little to hide his disappointment.

You could almost see the ghosts walking up and down the Nittany Lions’ sideline throughout the game. Foremost among them were O’Brien’s predecessor, the late Joe Paterno, who once upon a career was the winningest coach in D1 history, and Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant coach who brought shame down on the program in a sexual-abuse scandal and caused his former boss to become the football coach with the most wins taken away from him.

But you didn’t have to squint to see the shade of Anthony Fera too.

Purely in football terms, the Sandusky scandal cost Penn State 111 wins, $60 million in fines, a ban on appearing in bowl games the next four years, 40 scholarship slots. On top of that, the NCAA ruled that any football players who transferred from the school for the 2012-13 academic year wouldn’t be assessed the usual one season sitting out penalty. Fera, a standout kicker as a sophomore, was one of the dozen or so players who took the NCAA up on that offer. He jumped ship to Texas but had been sidelined with a groin injury until last week’s game against West Virginia. (In an echo of Ficken’s work, he missed a late, potential game-tying 41-yard FG.)

The loss to UVa meant that Penn State started the post-Sandusky era 0–2, while the traditionally mediocre Cavaliers found themselves at 2–0 and in the heady, hopeful, “Others receiving votes” reaches of the polls. Looks can be deceiving.

Penn State sank Navy, 34-7, the following week for O’Brien’s first victory as a head coach, and the team liked the experience so much that they’ve won four in a row. Of course, those victories have come against Temple, Illinois, and Northwestern, so no one in Happy Valley should get too excited just yet. Apart from his 1-for-5 performance against UVa, Ficken has gone 2-for-4 in field goal attempts—of course, the ones he made were both 21-yard chip shots, but improvement’s improvement. And in the Oct. 7 AP poll, Penn State received one point. Now there’s a voter without a conscience.

As for UVa, that win would be the Cavaliers’ last of the season. I can’t know that yet, of course, but after five straight losses to fearsome foes such as 2–4 Georgia Tech, I can be pretty sure. It’s hard to see where on the schedule another W might come from. The best shot is probably next week, at home against Wake.

I have to admit that the NCAA’s penchant for punitively taking past wins away has never made much sense to me. The idea is that a team that gained an unfair advantage shouldn’t be rewarded—retroactively, in terms of its reputation—for having broken the rules, but nine wins and a Tecuesta Alpo Dog Bowl victory because some alum improperly paid for a golf outing for a second-string running back three years before? It’s a clear case of the NCAA striving for omnipotence. Next thing you know Mark Emmert will be donning a metal cowl and a red, shiny cape, à la Arthur Brown, and intoning, “I am the God of the NCAA and I bring you … Sanctions!”

And it makes even less sense in the Sandusky case—suggesting, creepily enough, that the sexual abuse of young boys somehow provided the Nittany Lions with a competitive edge.

Which is not in any way to say that the NCAA sanctions were too severe. If I were to play god of the NCAA myself, I would have told Penn State, “I hear the NAIA is looking for new members.” Because, really—despite the long trail of spousal abuse and date rapes that big-time sports have gifted us with, no other program has ever allowed itself to become a conduit for ritualized sexual predation. I mean, that’s quite an achievement.

Not sure what it is about football and dogs, but there would appear to be some kind of psychological connection. At his sentencing, an unrepentant Sandusky spoke about having been kissed by dogs, bitten by them too. Does he mean his former victims? Such a strange statement.

Speaking of football and pooches, thanks to Michael Vick’s probation having ended earlier in the year, he is allowed to own dogs again. Apparently the Philadelphia QB didn’t waste much time.

I just don’t understand how he thinks no one’s going to care about that. But then, Vick has never seemed too aware of how his behavior comes off in other people’s eyes. While in prison, he wrote a prison journal, as if he were Martin Luther King. The promotion for the book over the summer was galling, with Vick saying things like, “I became better at reading dogs than at reading defenses.”

Killing, Michael. You became better at killing dogs than at reading defenses. And that really isn’t much of a boast, judging by the 6 INTs you’ve racked up so far this season (to go along with a league-leading eight fumbles). The Iggles are 3–2 despite Vick’s giveaways. The team’s most impressive performance of the season was a 19-17 win over the Stupor Bowl champion Gents. Eli Manning very nearly led New York to a comeback victory (with a big assist from the Iggles’ secondary, which kept getting flagged for interference), but Lawrence Tynes missed a last-second 54-yard field goal.

The press—totally in the tank for Vick a couple of years back—is starting to catch on that “Mediocre Mike” may be more trouble than he’s worth. But it is at least true that I no longer actively wish for him to get Joe Theismanned.

To paraphrase Mars Blackmon, “It’s gotta be the clothes.”

Speaking of uniforms, it struck me that gradually over the last 20 years, it has become utterly impossible to see what any of the pro players on the field actually look like. They’re padded and trussed and helmeted to the point of unrecognizability. Especially now with those smoked plastic visors and the long, shimmery sleeves that remind me of the stockings people wear on airplanes to prevent blood clots. Is there a human being underneath all that crap?

I’m sure that’s part of the point, the players girding themselves up to cover all weakness, so they project an aura of invincibility when they run out onto the field and throw themselves helmet-first into the thorax of an unsuspecting halfback. On one level, it works—I certainly wouldn’t want any of those automatons targeting me—but maybe it isn’t the wisest tactic, since so many of the league’s former stars are turning up with gray matter the consistency of scrambled egg.

The problem in the pro game, of course, goes way beyond player macho—the league’s front office swept allegations of concussion dangers under the carpet for decades, so now we’re supposed to trust them to care for their own? Here’s their current strategy: Mandate sideline checks for players who may have received a concussion, asking them to name the opponent, the score, last week’s result and maybe walk a straight line. You mean, they didn’t already do that?!?

Oh, and penalize vicious hits—a rule so contrary to the way football is marketed as to be laughable. Pretty much unenforceable, too, but maybe that’s beside the point. After all, if you cared even remotely about how the game is called, you wouldn’t draw a line in the sand over a few dollars with your frontline refs and run out Larry, Moe, and Curly dressed in zebra shirts in their stead.

It was such a classic N-FU-L move—a naked bootleg of avarice coupled with smash-mouth labor tactics cloaked in PR nonsense about principle. Let’s write this down lest we forget:

The refs wanted to keep their old-school pension going; Roger Goodell wanted to switch them over to a 401(k) plan . Clearly, it was a cost-saving move for the league, but Goodell spun it as a battle between the clingers-to-yesterday and the movers-into-tomorrow. “About ten percent of the country has” a pension plan, Goodell observed to reporters. “Yours truly doesn’t have that.” Well, that’s reasonable. If ol’ Rog doesn’t have it, nobody should.

Of course, Goodell will make somewhere around $20 million this year, compared to the average N-FU-L ref, who’s paid between $4,000 and $8,000 a game.

I kept thinking of the moment when North Dallas’s aging wide receiver, Phil Elliott, told coach B.A. Strothers, “We’re not the team.” Then, pointing at a tableful of team executives, schemers, and sycophants, Elliott continued, “They’re the team. We’re the equipment—the jock straps and the helmets.” Villainous North Dallas owner Conrad Hunter smirking in the background, knowing Phil-boy was right.

So Hunter— I mean, Goodell refused to play ball with the union, instead treating the public to the comical spectacle of replacement refs and risking career-ending injury to the small handful of bankable players in the game. (Somehow, unlike the NBA or MLB, the N-FU-L has never seemed to twig on that its greatest promotable asset is the talent on the field. Nope, the coaches are the real stars in this league, with their intricate systems and control-freak demands for player discipline.)

The public, for its part, didn’t seem to care much. Not at first, anyway. There were grumbles to be heard as the bad calls started piling up, but it took monumental, game-changing collapses for people to get truly steamed. There was some poetic justice in the fact that the only franchise in Wisconsin, the state that’s been leading the anti-union charge recently, became the poster child for the dangers of union-busting.

Sporting a public-relations black eye, Goodell settled the strike, and the regular refs were back on the sidelines the following week. Before the Gents-Iggles game at the Linc on Sept. 30, as in many stadiums across the N-FU-L, the returning officials were given a standing ovation.

So what have we learned from all this? Not much, it would seem. By the end of the first quarter of Sunday’s games, fans had started questioning the regular refs’ visual acuity, mental acumen, manhood, and corruptibility. Goodell, for his part, has gone back to the sort of moral posturing he seems to favor, all the while ignoring the very large bull’s-eye on his back.

Oh, and those vicious hits? They continue unabated, jeopardizing the league’s hottest young talent. The dirty little secret is that the average football fan wants the vicious hits, but the average football fan doesn’t want to feel guilty about wanting the vicious hits. What we need are indestructible players. Rock-’em-sock-’em, Arnold-style cyborgs with heads that pop back on and who can pulverize each other for our pleasure and don’t need health care or pesky salaries or college degrees. Oh, wait, that’s Madden EA Sports, isn’t it?

“The Clothes Make the Man,” by Bill Vourvoulias.

From “The Passing Game,” the October 10, 2012, issue of V as in Victor.

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