I used to resent September. Not because it spelled the end of summer; as a pasty-skinned Scottish-Norwegian mutt, I’ve always welcomed the cooler temperatures. I resented September because just when Major League Baseball’s long season was heating up, in marched football to steal the spotlight.
I’ve always been a football fan, too, but for most of my life I lived and breathed baseball, so much so that up through college I’d kill time in boring classes by writing down, from memory, the regular batting order of every major league team.
My command of such minutiae is long gone. It began to erode about a decade ago, when baseball’s steroid scandal and its big market/small market competitive imbalance started to sap my interest. (Also, as a Chicago native and lifelong Cubs fan…you know the rest.)
I still follow it more closely than the casual fan, and I’ll watch the playoffs, as always. But it’s been years since I’ve considered myself one of those nerds who counts the days between the last out of the World Series and when pitchers and catchers report to the next Spring Training.
In baseball’s place I’ve inserted football. I always looked forward to the NFL season, but more recently, I Can’t… Freaking… Wait… for it to start. I have DirecTV solely because of its Sunday Ticket package, which allows you to watch any and all of the games. For me, a heavenly Sunday involves about 11 straight hours planted in front of my gorgeous and beloved flat screen. (Personal note: This is only possible because Sunday also happens to be my girlfriend’s busiest day at work, for which I’m eternally thankful.)
This year was to be no exception. I even green-lighted a late-summer vacation only after confirming that we’d be back in time for the NFL’s opening weekend. As we now know, however, week one was dominated by everything but football.
The reprehensible Ray Rice incident and the NFL’s indefensible response to it has shined a glare on this glory- and money-hungry league like never before. This is an association that earns about $9 billion annually—with an eye toward making closer to $25 billion a year by 2027—and the league’s despicable-slash-incompetent reaction to the incident laid bare the NFL’s attempts to protect its profits with an amoral assertiveness that would make Big Tobacco proud.
Even to those of us who love football and have forgiven its excesses, this shouldn’t have been a surprise. For years, the league has obfuscated its concussion issues, ignored its retirees (many of them disabled by the game itself), looked the other way on steroids, fleeced entire communities to secure new stadium deals, and downplayed its off-field violence issues. Any “real” fan knows this, and any who say they don’t either haven’t been paying attention or are consciously avoiding reality.
Now, thanks to an elevator surveillance video, such shortcomings can no longer be denied. Maybe it’s time we recognize that a league dedicated to turning its members into virtual killing machines physically, mentally, and emotionally while on the field might want to funnel some of that $9 billion into programs that ensure they’re behaving like normal human beings when the pads come off.
Yes, plenty of NFL players, coaches, and officials voiced their outrage and their concerns about the incident, and their league’s response to it; like any large organization, the number of good members outweighs the bad. And to date, we in Denver haven’t had our local athletes generate such widespread negative publicity with off-field offenses. However, we have seen plenty of drug suspensions, drunk-driving arrests, and yes, even domestic violence accusations. Through it all, we keep rooting—sometimes blindly—for the hometown boys.
There’s an undeniable hypocrisy to being an avid sports fan. I’ve never looked at athletes as heroes in the way you sometimes see old-timers talking about Mantle and DiMaggio like they were Superman and Batman. I’ve always realized that they’re all just people—and therefore, to paraphrase Crash Davis, they’re “as full of shit as anybody.” (The same goes for Oprah, Meryl Streep, Ronald Reagan, or anyone else you want to elevate to this higher, non-existent plane.)
Professional sports have been a business, first and foremost, at least since 1980, when Nolan Ryan (i.e., his agent) finagled the Houston Astros into paying him a then-unthinkable $1 million per year. (Peyton Manning will have earned that much this season by about his second series on Sunday.) As such, they’re no less prone to greed and corruption—or attempts to whitewash potentially embarrassing incidents—than any other for-profit enterprise.
I’ve also yet to find anything more thrilling, as a spectator, than the walk-off homer, the buzzer-beating three-pointer, the last-second touchdown pass. The competition, the athleticism, and the grit are what make these contests so compelling. To those who’d suggest watching amateur sports instead: They do have their moments, from March Madness to the Little League World Series. But witnessing the best in the world performing on the highest possible level is what makes pro sports so unique.
That’s why, for now, I’ll keep spending my Sundays on the couch, hoping to see that magic on the field—and hoping that more of these men will recognize their good fortune, appreciate where they are, and continue to lead constructive and uneventful lives off of it.
—Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.