I feel sorry for today's sports writers, especially those covering the pro football beat. Increasingly with each passing season, their writing has very little to do with the game itself. Because my friends, the game itself has very little in common with the game I and others of my age grew up watching in the 70's and 80's. It's not the writer's fault. It's the realization that the current state of The National Football League has deteriorated into a sad sideshow. The game itself is an afterthought. The pregame, the postgame, halftime analysis, and of course the requisite messages from the sponsors become the primary focus. When the game commences, you have multimillionaires of one team suited up to battle multimillionaires of another team subjected to the whims of celebrity billionaire owners, playing in a tax payer funded stadium complete with corporate logo. But still the stadiums are filled, ratings are up, and the fans are zealous. That's the secret of success for the NFL – throw 'em dog chow and make 'em believe its filet mignon. And for those writers who cover the post game press conferences – my heart goes out to you. It is an exercise in futility if there ever was one. Coors has even built an ad campaign around lampooning these pathetic events full of inane and incoherent babblings.
The ultimate game of course is called the Super Bowl. It will be played February 6th at Cowboy Stadium derisively called Jerry World by those mischievous media types. Tiring of Texas Stadium (which is now demolished-thanks for the memories), Jerry Jones, the brash owner of the 'boys set out to build a monument to himself as well as a place to feature his team. His hopes and dreams were realized when the taxpayers of Arlington,Texas ponied up the money for the new stadium which opened in 2009. These same taxpayers also opened up their pocketbooks several years earlier for a new Texas Ranger baseball stadium championed by a fellow you might have heard of – George W. Bush. The game will be ushered in by much fanfare and countless hours of pregame hype - nothing new there. This year it will be televised by FOX. Helping us to decipher all of the ins and outs, x's and o's, will be the zany bunch of lunkheads headed up by FOX NFL Sunday's Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Jimmy Johnson, Michael Strayhan, and Curt Menefee. These guys have so much fun backslapping and backstabbing one another, they often forget the matter at hand – there's a football game to be played. What often passes as "intelligent" discourse about the upcoming game is nothing more than a big guffaw fest. They no longer take the game or the fans seriously.
On February 7th, will it really matter who won? The discussion will center on the best and lamest Super Bowl commercials, the halftime entertainment (remember Janet Jackson's indiscreet moment), the rendition of the national anthem, and what player is going to Disney World. It may have actually been a great game. But does anybody care?
Two recent books, Staubach: Portrait of the Brightest Star by Carlton Showers and Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Food, Dr. Death, And John Madden's Oakland Raiders by Peter Richmond remind us how good football writing can be. These writers find their inspiration not in today's game, but back in the era when it was really good – the 70's.
In my youth, I was fortunate enough to watch Roger Staubach play quarterback for my beloved Dallas Cowboys. This was before the team reverted to the ownership of never met a camera he didn't like, sideline pacing owner Jerry Jones. Back in those days, owners kept themselves to the background. They left day to day management and coaching duties to others. It worked as a more than adequate business model for years until Jones came along. Stowers helps readers relive those glory days in which Staubach and legendary Coach Tom Landry led the Cowboys to two Super Bowl titles during that decade. I liken my appreciation and enthusiasm for Staubach to those New York Yankees baseball fans that were fortunate enough to watch Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Roger Maris play in their heyday. I long ago given up on the belief that sports figures should be role models for America's youth. But if you ever needed a role model- Roger Staubach was your man. The devoutly religious, Vietnam vet, clean living Staubach was someone you could look up to. In fact the only thing the thorough Stowers could offer up as any hint of scandal was an objectionable play he once ran while quarterbacking the NavalAcademy and an uncharacteristic personal foul obtained in his pro days. He was so wholesome; some writers began referring to him as Captain America - a moniker he would cringe at. Some have suggested that the Art Hartman character in the film North Dallas 40 is a scornful swipe at the Staubach image. It wasn't till the end of the decade and at the end of Staubach's career that the Cowboy's became known as "America's Team". But what Staubach provided above everything else was an old fashioned concept called hope especially to sports loving, down on their luck, slightly dysfunctional teen age boys. Obstacles could be overcome, last second heroics achievable, and come from behind victories obtainable. And if on a rare occasion, that wasn't the case – well, there was always next week. In the hands of a pessimist, a football autobiography might be titled Fourth and Long. Staubach's was titled First Down and Lifetime to Go.
Peter Richmond's book celebrates the 1970's teams of the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders were not the Cowboys. Richmond makes that clear from the start and gleefully so. They were the anti- America's team. They were full of colorful characters deserving of the team's logo – the football helmeted pirate superimposed upon two crossed swords. They were coached by the beloved John Madden who later became a revered sportscaster and progenitor of a hugely popular line of football video games. Richmond puts forth "badass" as an image, a way of life, and a way to play football. The team was so remarkable in that they could mingle with the Black Panthers and the Hells Angels! After reading the book, I forgot my Dallas Cowboy loyalties and became a Raider fan…almost. Richmond recounts off the field high jinx and extra curricular activities a plenty but make no mistake about it – he focuses primarily on the game and how it was coached and played. Today the emphasis is on sexting, sexual harassment, foot fetishes, and on field misconduct. And that is just one team – the New York Jets. The 70's Raiders were a motley bunch of rogues with eerie sounding nicknames like Kenny "The Snake" Stabler, Skip "Dr. Death" Atkinson and Jack "The Hitman" Tatum who were a part of the dreaded defensive backfield dubbed "The Soul Patrol". Back in those days, defenses were more dominant than they are today. Dallas had its "Doomsday Defense", Minnesota had "The Purple People Eaters", and Pittsburg led by "Mean" Joe Greene had the impenetrable "Steel Curtain". And while the Cowboys and Raiders were miles apart in demeanor, they shared a similar work ethic; practice was not over because the coach said it was. Players were expected to put in long hours perfecting their skills. Madden, the rumpled coach who looked more like a used car salesman, was able to keep this free spirited group together with a long leash, not a short one. He had just the right personality to guide his team to a Super Bowl title in 1977. And while they were owned and ran by a flamboyant owner (Al Davis), he was not so ego-centric as to seek out the spotlight for himself. As bad as those "Badasses" were, nobody got arrested, convicted, and sent to prison for serious crimes unlike today's NFL players where that is all too common.
Again good football writing can still be found. But the best harkens back to another era. And perhaps that can be said about all sports writing. Baseball, cycling, boxing, basketball…you name it…have all been rocked by scandal of some sort. And that's just the pros. Dare we mention college athletics? It's not about the game anymore. It used to be. I feel sorry for sports writers.