Thursday, August 20, 2009

Where Have All The Gladiators Gone? (Part Two)

There's a scene in "Gladiator" where Russell Crowe's character, Maximus, yells to the Colosseum crowd, "Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?" Then after throwing down his sword and spitting on it, the crowd chants, "SPANIARD! SPANIARD!" Maximus seems shocked by the power he holds.

It was a prominent moment of the movie, and it's also a metaphor to what the fan/player relationship has become in the NFL. As Maximus learned, so too have players learned that they have the power, that they are the ones that matter, not the fans. It wasn't always this way. Players were the gladiators, the unloved and unnamed. They put their bodies on the line for nothing more than the glory of victory. And we worshiped them for it.

Only, now the league has become too big. The lines are drawn. Chiefs fans will love Chiefs players no matter what, Giants fans will love Giant players, etc. Michael Vick, Pacman Jones and Tank Johnson have found homes. We've chalked this up to America's principle of second chances. Alright, I'll give you that. But how can you explain Brett Favre?

There's an old adage in sports: the name on the front of the jersey is more important than the name on the back. Of course, free agency and million-dollar contracts had teams swapping players like spouses at a 1970s commune. But even in this age, the beloved ones are the players who helped identify what their teams - and thus, their cities - stood for. Derek Jeter in New York, Troy Aikman in Dallas, Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. Even guys who played for other teams - Joe Montana, Bruce Smith, Jerry Rice, etc. - will always be known in the jerseys that made them famous. Yes, they played the money game like everyone else, but they were still not bigger than the league.

Brett Favre believes he is bigger than the NFL. He has no notion of loyalty or history. It's business, not personal, he would say. Except, the fans have no monetary stake in this game, only emotional. Favre was Green Bay's Maximus, who turned on them once he learned of his power over them. The difference being, of course, that Favre is not a slave. The fans he betrayed didn't cheer his death, they payed his salary. Literally. The Packers are community-owned.

Favre doesn't understand the heart-strings he pulled with his constant "I don't know if I'm coming back...I, wait, I'm not" routine. Management had roles to fill, a team to build. They waited, and when Favre said he wasn't coming back, they put Aaron Rodgers in the starting spot. So when Favre said he wanted to un-retire, it was too late. Sorry, but you are not bigger than the league, the Packers moved on. We all know what happened after that.

Favre has now twisted the knife he had already stuck in every Cheesehead's stomach. "Real Packer fans would understand", he said. The man would have no clue what it meant to be a real anything. Which is sad, because he was the ultimate gladiator. Never missed a game, a true blue-collar good ol' boy from Mississippi. We want to root for this guy. But he stands for everything football fans loath; greediness, blindness and narcissism.

But it's not really his fault. He is a product of the system. Maximus didn't steal his power, the mob gave it to him. And so it is with Favre. We put him on this pedestal. So it's not that wrong of us to knock him off. We make these gladiators, they are ours. Forget this fight of individualism and freedom; you make more in a season than 90% of fans will make in a lifetime. Woe has no place in a millionaire's vernacular.

I say boo this man, for he deserves it. As does Ochocinco (how quickly we turned on this clown), Terrell Owens or anyone else who forgets who they are. This is football. This is our game. And when it comes down to it, your future should be decided on whether we give a thumbs up or thumbs down. Make it primal, uncivilized, politically incorrect. Suffer in the name of entertainment. Then take it to the bank.

Where Have All The Gladiators Gone? (Part One)

I am not civilized. I am an animal who craves blood, sweat and tears. I believe in the supreme nobility of warriors. I would've fit in nicely in ancient Rome, sitting in the gallery shouting at slaves killing each other in the name of entertainment. Wine would soak my lips, I'd be in heaven. It is why I became a football fan.

We hear analogies between America and Rome all the time. The Empires. They had the Colosseum, we have the Coliseum. They had gladiators, we have the NFL. And the two used to be one of the same. Both sports were built around men who left everything on the field of play, whether it be literally or metaphorical. Both had a rabid fan base. But more importantly, the driving force behind them was that the power of the fan superseded that of the performer. The glory days are over.

The sad but true reality of pro football is that of the gladiator-like treatment the players received. In the last decade, a big bright light had shone over medical records of past players. Concussions, broken bones and years of wear and tear had taken their toll. Running backs were walking around like zombies, quarterbacks acting like, well, Joe Namath. A panic spread across the NFLPA. Protection became more important than performance.

Now, we have rules in place designed to prevent injury. You can't hit above the shoulders or below the thigh. You can't lead with your helmet. If the quarterback even seems like he's going down, the whistle is blown before the damage can be inflicted. This is not football! We wonder why MMA has taken such a stranglehold on the attentions of young men? The lack of violence and reality in sports drove them to the death cages. I would join the MMA march myself if I weren't for the fact that the first death to occur in a fight (which is inevitable, by the way) will bring about rule changes much like the NFL is suffering. I don't need my hopes dashed twice. Enjoy your short run while it lasts.

This society is way too hung up on safety. It is illegal to not wear a seat belt, which affects nobody but the moron not wearing it (and according to one police officer I know, "that law is in place because we have to clean it up". In this case, it's a law in place to protect cops from seeing gruesomeness, not to keep you alive). We want to ban aluminum bats from little league. I actually heard two sports radio hosts debating whether or not pitchers should wear helmets. How about suits of armour while we're at it?

I don't want any of this nonsense. Give me two overgrown men of steel (NOT literally) bashing into each other at full speed. Give me linebackers gunning for quarterbacks' knees. If a receiver catches a pass in midfield, I want somebody sticking a helmet in his chest. Until recently, football players expected this kind of brutality. There aren't any misconceptions about getting hurt. A big hit today aches tomorrow. Take big hits your whole career, it will hurt for a decade. That's reality, and there is no way to get around it.

This is what the fans signed up for, but we're getting a watered-down corporate version of football. Media-heads actually complain that Hines Ward - a wide receiver - hits too hard. Please. This anti-violence is ruining the game. How did we get here? Well, Brett Favre is somewhat to blame.

To be continued...

Friday, August 14, 2009

Will It Be Sunnier In Philadelphia?

I was sitting on my couch Thursday night, slightly hungover and irritable, watching the Cardinals and Steelers game. Actually, I was just looking at the game. The meaninglessness of preseason added with decreased energy from the night before put me in the mindset of not wanting to do anything. So I sat there, mostly thinking about whether or not I like Jon Gruden.

Then it happened. Mike Tirico all of a sudden went to Chris Mortensen for an update. I knew what the news was. Michael Vick has found a team. The only question was which team. The Eagles? Oh, this is not going to sit well. And it didn't. Ron Jaworski (an ex-Eagles quarterback) was livid. Jon Gruden seemed more interested than either angry or happy. He wanted to think about what Andy Reid would do to get Vick on the field. He's still a coach at heart. He still thinks in terms of football. Jaworksi has been in the media game for a while. He let his emotions fly.

And so has everybody else. Commentators either asked or told you whether or not Vick to Philly was a good idea, not as far as good for the team, but good for the Vick, the city or the NFL itself. What is the social commentary - that is the angle here. How we feel about Vick's return is suppose to gauge how we feel about the crime of dogfighting altogether. Which is dumb, to say to least.

True, you can't say dogfighting without thinking of Mike Vick. He will be the face of that crime for probably the next 20 years, but more than likely be forgotten after that. Donte Stallworth is not the face of drunk driving because he's just one of many, Vick's crime was new. And animal abuse comes with one loud, wholly obnoxious group of haters - the loathsome PETA.

PETA's intentions are good, sure. But make no mistake, their job is to completely ruin the public lives of anyone who has ever eaten a cheeseburger. There is no understanding, no faith in humanity. Their undying love of animals seems to be based in their complete lack of insight into people. Animals are flawless, humans are evil, this is the PETA way.

PETA isn't rotting for Vick to change. They don't want him to turn his life around and be a champion to anti-dogfighting in the Philadelphia community. Like any loud organization, their goal is to win. If Vick's life was left in shambles - which means no football after prison, no public persona and more importantly, no money - then PETA wins. They get to flex their muscles, show the world that you don't fuck with PETA. Don't love animals because it's the right thing to do, love animals because if you don't, the mighty PETA machine will flat out destroy you.

On the flip side, the Humane Society actually gets it. In a video on the HSUS website, you hear things like "are we about writing off an individual...treating that person as a pariah forever...and trying to block his career...or are we about trying to make people better?" This is the right way to think about Vick. This is the mature way. It comes from a real love of animals, not a hate for people. It's how we should all react.

There will be protesters from PETA, naturally. But don't be one of these people who believes the ends justify the means. Be the People for the Ethical Treatment of Humans as well. Don't get mad that Vick went to a strip club after he got out of prison (I sure as hell would), or refuse to believe he actually wants to change, as this blog represents. If he does good in his life, he does good. If Vick relapses, then so be it. I much rather look at things like Jon Gruden does, purely from a football standpoint. That's what is interesting to me.
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