The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
If you watched the Saints’ game on Sunday, you were privy to a rare 3-minute segment that brought out the angels and the demons among NFL players, as well as a group kneel-down that, instead of a protest, revealed players' No. 1 fear.
The third quarter had just begun, and the Saints held a 16-3 lead over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Saints marched down the field before RB Alvin Kamara squirted through the Tampa line for a six-yard touchdown with 9:59 remaining. The rookie from Tennessee already had performed his best impersonation of mercury on glass in the last minute of the first half when he took a Drew Brees pass and weaved through defenders for a 33-yard touchdown. Tampa received the ensuing kick, but on the second play from scrimmage, TE O.J. Howard fumbled a catch, and the Saints recovered at the Tampa 36-yard line.
Never one to let a crippled opponent off the mat, Coach Sean Payton called a post pattern to veteran waterbug Ted Ginn, Jr., who cradled Drew Brees' catch as he fell backward into the end zone. Ginn was so pumped up that he propelled himself over the end zone wall into the adoring crowd. His paean to the Lambeau Leap, likely to become known as the Dome Dive, took Ginn into the arms of a young family whose father was holding a child, probably a year old. As he balanced himself on top of the wall and in the laps of the family, Ginn handed the ball to the baby, who immediately fumbled. Luckily, dad recovered it.
It was a great moment and one that warmed anyone who saw it. “Wow, what a nice thing to do,” Who Dat Nation sighed collectively. “That Ginn is a true gentleman, a great pro! A true NFL angel!”
The Saints were now up 30-3, Tampa QB Jameis Winston was out of the game with a bum shoulder, and the Bucs were reeling. Backup Ryan Fitzgerald tried to get the Bucs going, but his first pass to WR Mike Evans was knocked down by Saints rookie corner Marshon Lattimore near the Tampa bench. Apparently, words were exchanged between Lattimore and Winston, who then came onto the field as the rookie had turned to leave and poked Lattimore in the back of the helmet. Lattimore turned and gave Winston a retaliatory shove at which time Evans came running in and delivered a cheap shot blindsided hit to Lattimore’s back, knocking him down. The melee lasted a few more seconds, but the masses were incensed.
Payton ran to the middle of the field and demanded that Evans be tossed out of the game, the Dome crowd was screaming for the demonic Evans’ head on a pike, and viewers who saw it were wondering how thugs like Evans are even allowed to play this glorious game? Lattimore later called Evans’ hit “the sneakiest of sneak moves.” The League office will likely have more to say this week, but it was not a highlight that you’ll see distributed by NFL Films.
Then, only two minutes later, the mood changed again. Brees dropped back to pass as Tampa’s rush end William Gholston was sparring with a Saints offensive lineman. It appeared the two bumped helmets at least twice, then Gholston went down in a heap and lay motionless. The medical staffs of both teams rushed out onto the field, where Gholston lay for several minutes. His Bucs teammates came onto the field and formed a crescent around their fallen teammate, who was being loaded onto a spine board with an apparent neck injury.
Many of his teammates kneeled, some prayed, and even some Saints players were seen kneeling in sympathy. There were no more cheap shots in the game the Saints would win 30-10. Sideline reporter Jen Hale encapsulated the moment when she said: “The injury quieted down both sidelines and reminded the players just what they have to lose.”
I’ll make this short and sweet. I’m about up to here with NFL protests, mush-mouthed owners, whiny players and a league office now under attack from within. The latest insult occurred Sunday when fans in Houston attended the protest, and a football game broke out.
I’m not totally blaming the players for all this because the alleged adults in the room continue to precipitate these reflections of society's current era of ill feeling. Since our Commander in Tweet ignited the tinder a few weeks ago with his criticism of protests during the National Anthem, the conflagration cooled into some thoughtful discussion about issues and what we all can do to make things better. Then the smoldering coals flared up Friday when it was reported that Houston Texans owner Bob McNair told an NFL owners meeting that “the inmates are running the prison.”
Players immediately took offense and decided to protest their owner’s comments by kneeling during the Anthem before the Texans’ game with Seattle. How many times have you criticized some organizational snafu by saying “the inmates are running the asylum?” Sort of like a university president complaining that he can’t get anything done because of a tight-sphinctered faculty! But McNair’s poor judgment in using the term “prison” triggered reactions from many NFL players for whom prison is nothing to joke about. Many African-American players have acknowledged friends or relatives who are in or have been in prison for various offenses. Some have even commented that except for football, they might have joined their childhood friends in activities that earned prison time or even a violent death.
That is nothing to joke about, and McNair should have been more sensitive to such feelings. McNair met with his team on Friday, explaining that his comments referred to the rift between the league office and NFL owners. Dallas owner Jerry Jones has been named as one owner who is holding up a contract extension for Commissioner Roger Goodell. The players apparently heard, but they didn’t listen.
Of course, one could argue that the players’ reaction is a reflection of the increasing over-sensitivity of our society. A past where injudicious comments were ignored or even forgiven is, well, in the past. Of course we have issues. Of course we have problems like subtle – and sometimes overt – racism. But instead of sitting down together, identifying and ostracizing the true offenders, and seeking solutions, our first reaction is to make a scene that, while strengthening one side, alienates the other. I used to think that in civilized societies disagreeing parties could sit down and come to a resolution.
That’s not true anymore, from Congress and the Washington swamp to professional sports. We have become a divisive, litigious society whose worst nature has seeped into the high-profile world of games where we formerly could go to forget life for a awhile. The trend even touched the World Series when Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel last week chided Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish by pulling at the corners of his eyes and calling Darvish “Chinito,” which is Spanish for “little Chinese boy.” It did not matter that Darvish is Japanese. The Cuban native Gurriel will be suspended the first five games of the 2018 season, a penalty that would be far greater if the offender had been white and the target black. But so far that unfortunate scenario has almost exclusively belonged to the NFL where the two sides are fighting fire with gasoline grenades.
And the collateral damage might be the sport’s popularity. The turmoil, distrust and perceived villains among players and management has fans of the new NFL grousing and likely wondering if all this is worth the price of admission. I look at the NFL today, and I don’t recognize it from the NFL where I worked for 20 years. My old NFL was like the movies – you attend for the feature film and get a color cartoon as a bonus. Today, you pay to see a game and you get player protests, tongue-tied owners and fans threatening to boycott.
This screed turned out longer than I had intended, but my concern lingers. If all this division and shouting continues, I fear the new NFL won’t last nearly as long as my old NFL did unless both sides begin to show some respect for the other and take concrete steps to prove it.
I have always been a fan of human triumph in the face of overwhelming adversity, especially when it is sports teams that seem to draw energy from their community. Our favorite teams are responsible for so much of a community’s pride and attitude that some towns even take on the team’s identity as its own. And that’s why I’m pulling for the Houston Astros when they meet the Los Angeles Dodgers Tuesday night in the World Series.
It is interesting how we turn to sports to lift our spirits after a calamity, and that is what the Astros have done in their city, still recovering after Hurricane Harvey deluged southeast Texas with epic flooding less than two months ago. I might not feel that way if I had not experienced the ravages of Hurricane Katrina and saw first-hand how a city and region extracted what little joy existed from the Saints. I remember just two months after the storm and we were living in Baton Rouge when the Saints played the Dolphins at LSU Tiger Stadium. Although the Saints lost the game, it was more important for those who had been displaced and had lost so much to have some sense of normalcy to lift our spirits.
"Who Dattitudes" received a booster shot the following season when a new Saints team with a new coach and a new quarterback hosted the hated Atlanta Falcons at the newly renovated Superdome. Steve Gleason’s blocked punt that resulted in a touchdown and eventual victory provided a psychological boost that seemed to mitigate the turmoil of insurance snags and “road home” snafus we were all fighting. Gleason’s block was the greatest single moment in Saints history until a Super Bowl championship two years later – while the city and region had begun the rebuild – instilling a conviction that things were going to turn out well after all.
Sports teams' prominence in the wake of catastrophe has happened before. In 2001, weeks after 9/11, the New York Yankees put a city on its back and became the sentimental favorite to win World Series before losing in seven games to the Diamondbacks. In 2013, the Red Sox picked up the mantle after two bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon exploded, killing three people and fracturing a city’s morale. Just five days after the bombing, the Red Sox returned to Fenway Park, and slugger David Ortiz enhanced his legend when he stood up and declared: “This is our f---ing city! And nobody’s going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong!” The Red Sox went on to win the 2013 World Series, giving the city a much-needed boost in morale.
Oddsmakers are not swayed by sentimentality and have installed the Dodgers as a 58% favorite to win this year’s Fall Classic. For Major League Baseball, an exciting World Series will not regain all its perceived losses to football from the past several decades, but the timing could not be better.
The NFL has done enough during the first two months of the season to have die-hard fans considering the call for a November 12 boycott of games. That might have worked a month ago, when the fervor of anthem-kneeling and arm-wrestling with the White House was top of mind. A few souls in San Francisco or Cleveland who have already given up on the season will go fishing that day, but that happens every year for fans following dismal teams.
Still, the Astros’ postseason run has been a welcomed diversion for an area where more than 100,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and where streets are still littered with debris from the mitigated shells of buildings. The Astros might not be logical favored to beat the Dodgers, but I’ll be rooting for them just the same.
We all know the lament, and some of us have been writing about it for almost four years. Will Drew Brees, one of the NFL’s all-time great quarterbacks, go down in history as another Archie Manning? Great player on an average team. Sure, Brees won a Super Bowl which puts him in kind of a purgatory of greatness. Certainly higher than Archie, who never enjoyed a winning season in New Orleans, but not quite the Beulah Land of Peyton or even Eli, if you’re counting championships.
The problem was never Brees’ offense that annually ranks in the top two or three in the league. It has been the defense, which has ranked at the bottom of the league the past few years in all the measurable criteria while ranking No. 1 in the league in frustration and futility. Things had not changed much during the first two games, in which the opponents’ passing lanes were no more guarded than the "anything goes" I-10 drag strip between New Orleans East and the Slidell bridge.
But in the past three games, a glimmer of hope suddenly has brightened into a beam of pure optimism. The Saints’ defense has stifled the offenses of three teams that could be in the playoffs come January. In defeating the Panthers, Dolphins and Lions, the Saints defense over those three games is tied with the Packers for tops in the NFL in takeaways, third in the NFL in pass yards per attempt at 5.0 and a respectable 12th in rushing yards allowed. This team has got game and a welcomed swagger that on Sunday was evident at every incompletion, sack or turnover! And against the Lions, the defense displayed a new feature – get those hands up! – that resulted in 16 tipped passes. A tipped pass has as much chance to become a completion as a 10-foot Miller putt! But I digress …
So, Who Dats, it appears that you now have the defense you’ve been clamoring for these past few years. So what happens how? Let’s run a few scenarios. They could continue to exhibit the confidence they displayed against the Lions and plow through the remainder of the schedule and into the playoffs. Or, they could return Who Dat Nation to its periodic depths of melancholy and lose games they shoulda or coulda won, but didn’t. Arguably, the most likely scenario would be one where some weeks, they play like Tarzan and other weeks like Jane, the perils of a young team. And the Saints defense has its share of players who aren’t old enough to rent a car.
Whatever happens, it will start next week in Green Bay where the dominating performance could be expected to continue. The Packers are suddenly scrambling to find a quarterback after a broken collarbone may have ended Aaron Rodgers’ season. There’s no joy in announcing that because injuries shouldn’t be celebrated, even if it might help your team. Best wishes to Rodgers for a speedy recovery, but the fact remains that Rodgers’ replacement is not Rodgers.
For the record, third-year man Brett Hundley is the backup and will likely start against the Saints, but Packer backers are burning up the online boards today with suggestions for a quick-fix. Several suggest that Wisconsin native Tony Romo might enjoy a break from his TV duties and return to the field, but the most intriguing is Colin Kaepernick. Signing the new appellant days after he filed a collusion suit against the NFL might resolve several issues, if the organization can handle the distraction. But where else in the league would a distraction be better absorbed than the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field?
Coaches have never been the most tolerant of individuals, especially when it comes to coverage of their teams by the news media. You remember local coaching rants to the press such as “you guys think you know, but you’ll never know” and similar complaints of unfairness. I’ve never seen a coach who is going through a difficult time with his team thank media members for their critical coverage. The traditional news media still values its position as community watchdog, but skepticism is at an all-time high, thanks to technology. The "adjunct" media with its innumerable outlets, blogs, tip sheets, and websites – aided by their ex-officio squad of IPhone spies with their cameras linked to You Tube – have taken coverage to new levels. Today, it is more important to get it first than to get it right.
Just ask poor Ed Orgeron at LSU who was being fired daily by some media mavens after his Tigers' mediocre start that included a loss to Sun Belt member Troy. Ask Tennessee Coach Butch Jones, who thinks the Knoxville press is one reason his Volunteers have sunk into an also-ran in the Southeastern Conference. I doubt that the ghost of Tom Siler, the legendary columnist for the Knoxville News-Sentinel, is carving holes in the defense from the Great Beyond or that his progeny are otherwise affecting the trajectory of passes by the current Vols’ quarterbacks. But that’s what Jones apparently thinks.
I have often wondered how a coach would handle it if the press covering his team were generous, supportive and actually adoring? And now, when we have just such an unlikely scenario, that’s apparently not so good, either, according to Nick Saban. The Alabama head coach just might have reached a new high (or low?) in reaction to the media when he complained about all the good press his top-ranked Crimson Tide has been receiving from a sycophantic Alabama press corps and even some national pundits.
Saturday night after the Tide held on to defeat a stubborn Texas A&M team, 27-19, Saban ranted that he wished his players listened to him more than the glowing coverage they have been receiving. “I just wish sometimes they would listen to me instead of all the things you guys write,” Saban said at his post-game presser. “That stuff is poison to a team. Rat poison! I’m asking them ‘Are you going to listen to me or are you going to listen to those guys about how good you are?’ We’re not going to beat everybody 66-3!”
Apparently, Saban felt his team did not play hard enough based on consensus that the poor Aggies would roll over dead when they saw crimson jerseys on the other bench. Well, they did not, and Saban thinks the culprit was the press, who elevated his players into a comfort zone. Obviously, Saban would prefer a critical press to an adoring one. That is in line with tradition if you think of the longstanding use of the locker room bulletin board as motivation. Coaches have forever clipped and saved critical stories that questioned their players’ skill, manhood or ability to perform as the fans expect them to.
So, let it be a lesson to every ink-stained wretch, barking dog of the electronic media or IPhone paparazzi who are assigned to cover a Nick Saban team. Do yourself a favor. Be as critical as truth allows so you can do Nick’s job for him. If you are incessantly ragging on his team, he merely has to point to your latest screed and say to his team: “See what those guys are saying about you?”
It’s always been easier for a coach to circle the wagons than to sing hosannas around the camp fire. And if that happens, and Nick happens to wink at you after a blow-out performance, you'll know why!