There’s something brutally deflating about cheering a bad football team. I write from the heart, as the three teams I follow each weekend are now a combined 5-21. It’s one thing to follow a mediocre team, a win breaking through the clouds of defeat every three or four weeks. But to watch a football team — or three football teams — take the field and get smacked around in serial fashion is a strike at one’s manhood. Somehow, miserable football hurts on a deeper level than lousy baseball or basketball. I’ll try to explain.
Say your favorite baseball team is in the basement of its division. True to your colors, though, you tune in to watch when they happen to be on your cable system (or you admirably take a drive for a weekend series at the ballpark). Predictably, the team falls behind early, can’t scrape together a crooked number for the scoreboard, and slumps off the field as the opponents glad-hand each other near the mound. This may turn your mood sour, but there are too many ways to rationalize a bad performance by a baseball team: starting pitching is weak, no clutch hitting, poor managing, no strength in the bullpen, etc. I love baseball like my children, but it’s a sport that lends itself to whining more than vicarious pain.
Then there’s basketball. To begin with, this is a game played by men in shorts, tank-tops, and sneakers. Lots of muscle flexing and trash talking, but it comes across as the schoolyard variety. When your basketball team stinks, you’re one player (maybe two) away from turning bad fortune to good. Consider every NBA Finals that went as many as six games. If you took the best player from the winning team and had him switch uniforms, the result would be reversed. And even awful teams can suit up a player who takes your breath away (think Kevin Garnett in his early days with Minnesota). Losing basketball teams are ugly, but they’re not painful.
But then there’s football. The sport of mud-stained gladiators, gnarled bloody hands, and the voice of John Facenda describing Ray Nitschke’s brand of menace. Football’s no game for the meek and whiny. No muscle flexing is necessary when making tackles and breaking tackles are elementary parts of the skill set. And trash talking goes as far as the next forearm shiver. Tough game to play and, when your team stinks, a tough, miserable game to watch.
When your football team is bad, you must concede that “their” line is stronger than yours, that “their” ball carriers are faster than your linebackers and defensive backs, that “their” quarterback ... hell, “their” quarterback is even better-looking than yours. Your coaching staff isn’t smart enough. Your special teams aren’t brave enough. And the cheerleaders look like a group of devil-fairies sent to the sideline to mock the atrocity you’re witnessing with every snap of the ball. Football is a tough game to watch when your team is lousy.
Worst of all, bad football seems to quell hope. Where do you start when your football team stinks? Fire the coach? It’s the easiest attempt at solution, but an unfair attachment of one face to a problem that defines a large group. Change quarterbacks? No matter how square-jawed and able-bodied the replacement seems to be, if that line can’t hold, or those receivers can’t separate, Joe Namath becomes Joey Harrington. And shoulders slump once again. Bad football is a tough culture to change, one that makes pessimism an instinct.
I haven’t turned to a paper sack yet. (Name the last time you saw fans in paper sacks at a Chicago Cubs game or Los Angeles Clippers game. Only in football.) But I’ve discovered more free time than I typically have on fall weekends. I’ll wear my team hats in public, absorb my share of barbs ... that comes with fandom. But witnessing the abuse for three hours (per game) when the sun is still shining (or a good book sits on my night stand)? Bad football is terribly painful to watch. The heartache will linger, but your eyes can turn away.