Technically, for something to become a “scandal” somebody needs to be upset or disgusted in some way. In fact, that uneasiness needs to be widespread. So, I’m not sure Coach Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, busted last week for cheating by having a team employee videotape an opponent’s sideline signals, have caused a scandal in football, since pro football itself is basically a kind of testosterone-infused “Smurfs On Ice” for those still following it, and cheating to win any of football’s overblown titles feels a little like a quirky soap opera in the vein of that “Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom” movie from 1993.
Put another way, finding out that there’s cheating in the same “pro” sports culture that nurtures a personality and character like Michael Vick is a little like someone revealing that Stalin also had bad breath.
This is not to say that there shouldn’t be the perfunctory punishments, the thousands of column inches of outrage from sports writers and some hand-wringing on the part of parents. It’s just that you can’t elevate this Patriots event to anything very surprising if you’ve been following the decay in pro sports.
A few years ago, I was approached about a project that involved contributing creative concepts to the “reinvention” of the Ringling Brothers circus. The problem was that as the public became more enamored of Cirque du Soleil-type costumed and dyed-hair circuses, the traditional form of a circus was losing its appeal. Anyhow, I didn’t get the job because I came up with only one pitch: add a fourth ring.
I think pro football is headed toward a similar attempt at reinvention. And this time I have more ideas. I’ll share them in a moment. First, let’s look at what’s not working right now.
Drugs, guns, cheating, dog fighting, shootings, murders… none of these innovations have really added in any positive way to the enjoyment of pro football. True, Janet Jackson did give it the old college try. But when a guitar solo from the teasingly bisexual Prince is the most exciting moment in a football championship… then, gentlemen, your basic product is in need of attention.
There are those who might argue that the bad boy image of pro football players is actually good for the game because ultimately the true fan imagines themselves as one of these huge socially retarded thugs that likes to get busted over the weekend, pay a big fine and then kick ass on Sunday. How that connects to rainbow wigs, face paint, drunkenness and not wearing a shirt I’ll never understand but… maybe Hank Williams, Jr. could explain it to you in a song.
I don’t believe cheating will ever contribute as much to football being broken as does the context of the entire enterprise. By the time teams have paid millions to buy certain players, I’m not sure where the sportsmanship is. If I invited you to go fishing, and you brought along some sort of fish bazooka that literally blew the trout out of the water… I’d wonder why we bothered. Similarly, if the Yankees are simply the most cash-rich team in baseball, how is there any pleasure in watching them win?
Earlier I offered to give up some ideas for re-imaging pro football. I’ll be the first to admit they’re modest: drugs, guns, law breaking… you’re out. I mean, you can’t play for any pro team ever again. And by this time you know that “law breaking” doesn’t mean speeding tickets.
Pro football also has an excellent chance to recover some patina of noble behavior by taking better care of its aging retired players whose bodies are now falling apart. Those injured men are not receiving proper insurance coverage from the teams they damaged themselves for.
My last pitch would be to stop turning entire cities into “Super Fans!” King Hospital is shutting down, yet Staples Center gets every form of city support imaginable. Sure, it’s worse in other cities. Denver does everything short of offering up their virgin daughters to the Denver Broncos. But if the coaches and the players are going to act like punks who aren’t afraid of rules, then let’s at least quit collectively kissing their behinds.