The XFL thinks its brutal, dumbed-down product is what fans want. Actually, fans want more scoring and fewer commercials.
The ancient Greeks believed that time was cyclical and that everything eventually came back around. (Aristotle believed he was living in the time of the Iliad because Alexander was invading Persia, or something like that.) If you follow sports, you begin to feel the same way. Is the XFL the third or fourth attempt to establish a new pro football league?
I’m really not old enough to remember much about the beginning of the AFL except that it caused a big fuss in Alabama (and presumably elsewhere in the country) when Joe Namath signed for the then-astonishing sum of $400,000. (And did I say astonishing? That was probably the salary for both XFL teams in the league’s first game Saturday.) I also remember a World Football League and a United States Football League and some other football league and even an American division of the Canadian Football League, though I can’t actually say I remember anything as specific as one of their games. What I remember best is that each time around the new league promised a new excitement that the old, boring NFL was no longer providing, and that that had something to do with playing “football the way it’s supposed to be played.”
In the case of the new XFL, this is supposed to be what founder or commissioner or whatever-the-hell-he-is Vince McMahon calls “smashmouth football.” The problem with this, as Mike Lupica (to give credit where it is due) pointed out Sunday morning, is that smashmouth football is exactly what the Baltimore Ravens played to perfection in the Super Bowl, and outside of Maryland people weren’t particularly thrilled about it.
Forgetting for a moment the cheerleaders in the stands (I’ll never forget one Betty Doll with an idiotic grin on her face asking a fan if he thought “another player might go down” after someone had suffered a concussion) or the “candid” player interviews (where one player was so candid he ignored the interviewer) and the halftime locker room visits (which confirmed exactly what you thought about halftime locker rooms sessions, namely that nothing of importance is ever said), I am left wondering, after the XFL’s month-long media blitz, whether the people that put it together really care about football as anything besides marketing fodder.
That they don’t care about the players was brought home with a jolt on Saturday that had to cause a modicum of queasiness in the most dedicated wrestling fan. A quarterback who probably shouldn’t have been playing in the first place was blindsided by a tackler who’d run right past a blocker who seemed unaware that he had blown an assignment, or even that there was an assignment to blow. Anyhow, the poor jerk was sitting on the bench, injured and looking like he wished he was back at the post office or wherever while that moron Jesse Ventura, who knows as much about football as I do about governing Minnesota (or even as much as he does about governing Minnesota), berated his play and called him a quitter. Have sports fans, I wondered, become so crass that they want to see players hurt and humiliated?
It seems to me that there is a massive miscalculation at the heart of the XFL that has nothing to do with the many things that are wrong with NFL football, and it starts with this: In wrestling the violence is fake, while in football it’s very, very real. The last American Medical Association report I saw listed football at any organized level as much more dangerous in terms of serious injuries per thousand participants than boxing. Football isn’t showbiz to the men who play it, no matter how much technique is used to market it. All the cleavage and overhead cams (a terrific idea, actually) aren’t going to keep these out-of-shape, past-their-prime and never-had-a-prime players from getting wracked. In fact, they’re going to contribute to it.
The big changes the XFL has made in the game, namely no fair catches on punt returns and allowing bump-and-run tactics on receivers downfield are geared toward creating more entertainment — i.e., nasty collisions. That’s what’s wrong with the game, according to the XFL: not that it stresses brute strength over conditioning and stamina, or that coaches are smothering the game with their conservatism. The problem is that it’s not violent enough. Or dumb enough. Of course, what’s really wrong with pro football is something that every fan acknowledges but that not even the XFL dares to admit: There are too damn many commercials interrupting the action.
An awful lot of time and energy is wasted on sports pages these days discussing phony issues that really have nothing to do with sports. The Ray Lewis controversy comes under the heading of the criminal justice system, not football. Whether Dennis Miller will bring a new audience to “Monday Night Football” is of primary interest to the entertainment press, not to sports fans. (After all the talk, talk, talk about it, the “Monday Night” ratings didn’t go up at all.) The XFL is another of these non-issues that will cease to interest anyone when the NBA playoffs, the NCAA Tournament and the baseball season arrive. Good sport drives out bad; it’s a law that I’ve now seen applied in three previous incarnations of alternative pro football leagues. And it doesn’t take an Aristotle to see that we’ve lived through this before.
I do have one piece of advice for Vince McMahon: Don’t wait till the ratings sag. Sign up Andrew Dice Clay as an announcer, NOW.
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I believe in miracles, but …
I wanted to be able to say something nice about the current HBO production about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, if only because HBO, over the past several years, has consistently delivered the finest sports documentaries around. The best I can say for “Do You Believe In Miracles?” is that it did not completely destroy my faith in free speech.
The idea that a hockey game had any impact at all on American attitudes about anything has always struck me as a sportswriter’s conceit, but the claims made in “Miracles” go way beyond silly to offensive. “In the ’70′s,” intones a narrator’s voice, “when a darkness seemed to hang over the nation … no one could have predicted how important a single hockey game would be to a nation that seemed to be losing its self-esteem.”
I swear, I’m not making this up.
“It might have been,” chirps another voice just insipid enough to be Jim Lampley’s, “the all-time low point for American self-esteem.” One wants to cut in with “Do Fort Sumter and Pearl Harbor ring a bell?” “It was,” drones yet another, in defiance of Jesse Owens, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali, “the greatest sports moment of the 20th century.”
I don’t know about you, but the 1980 victory of the U.S. hockey team over the Soviets made a break in my afternoon and no more. The idea that it “raised our spirits because we were powerless to stop the Soviets in Afghanistan” makes about as much sense as saying the Russians’ upset in basketball in 1972 made them feel better about Vietnam. The people who wrote this — and I’m going to be kind and leave out names — deserve to be horsewhipped.
Allen Barra's next book is "Mickey and Willie -- The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age," from Crown. More Allen Barra.
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