My blood's soothing properties
Note: if you would prefer to hear me wax zany about basketball, scoot on over to SLAM and see my latest official take on our fair site's namesake. Also pay close attention to the comments, in case you're wondering how the 'ol Shoalsian bombast goes over in those parts.
Sometimes it's grunted that "there's no crying in football." Play through injury, raise all manner of hell off the field almost expressly to shed it on Sunday, know no pride and ego but that of the team's will. Oddly absent, though, is how one's supposed to take the truly depressing moments: the fumble, the missed field goal, or the careless interception. These are the matrices of long-term damnation, and even dominant fellows like Peyton Manning and Tiki Barber can be brought down to naught by well-placed gaffs. Not only do these scenarios have a disproportionately destructive effect on a rep; there's also no way to work through them like a man, since the world simply will not allow players the dignity necesary to keep on truckin'.
Tears may never fall on the gridiron, but football ladles on the pathos more richly than any other major sport. Baseball can offer only the save blown in a meaningful contest, as percentages decidedly favor batter failure. Stars who choke compete mostly against the myth of the clutch; you feel for them about as much as you do a Hollywood star who's having creative trouble on the set. In basketball, land we call home, the missed free throw in the playoffs comes close, yet a contest decided at the stripe has even less to do with its sport than a last-second field goal (see End of Any NCAA Tournament Game). Note, though, that since every football game matters, every decisive misstep has season-long consequences. What's more, all QB's throw it away sometimes, and increasingly, kickers are far from perfect. Tom Brady is perhaps the only quarterback in the league who is allowed to move on with his life; Favre sometimes avoids the deluge through sheer attitude. Oddly, I have difficulty coming up with a single black quarterback who comes close to being afforded this generosity.
I've been led to believe that football viewers are supposed to adopt the same blood-thirsty, excessively be-spined, outlook as the pros they watch. As if all that hooey about the pigskin crowd being an extra teammate was anything but pandering to the "game of the people, by the people, for the people" mythos. I'm personally willing to admit that football is a game with brief episodes of intense sadness and isolation, and that not picking up on this makes you less human without advancing your lineman cred. In general, this emotion is underrated in sports, perhaps for the same reason that the military has problems convincing amuptees that their lives remain worthwhile. Anyone fixated on the drama and/or the psychology inherent in sports, though, can't help but notice its prevalence. It's not just the shadow of a certain kind of success; we'd rather watch the crestfallen QB than the celebrating d-back, and cameramen salivate for that last shot of the kicker as adrenaline drains and disbelief fades.
For fans, this is made into outright unpleasantness when you're a fan of the player. I happen to think Daunte Culpepper is the shit, and wished him nothing but effusive well going into the season. Throwing two picks in a row that would make any sane person at least a little down (fine, call it frustration, but that's like calling an anxiety attack "nervousness"), and it makes me feel bad for the guy. These almost sadistic scenes of disappointment are a integral part of football; as a spectator, why am I softbatch for sympathizing with their victims? More to the point, why is it a sin to acknowledge the alpha scapegoat's routine burden, or even suggest that he might be himself suffering? You can't honestly tell me that this indicates weakness on my part, or unfairly assumes it on his. Plus, there's nothing more comical than fans calling out professional athletes for laziness, cowardice, or fragility, as if—twelvth man that they are—they're made of tougher stuff.
The possibility of pity in sports ultimately stems from FD's "players, not teams" philosophy. There is strength in the team, hope in its numbers, backlogged credibility in its history. No single game, no matter how enormous, can erase that, and no player can overcome it with negative implications. Take away that support system, though, and you're left with a man judged in the daylight, almost always lacking the ammo to stave off this particularly robust tide of ruin. No matter how resilient your guy is, he'd need the safety net of a team, or a franchise, to fight these blues. That's what makes the interception and the fumble so magic and violent—they happen all the time, yet they steamroll all but the most lofty forces in the football cosmos. It would be like if getting a safety landed a player on the Hall of Fame ballot.
Yes, I have yammered on and on about the epic singularity of these plays. But the basic premise, the crux of its disreputability, is that we should on occasion feel bad for athletes. This may sound wimpy and foolhardy, until you realize that this is the dirty little secret of all over-informed fandom. Each season, we become irrationally excited about almost random indvidual players; in fact, doing so might be the defining small pleasure of a season. Chances are, however, that this attachment is fleeting, usually because their place in the sport changes enough over time to rob them of their resonance. More often than not, it has to do with them losing some of their luster, flaws cropping up, demotions and unflattering context. Injuries, too.
What can we do here? Pretend we never cared? That would make us cold, thoughtless whores, devoid of faith, feeling or principle. All we can do is shake our heads and reminisce. They're now shadows of themselves, but we'll always love them for what they once were. So instead of cutting ties, we shake our heads and feel a little hollow, a little less alive, and yes, maybe even a little sad.