I was born and raised in southeastern Wisconsin in a modest and love-filled home. We were a happy working-class family that spent endless hours together doing all the kinds of things suburban families did in the 1980s in Wisconsin. Namely, eat good food and watch sports.
My grandparents would regularly take the grandchildren in rotation to Milwaukee Brewers’ games. The seats they bought filled us all with amazement. Thirteenth row – or at least that’s how I remember it – on the 1st base side, just above the home dugout. I loved baseball then. I loved the “Brew Crew.” Paul Molitor, Jim Gantner, Robin Yount, Cecil Cooper, were my heroes. So many too-cold-too-soon autumn afternoons found me imagining I was a slugger, or a fielder, or a baserunner like those gods of diamond. Those were the days when there was only baseball in my life, and it felt like they would never end.
I never wanted them to end. Back then, everything about baseball seemed timeless and innocent, as though those players took the field for only the sheer joy of play and as a gift to fans. But, like that boyish perspective that brimmed with life at the sound of wood and leather colliding, those days are no more.
I didn’t know it at the time, but 1993 was the last year I would love baseball. Because in 1994 there was no baseball all summer. And when the World Series was cancelled for the first time since 1904, with it went my “love of the game.”
It wasn’t all sadness and tears though. Brett Favre was reinvigorating a dormant Green Bay Packer football team, and I, like many of my peers in Wisconsin I imagine, easily embraced America’s game and the people’s team. It’s true what they say, winning is the cure for a lot of ills in sport.
Since then I’ve not wavered much in my enthusiasm for the Packers. That is, until Monday night, September 24, 2012 when the outcome of a game was determined, not by the skill of those that played it, but by the greed of team owners who are willing to sacrifice the quality of their product for increased profits. (If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, just visit Grantland.com or search “replacement refs” in Google.)
That was the night any bit of innocence about sport and “for the love of the game” died. Again.
It’s not so much that my favorite team was the victim of a raw deal. (Though the sting is palpable.) I’m just disappointed that, once again, some cultural artifact I love feels like nothing more than a vehicle for profit for someone else. Easily sacrificed when profits must go up. At least I wasn’t as naive about this fact the second time around, though I did think that there was a better balance between game and gain. I believed that the artifact itself was worth something to the people who are also profiting from its existence. And, there may be some who feel that way. But the truth is that the dollar is still almighty. And the expectation is that the fans will just roll over and accept whatever is served because of an undying allegiance to the NFL.
The trouble with this kind of arrogant thinking is that when you disrespect the artifact that you create by assuming you can substitute a quality element with a poorer version of that element, and that the people who love what you make won’t care or are too addicted to do anything about it, you are actually disrespecting those people. What is happening in the NFL is a disrespect of a kind totally different from the MLB strike and NFL lockout of 2011. At least the labor laws operating between the two parties prevented the artifact from being made at all until a contract was agreed upon.
Right now, however, the NFL is allowing its artifact to be consumed by the public without a quality control department. It would be like going to see your favorite band play and then find them so wasted they are unable to perform well. Or, going to a restaurant to have its famed duck-fat fries, only to find out that the duck-fat is actually vegetable oil. Or, paying top, top dollar to go to football games, and discovering that professional officials have been replaced by high school refs… oh, wait, that IS what’s happening.
But the NFL thinks it doesn’t have to care about the quality of what it makes. It thinks that a bait-and-switch scam isn’t what it’s doing. Sure, it’s the same players and fields, but it’s not the same set of rules as the replacement officials are too new and unqualified to know them all and enforce them even averagely, let alone well. In some sense what is being watched by millions and millions isn’t football at all.
In its attempt to squeeze the professional officials union the NFL is blinded to the reality that its lack of concern for its creation is a slap-in-the-face to its patrons. And some of them, like me, may stop patronizing their establishment with the kind of fervor and regularity we once did. (Read emails about this issue sent by fans to ESPN’s Bill Simmons, The Sports Guy/Czar.)
America is seeing, more and more, behind the curtain. And when that happens, you realize that the magical wizard is just a short, balding, old man grasping at whatever power and wealth he can get. (Or something like that.) And more than a little of the magic is lost.
When I remember those days with Grandma and Grandpa at the old County Stadium, a part of me longs to go back to that fabled and cliched innocence of youth. Before I was aware of things like labor disputes, unions, contracts, free agency, strikes, advertising, cross-promotional marketing, lockouts and all the real-world engines that drive the sports I like. I am certain they will get this referee situation resolved in the NFL eventually, they did hold a World Series in 1995. But now, like then, I’ll care just a little bit less. And only time will tell if I’ll look back in another 20 years and remember 2011 as the last year I really loved and watched football.
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