Are We Still Ready for Some Football (October 9, 2014)

It happens each time I pull out my Chicago Cubs-branded debit card to pay for a transaction, especially if traveling somewhere outside of Illinois. The look of disgust, a glance of pity, perhaps even an outright laugh from the bolder amongst them. I’ve come to regret having ordered the damned thing from Bank of America in headier, more optimistic days.

As any member of Cubs Nation well knows, ours is a long-suffering lot. It was 2008 the last time the Cubbies made the playoffs, 2003 when we came close to the World Series (still so painful to recall) and 1945 the last time we actually appeared. And with the recent conclusion of the 2014 season, it has now been 106 years, longer than anyone living could possibly recall, since the Cubs won the World Series. As a child growing up in the 1980s, the whole “Lovable Losers” thing was all in good fun. But that’s also when bleacher tickets cost $10, and youth permitted indulgence of the “Wait ‘Til Next Year” fantasy shared by fans.

Many broken hearts, one upwardly mobile corporate takeover of the Friendly Confines and an elimination of David Berg hot dogs from the concession stand later, I found myself in search of a new fix for sports cravings. It wasn’t just the Cubs latest post-season embarrassment that broke me in the fall of 2008. It was years of corrupt performance enhancing cover-ups, the mid-90s strike which led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, etc. Baseball felt used up and broken.

I started paying closer attention to the NFL during the 2006-7 season, the last time the Chicago Bears made a trip to the Super Bowl. True we were humiliated in epic fashion by Payton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, but at least we were there! And of course many native Chicagoans of my generation are still huffing the contrails left by the glorious 1985 Monsters of the Midway. Some denizens of this fine city may never recover from the pinnacle of the Ditka/Ryan era. ‘Da Coach, a near Illinois Senatorial candidate in 2004, remains a Christlike figure wherever he travels across the state.

Bear fever aside, I wasn’t sure football could hold my attention. To begin, the game is insanely complicated. My track record for staying engaged in activities I don’t understand is rather spotty. I’ve been a devoted Sunday disciple for eight years and I still only comprehend 60 percent of what takes place on the field – on the best day. But the good news is I learned that I really don’t mind. The promise of future expertise gives me an ideal for which to strive.

Secondly, I can’t see the players’ faces during the action. This may seem like a bizarre reason for avoiding a sport, but as a writer, critic, former youth stage actress and singer, emoting is an important part of any experience. I need to feel it. My favorite childhood baseball moments: former Coach Don Zimmer kicking dirt at umpires while yelling his face off, the usually calm and professional outfielder Andre Dawson tossing equipment onto the field from the dugout after being unjustly ejected from the game, Ricky Henderson’s not-so-humble “I am the greatest!” proclamation.

For me, baseball was all about the passion, the commitment..until it wasn’t. Though the sport is trying desperately to recover from two decades of fake records created by cynical, juicing bastards, it may have forever forfeited its special status as “America’s favorite past time.” And as I grew up, it became clear that Cubs ownership knew it was sitting on top of a sellout goldmine, so why spend money on trying to win? Schedule a game at the Wrigley Field, one of Chicago’s biggest tourist attractions, and they will come. Not exactly a great way to treat loyal fans left pining for competitive respectability.

At this point some of you may be thinking to yourselves: “Way to jump from the money grubbing frying pan to the fire Becky! The last time I checked the NFL was hardly a nonprofit operation, and they have plenty of violent, scandalous and cynical troubles of their own.” All true. I shall not disagree. My point is this. The 2014-15 NFL season is starting to look an awful lot like the MLB of the early aughts: a gut check moment of internal assessment and criminal player purging, leaving many a loyal fan wondering if all the concussions, abused women and children, bullying and weapons violations are worth it.

I can’t stand the Ginger Hammer of bald-faced moneymaking, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. He’s a huge part of the league’s current PR problem. Similar to the follies of the MLB, he’s been willing to look the other way at a laundry list of disgusting behavior until fans and the media alike were brought to attention by a disturbing video of Ray Rice punching out this then fiancée. But dollars decide and as long as Goodell continues proliferating them for league owners, he’ll remain in charge.

Rehabilitation of the NFL’s image is not off to a smooth start, but if the league wants to avoid the fate of previous favorite American sport, baseball, this season’s high ratings suggest there’s still time. We await your next move Ginge.

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