I could’t find my favorite breakfast cereal recently, at my local market. When I asked the manager where it might be, she informed me that it wasn’t selling well enough to keep on the shelves. Instead of protesting, I simply found a replacement with the same nutritional make up. And as it turns out …I like it better. And that got me thinking …
When I was ten-years-old I was diagnosed with Rheumatic fever and Rheumatoid arthritis. I was bed-ridden for almost half the school year. So, I started collecting NFL football cards to pass the time, laying in bed, in my room (this was obviously pre-internet). I had become a Dallas Cowboys fan because of Roger Staubach. I was wowed by the “Hail Mary” play in ’75. But then, beyond that, I saw what a good man he was off the field and how dedicated he was to his faith and family. For little church boys like me, that was something to cling to. Somehow, I felt like he was ON MY SIDE. So, from then on, Roger was my hero and the Cowboys were my team. And I collected their cards.
In short …I bought in (literally) to the brand of the NFL.
On the Sunday before the Monday I was supposed to get an assessment of how much heart damage I had, I lay in bed and watched the Cowboys win Super Bowl 12. I had prayed that God would let them win. And I asked God that if they won, let it be a sign that I would have no heart damage. That’s how ten-year-olds think and pray. As the clock ticked down to 0 and Coach Landry was carried off the field on the shoulders of his Cowboys, I cried tears of relief, fully believing that Roger and the boys had saved my life.
The next day I was indeed given a clean heart waver. No damage. And for a long time I associated that star on the side of those football helmets with my very heart beat. Even now, I have an emotional response whenever I see a Dallas Cowboys uniform. That’s what sports can do for little boys.
In my lifetime, I’ve watched the league’s most prolific receiver (Jerry Rice) get drafted and retire. I’ve watched the league’s most prolific runner (Emmitt Smith) get drafted and retire (wearing that beautiful star on his helmet) and I’ve watched the league’s most prolific passer (Peyton Manning) get drafted and retire. All three of those men became role models for so many. They were heroes of sorts. They respected the game and the league and the country. And most of all …they respected the fans. The fans all believed that those men were ON THEIR SIDE. And all of that got reflected in a BRAND called the NFL. All the greats see the bigger picture.
I don’t see a lot of Roger Staubach, Emmitt Smith or Peyton Manning humility out there anymore. I see a lot of celebrating and chest pounding and preening and dancing and pecocking and bad sportsmanship by some really fast and hard-hitting youngsters. But just watching great athletes run around and do their thing isn’t the totality of sport. Fans need PEOPLE to root for. Cheering on a hero takes a game beyond mere sport and turns it into human drama. It causes little boys to pray for their teams and wear jerseys and collect cards and bet their lives on the outcomes of games.
As it stands now, we’re into week 4 of the NFL and I haven’t watched a single game yet. I’m finding fewer and fewer reasons to seek out the next record breaker. The more I learn about the players today, the less inclined I am to care all that much about them. It often feels like there are a whole lot of out-of-touch millionaires out there running around, not recognizing that they’re getting paid to play a game. And many of them have decided to use the NFL brand to make personal, political statements. The NFL certainly didn’t allow Hank Williams Jr to do that. And that makes me wonder if the NFL is trying to avoid controversy …or if it’s actually picking sides.
Roger Staubach could have come home from Vietnam and used the NFL brand to protest that war. He had certainly earned the right to do that. But he respected the brand of the NFL enough to become one of its heroes instead of one of its malcontents. And he respected the fans enough to not force them into a political debate on Sunday afternoons.
Emmitt Smith won the super bowl, IN Pasadena, a year after the Rodney King riots. He could’ve certainly used the NFL brand to make a statement about that event and the issues surrounding it. But instead, he respected the brand and played the game and got us all on his side. Now, if Emmitt wants to make a statement about anything, I will listen to him. We all will. He has earned my respect and admiration and he did it all without jeopardizing the game.
I don’t care who does or who doesn’t stand for the National Anthem. And having a conversation about police brutality and race relations is something I am not afraid of doing. In fact, we have those conversations all the time in our house. But the NFL was always a place where the country – especially fathers and sons – could say, “okay, enough of the serious stuff for a while …the game is on.”
Brands are built one brick at a time; one great, dramatic game at a time; one amazing pass and catch at a time; one HERO at a time. And they die the same way …by a thousand tiny cuts. The Anthem boycotts don’t really offend me. But they are just one more reason for me to roll my eyes and not turn on the game. I feel less and less like these players are ON MY SIDE. In fact, it often feels like they have contempt for the fans. And that gets back to your brand …
The NFL brand is still strong. But it can weaken. It certainly has in THIS house. To be honest, I’m starting to re-think football altogether, at every level. Watching my son’s best friend play in pee wee league last year, left a pretty bad taste in my mouth. And after his first concussion (at age 8) the taste got worse.
I didn’t watch any games this week. I probably won’t watch any next week …or the next. And if enough guys like me keep switching off the channel, well …that’s how things go away. And the pontificators will analyze what happened and try to find all sorts of reasons for what did it in. But the truth will be really simple: Too many public statements …not enough public heroes. Players placing too much importance on themselves …with not enough respect for the fans. Too much money changing hands …not enough Rogers and Emmitts and Jerrys and Peytons to root for.
I can’t imagine a world without the NFL. Then again, I couldn’t imagine a world without my favorite cereal.
But you know what? It is delicious.