The XFL is back! I wonder how many Boomers, like me, did not actually miss it. 2001 was a bad year for American icons in general, but the National Football League had little to fear from this spin-off of pro wrestling, which imploded after a single season. Now the league has been reborn, with the same principal investor but with a few different rules. Most of them seem intended to make the game more interesting–shorter play clock, additional ref, new extra-point options. Others are aimed at eliminating controversy without spoiling the fun: an explicit ban on employing convicted felons, a prohibition on political demonstrations written into players’ contracts but, on the flip side(?), no tests for marijuana use. And of course there’s been another change–legalized gambling. The fans and broadcasters alike will openly reckon with the over-and-under. Commissioner Oliver Luck, whose contributions to football include his son–fortunately that sacrifice was ended before Andrew gave his life– says the league wants to “embrace the gambling community.” Beyond that, in readiness for opening weekend, he announced, “we’ve got plenty of footballs.”
If this venture succeeds, we will have to admit that there is no limit to redundancy in men’s professional sports. (Women’s leagues, on the other hand, still languish for want of money and promotion.) And that should come as no surprise to males of my generation. Before the advent of video games, there was no way to test one’s strategic mettle, never mind demonstrate one’s toughness, except by joining in local street contests. Players from different neighborhoods quickly acquired reputations for strength and ruthlessness, skill and endurance. (Does the image of team captains’ hands overlapping all the way up to the knob of the baseball bat even work as a meme anymore?) All this ran in parallel with the organized sports–Pop Warner, Little League(c), etc.–that adults staged. Classmates who actually “made” the school team were an honored minority, and one heard stories of some whose high school talent presaged a career in the majors. (Oscar Robertson led my own list. I even owned his how-to guide to basketball greatness; the feat of dribbling with either hand, however, proved my undoing.) We confined our curiosity to the relevant stat’s listed on the trading cards–who knew that our stars even got married, never mind divorced in awkward circumstances?–and, in our perverse innocence, race hardly mattered. A few were sufficiently aware of the Negro Leagues to maintain the superiority of Satchel Paige, but Bob Gibson sufficed for Cardinals fans, Willie Mays for Giants’. Our heroes came almost exclusively from either sports or the military–if you got a Ted Williams or a Roger Staubach, an Arthur Ashe, even a Paul Hornung (see gambling, above)–that was just a bonus.
Eventually, pro sports became an armchair entertainment not necessarily connected to active participation in the sport itself, a trend that rising rates of obesity in most industrialized countries seem to validate. But for Boomers, there is often a faint recollection of childhood achievement that still allows many adult bench-warmers to associate personally with the feats they watch on the screen. Usually this takes the form of recognizing how difficult a particular action truly is–gained from one’s repeated experience of failing to execute it–but sometimes this is accompanied by appreciation of the transient glory that attaches to success. In retrospect, my own ‘athletic’ career seems sprinkled with just enough of these moments to allow me to exist as a fully-fledged 20th-century male. For instance, there was the time when, as a gangly 11-year-old hurler, I struck out the batter to end the inning, allegedly with a ‘change-up’ . I say “allegedly” because that’s what the delighted coach called it. My only objective on the mound was to retain control over the ball until I felt releasing it would cause no serious injury–and it was in losing that grip for an instant that I had somehow mimicked the desired effect, slashing velocity while delivering it in the vicinity of the plate. The resulting adulation, thoroughly undeserved, was nonetheless gratifying.
It went on happening. Once on the high school basketball court I appeared to have “faked out” one of the senior guards, to his acute embarrassment. Needing more bodies for the varsity to practice on, the coach had thrust a couple of tall (and in my case, ectomorphic) juniors into the role of opponents. Somehow the ball had landed in my hands right under our own basket–the result of a wholly unpredictable miss and outlet pass at the other end–and hearing the pounding feet of several older players bearing down on me, I froze. Almost completely, but not quite. Instinctively, I knew that I should try to score, and so my torso and arms jerked upwards, lacking the mass to pull my feet up too; they remained planted on the floor. Seeing this as my pathetic effort at a layup, the pursuing guard soared over my head–where he would have dispatched any real shot to the bleachers–and continued out of bounds. Somehow, in his wake, I repeated the motion with more conviction and, to everyone’s wonderment, the ball crept over the rim and through the nylon. Needless to say, I had never deliberately “juked” anyone–such deceit seemed to sully the honor of competition–but during the minutes that followed, it dawned on me that I was now viewed as a threat. The guard’s teammates were nonplussed, but only until the next possession, when my attempted pass was easily swatted away. The coach’s delusion persisted until the following weekend, when he put me into the varsity game deep into the second half. All I remember from that brief encounter is a vision of armpits at the rebounding end–my “vertical” added little to my reach–and the scorn with which everyone present should have greeted my lone shot, a pristine air-ball. It had all been an illusion, but it was pleasant while it lasted.
Such incidents conveyed me mysteriously through adolescence. There was the time in tennis class when I rushed forward to parry my opponent’s casual ground stroke, lost my footing and slid, modern-QB-style, all the while holding my racquet aloft. Somehow the ball bounced off it and crossed back over the net–and I didn’t run into it. I’m sure my hitting partner was astonished that I would invest this sort of effort; I certainly didn’t imagine that I’d earned the admiration of a female classmate who later avowed I was the best player she’d ever seen. (Keep in mind, this was when everyone dressed like Farley Granger in “Strangers on a Train,” whether they were any good or not.) During my compulsory stint on the high school track team, the real runners often came close to lapping me over the course of a mile. On one occasion, though, the winner (eventually a state champion) congratulated me on a good race. He was a gentleman, but he had clearly confused me with our own greyhound, who had dogged his heels all the way to the finish line. Sadly, on the soccer field, where I would have loved to excel, no one ever mistook me for a competent defender, much the less a dangerous goal-scorer. It stands to reason, then, that I would become a youth coach in that sport, passing on expertise that would have ended Maradona’s career early.
I suggest that the shared angst of athletic failure, celebrated by Boomer humorists like Bill Murray and Dave Barry, actually transcends the Red-Blue divisions that now seem to have split American males into two irreconcilable camps. Go ahead, place your bets. But let’s try to remember that we all have memories of genuine triumph alongside moments of sheer, unbelievable luck. Sometimes you can be busy doing something else and only find out the score when it’s all over.