The Field and the Stands

<b>EDITORIAL</B>: Our resident columnist <b>Charles Chiccoa</b> considers: How good are jocks -- and jock commentators -- at analyzing their own sport? Are they blind, lying, holding out on us, or all three?

Some debates never die (while others remain curiously dormant): capital punishment, the Rosenbergs, the 2000 election, The Greatest Generation (WW II or the Sixties?), Montana or Marino, Ali or Ray Robinson, the Celtics or Wooden's Bruins, Willie Mays or Barry Bonds… on and on, over and over. We swear off, we desist, but we just can't leave those scabs alone. It must be fun… I guess.

Among sports fans, particularly college fans, we have for the most part loyalists and critics, whom I like to call Blues and Cranks. That there are degrees of each is understood: Blues who finally become fed up with their team's failures; Cranks who can be satisfied, who will celebrate their team's successes. The true Crank will speak his mind regardless of consequences; it's his nature. And the true Blue can't help warning him to watch his tongue lest his screed, in bad times, becomes counter-productive and buries the program even deeper. But just as the field belongs to the players, the letters to the editor, BRO, and similar internet sites will always belong to the fans. It's a rock solid tradition, like marching bands and the Eight Clap. Players beware.

And just how aware are we of our own personal agendas, hidden or otherwise? Fans may be drawn to this or that coach for this or that reason (though ultimately he had best win). The coach may be a son of Westwood, he may be an outsider and a clean break with tradition. Some may consider him the right color, or he may be the right color but the wrong coach. I would think for most of us the only color that matters is victory, but I realize there may still be a few ‘necks, perhaps a few race men (of all colors) who continue to believe color matters… a lot. Maybe there's something about the new quarterback we just don't like. Or maybe he comes from our old school, our old neighborhood, and we feel a relationship, a comfortable familiarity, like having discovered The Who in Shepherds Bush, The Doors at the Whiskey, Oasis at King Tut's Wah Wah Hut. We feel proprietary. We have an advocacy interest. Hey, the Beatles could write and sing but their instrumental tracks were "flippin' lousy." Morrison was godhead, man. Blur? A lot of suburban wankers. It's a long time since Brian Wilson wrote "Be True to Your School," yet most of us still are. It's our nature.

Another question I haven't heard much discussed, but one I've always found fascinating, is the relationship between athletes and their fans, between jocks and those who "never strapped it on." I think of it as the Field and the Stands. A lot of us have been both places, though our life as a jock may have gone no further than high school or junior college. But has it ever struck you that jocks have a corner on insights to the games they play? Some of you may be familiar with the late Dennis Minishian, a former basketball manager during the Wooden years and an all-around, local, stat guy legend. We were friends in high school. I was a jock and he very obviously was not, but both of us were opinionated and particularly geeked on the Bruins. A typically complacent teen, I thought I knew it all when it came to sports, but I never believed my opinions were more authentic than his. And they weren't. So why do so many fans seem to defer to the jockocracy? And the higher "the level," the more ready we are to genuflect, to bend the knee and just take it:

"You don't know basketball."

"I've forgotten more about this game than you'll ever know."

Sports are not rocket science. How many times have you heard it? Yet the media sets an inordinate value on what jocks have to say and treat this stuff with great respect… or at least a straight face (undeniably, there is a market for it). But think of some of these played-out jocks we listen to on the networks: "Sir Charles," for instance, or Tom Tolbert, "Neon Dion," even my all-time favorite college player, Bill Walton. As commentators, one can only hope they're not serious, that they're just putting us on… you know, like Dennis Rodman, laboring over his stale Madonna "outrage" schtick. And yet we eat it up, can't seem to get enough. Shaq proclaims himself the MDE, the Big Aristotle, claims he's bedded the Williams sisters, yet we still pay him serious attention, as if he were an authority on anything other than his own narcissistic self. We smile and call him "a big kid" rather than the grossly overgrown adolescent he's become. A certain amount of this can be traced to our pathetic obsession with celebrity. And, in the case of the media, who get up close and personal, I can't help wondering if part of this may not have something to do with the sheer size and presence of so many of these human behemoths. Ever been in an elevator with the average high-profile football or basketball player? (linemen and tight ends, power forwards and centers). And if you have, have you ever had the feeling they were almost a different species from yourself? But what does any of this add up to when it comes to discussing and analyzing the games these guys play?... I mean beyond slinging around the latest jargon, thus impressing the easily impressed. I remember Boomer Esiason laying tons of terminology on some big SI writer, and that writer being positively intimidated by this demonstration. Come on, this was Boomer's job. It's what he got overpaid to do. It's what he applied himself to, perhaps exclusively, most days of the year. He'd better know the language! We've all heard Boomer do color, and to my ears he's every bit as predictable, interchangeable, and dispensable as the next jock color man. So many of these people are either blind, lying, holding out on us, or all three. Phil Simms is so vacant you're tempted to conclude Bill Parcells must be the greatest thing since Pop Warner.

Which brings me to the players and the BROs. Other than knowing where prep stars are likely to enroll and what kind of GPAs and SATs they've achieved, or what some roster player's true height and weight is, I'm not waiting breathlessly for the players' next statement. If they happen to let slip something singularly interesting, or original, or shocking ("I'm outta here"), I'll naturally snap to attention and hope for more. This does not happen often. This almost never happens. For the most part it's just jockspeak:

"We come to play."

"They took it to us."

"We were flat."

"We didn't bring it."

"It wasn't our day."

"They got the breaks."

"Ask the refs."

"I don't know what happened."

And of course the immortal "We're definitely more talented." (so, ah…, they're just smarter and better coached?).

This is why I take, with a grain of salt, what player X believes caused the loss, caused the team's failure. Or what his father, mother, uncle, or members of his entourage, extended family, or posse believes. Seldom do these reasons, often self-serving, coincide with what I saw with my own eyes. I certainly could have missed something, but then if player Y was dogging it and his coaches didn't catch it, didn't yank him, didn't have a word with him, then shame on them. If the offensive coordinator didn't trust his quarterback to audibilize out of bad plays, or if the quarterback wasn't up to it, then shame on them. And if the defensive coordinator chose to match up a tiny corner on a huge wide out, well, thanks for the explanation, coach, but we figured that one out ourselves.

Except for p.r. exercises, as fans, we're not going to be breaking bread with the coaching staff. Why would they want to? From their standpoint our job is strictly as athletic supporters, to create a racket at the Rose Bowl so the opposing quarterback can't be heard, to raise the roof (check out all the cute gestures) after a great play, and, of course, to buy all the gear, preferably at the student store. Anything construed as not supportive is "negative," is "second guessing," is "Monday morning quarterbacking." I mean coaching can be a dodgy, heartbreaking profession. Forget that football staffs are often the highest paid personnel on campus. Just get with the program, knucklehead.

So you want to know about the Bruins? You want some inside dope, some honest insights? Where are you going to go? To Matt Moore's old high school coach? To Marc Dellins? I don't think so. Are you going to buttonhole Matt Stevens, Wayne Cook, Mike Sherrard, Don MacLean? I wouldn't advise it. Not to blow wind up our leader's skirt, but you're going to ask Tracy Pierson. You're going to ask Brandon Huffman… or Greg Hicks. You might also want to closely monitor the BRO message board. And I don't remember reading Tracy or Brandon's names as prep stars back in their salad days. I'm also pretty sure MacLean could spot Greg four letters in a game of horse and still blow him away. You see what I'm saying?


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