My sour mood actually began a day before Monday night’s Green Bay game vs. Seattle when I saw that Sheldon Adelson, the Vegas moneybags funneling large sums to PACs supporting Mitt Romney, was quoting Vince Lombardi as his philosophical inspiration. Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing, Adelson harrumphed, latching onto the famous saying that the old Packers coach neither coined nor believed.
Then came the game, and that last Seahawks drive, and that final play in the end zone with time expired, and the mind-boggling call of the replacement referee, and the utterly inexplicable decision to uphold that touchdown call, and the unwilling suspension of disbelief from green-and-gold fans everywhere. My mood devolved into something more unsettling. I could not believe what I just saw. I could not sleep. I thought the world had turned upside down, that the center could not hold, that here was another sign of the apocalypse. It took me 12 hours to calm down and remember that football is only a game, and realize that there were some interesting philosophical questions at work here.
So was winning the only thing? Would I have reacted the same way if the Packers had been ahead by enough points that the call would have not mattered? And what if the Packers had won on a last play through the beneficence of incompetent officials? What then? Is it human nature to want to see in life only what you want to see, and to argue for your side no matter what? I deal with this question as a political historian all the time in my encounters with ideologically blinded partisans, but now it was infecting the place where I go to escape, the joyous world of being a fan of the Green Bay Packers.
Some of the issues involved in the Seattle misplay are important but not interesting to me now. I have a visceral dislike for scabs, and consider the replacement refs just that. I have a far deeper disdain for fat-cat owners, which is one reason why I enjoy rooting for the Packers, who are owned by the citizens, the only publicly owned institution in American professional sports. Like many other fans and players, I find it hypocritical that Roger Goodell, who loves to extol his “for the good of the game” mantra, cannot see that squashing the regular refs is not good for the game or anyone but his wealthy ownership clique.
But I take those sentiments as a given — what happened in Seattle did not change my feelings about any of that. As angry as I was, in fact, I found that I felt no animosity toward the replacement refs who were responsible for the dumbfounding call. I found myself boiling first at the sight of Pete Carroll, the Seahawks coach, and then at the words of Russell Wilson, the Seattle quarterback. I know I am probably in the minority on this, but I found Carroll’s reaction repellant and Wilson’s disappointing.
The sight of Carroll thrusting his hands skyward to signal a touchdown himself and then running around with delirious happiness after the call Monday night, as if he had actually won something, as if his players had pulled off a gutsy miracle, only reminded me of his past as a win-at-any-cost coach at Southern Cal, from where he escaped to the pros to get away from a looming NCAA crackdown on his program.
Wilson is a different story. Last year he was the quarterback of the college team I root for, the Wisconsin Badgers. He seemed like a paragon of virtue as a collegian, and is among the brightest, most clear-thinking, engaging athletes I’ve seen. But when he was interviewed after the game, he too made it sound as though his team had pulled off a heroic feat, which belies every possible bit of reality. He described the ending as “a tough call,” but there was nothing tough about it at all. To say that was a touchdown and not an interception is to say that black is white.
I have never believed that winning is the only thing, and neither did Vince Lombardi. He once pulled his star cornerback out of a game when he saw him trip an opposing player, even though the refs missed it. He was always harder on his team when they played poorly but won than if they played well but lost. In searching my own soul, I honestly think that if the tables were turned and the Packers had won Monday night that way — or if I were Carroll or Wilson — I would have felt compelled to see the truth and talk about it. I would have had a harder time sleeping with that sham on my conscience than with the anger of the call going the other way.
The final score will stand; that cannot be changed. But Carroll and Wilson and the Seahawks don’t have to pretend that the call was right and that they deserved to win. It is not the only thing.
David Maraniss is an associate editor at The Washington Post, a Packers fan, and the author of “When Pride Still Mattered; A Life of Vince Lombardi.”
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