Middle-aged American males watch sports, especially football, on television. The average middle-aged American male would probably prefer to have you question his sense of humor, sexual prowess or patriotism rather than question his interest in this week's Big Game. In this, as in most tests of conformity, I am your average middle-aged American male.
But I am about to become an ex-football-on-TV fan. Because January, with the endless professional playoffs following the dozens of college bowl games, is truly football month, giving up TV football now would be like choosing the weekend before Mardi Gras in New Orleans to go on the wagon. But I am fed up to here with all the overbearing, self-congratulatory, chest-thumping dance steps by the players on the field that are seen after nearly every play. The whole routine is self-indulgent, mean-spirited and unsportsmanlike.
The current epidemic of gloating exhibitionism on the football field began harmlessly enough with Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, an elusive, undersized back who years ago elevated the dangerous practice of returning punts and kickoffs to an art form. When "White Shoes" after a long touchdown run reached the end zone, he would celebrate there with a series of voluntary jiggles that looked like the later stages of St. Vitus's dance. There was some good-natured strutting, but no jeering swagger to Billy Johnson's infrequent performances.
All of that has changed for the worse. Now after nearly every play, the defensive man who has brought the ball carrier down can be found standing astride the form of his fallen prey, alternately jeering and crowing. That is, unless the ball carrier or pass receiver has gained three or more yards on the play in which case the offensive player can be expected to begin his own beguine or Mexican hat dance before flinging his arm, or arms, skyward in a gesture of self-satisfaction most often associated with the late Benito Mussolini.
Of course such prideful and obnoxious behavior is no stranger to prestigious tennis courts, where prima donnas have long abounded. But football was once different. In football, the custom was that the star performer would quietly accept the compliments of his teammates but never brazenly solicit the applause of the crowd. Football was once a team game where the code commanded the team to be humble in victory and proud in defeat.
Not every contemporary team acts like peacocks in shoulder pads. Notable exceptions include the U.S. service academies, Notre Dame, Alabama and Penn State. The eminently successful coach of Penn State, Joe Paterno, is a hero to all of us who object to the self-admiring and mocking war dances after each play. Coach Paterno does not even allow any soft-shoe by his players after a Penn State touchdown, explaining that he wants his players to act as if they have been in the end zone before.
Paterno has been a personal favorite of mine since the commencement address he gave on June 16, 1973. Still roiled by Richard Nixon's having four years earlier proclaimed Texas, and not his own unbeaten Penn State, the national champions, Joe Paterno observed: "I'd like to know how the president could know so little about Watergate in 1973 and so much about college football in 1969."
In the 1990 Sugar Bowl, Alabama coach Bill Curry yanked his own wide receiver, Prince Wimbley, out of the game after the Prince had, following a pass reception, both expressed complete self-delight and taunted the University of Miami players (as a group probably the most egregious show-offs at the college level). In front of the TV cameras, Coach Curry reprimanded and scolded his own player who, chastened, returned later to score a touchdown absent any attendant antics.
If the people who sell light beer and passenger automobiles want to keep me watching football on TV, there is a simple solution. Recall the outbreak of fans jumping out of the stands at baseball games to run on the field to shake hands with a favorite player. Guaranteed arrest and fines did not discourage such behavior. What all but ended that hot-dogging was TV's decision not to show the episodes. This must qualify as the sports corollary of the Heisenberg principle, which roughly holds that the very observing of any act changes that which is being observed. In this case, knowing he was not being observed could persuade the actor not to act -- so obnoxiously.
Or maybe the answer could be found in required viewing of a tape of Joe DiMaggio, baseball's Yankee Clipper. By daily example, DiMaggio proved that confidence need never be noisy, that modesty and gracefulness can be totally harmonious. Even in the heart of the football season, that memory of Joe D. is enough to make a middle-aged American male feel young again.