Everyone has his own moment of truth. Mine came somewhere during the third quarter. Off and on, I'd watched about 20 or 25 minutes of the Redskins-Giants. It was difficult to muster enthusiasm for the game, and I can't recall specific plays, but I've a vague sense of Ed Rubbert trying to go deep to Anthony Allen, and Lionel Vital nimbly darting down the field.
More vivid was my sense that something was terribly wrong with NFL football as I'd known it. There was a disturbing lifelessness, something almost surreal, a floating dread. The camera would roam the stands and for whole, vast sections find nothing but empty seats. Occasionally a couple snuggled under a blanket in a remote section of the stadium, but the game appeared to be the farthest thing from their minds.
Summerall's delivery, usually a welcome calm, seemed rather tired.
Madden's agitation dripped with disgust. His heart was elsewhere. Like Dallas' Dorsett, he worked only because of his contract demands. The fun was gone.
Poor Bill Parcells standing forlorn on the sidelines. Who'd pour Gatorade on him now? How many bodies on these Giants did he even know by name? To whom should Parcells turn for an explanation of the season so far, George Young? Gene Upshaw? Franz Kafka? Find me one true football fan who thinks justice has been rendered Parcells.
I watched a few more plays and tried to make myself care that the Redskins were thumping the Giants in a rematch I'd eagerly anticipated for nine months. I tried to force myself to root for Rubbert, Allen and Vital, ones I remembered from last week. After all, they're not villains. On the contrary, they seem like pleasant, decent men seizing the only moment that was shown them.
I closed my eyes, but couldn't shake the haunting vision of all those empty seats. The Redskins broke their huddle. There wasn't one name on the offensive line I recognized. And I thought, why am I watching this? Who are these guys? I didn't know, and I honestly didn't care.
So I turned it off.
Sunday's games were bitter fruit to the union. Another paycheck gone. Another game history. Again the owners had broken off talks. The players' feet felt the fire. The Redskins, probably the most unified team of all, met and told their union rep, Neal Olkewicz, to go to Chicago yesterday and try to make something happen. "We had to make a move," Russ Grimm said. "We're dying a slow death."
The result was a dramatic retrenchment by the union, a sweeping, albeit self-serving proposal to return to active duty if certain conditions were met -- the most ticklish being the provision for binding arbitration, which Tex Schramm predictably disdained. "The union can't move much further than this," Grimm said, pleased that the union had gone a new direction, perhaps changed the course of the strike. "If the owners turn this down, hey, this could get ugly." It was movement that surely backs the owners into a public relations corner. But even if the owners respond favorably to the players' offer, no one can win this strike anymore. Everyone has already lost.
The owners may crush the union and regain all the territory they imagine they gave away in the last decade. But the owners will not win, because the next time they go to negotiate a TV contract the networks will say, "Sorry, you'll have to take less money because we're not sure you can deliver the product." Even if the players succeed in having the replacements exiled and are awarded free agency down the pike, the players will not win either: first, because so many teams are infected by divisiveness over the strike; second, because the fans don't much like them anymore. If you don't think scorn affects an athlete, call Eddie Murray.
Nor can the fans win. They have already been given two weeks of Scab Ball, a demonstrably inferior product that appeals to the partisan, not the discriminating fan. Here is your Scab Ball: Indianapolis is leading the AFC East. Houston is leading the AFC Central. San Diego shares the lead in the AFC West. The Super Bowl champions are 0-4. No matter how much you admire the replacement players for their pluck, you know they're not the real thing. (If they're so good, find me a coach who'll keep them and cut his regulars.) No matter how much you hate the real players for going on strike, you know this season has already been irreparably handicapped by their absence.
It'll take years for the NFL to reclaim its credibility. Something happened in this strike that didn't happen in 1982: Scab Ball changed the equation. Everyone involved -- owners, players and fans -- has had to confront his own selfishness. The loyalty factor is gone forever. The owners tried to freeze the players. The players, before Monday night's conditional surrender, tried to freeze the owners. The fans chose sides. Nobody's hands are clean. You may return to the stadium or return to TV, but if you're again tempted to cheer with the pristine strength of faith, remember to wash first.
A few hours after turning off the Redskins, I turned on the Twins-Tigers game. Frank Tanana was pitching for Detroit. Tanana brought a history to the mound. We saw him as a kid, a speedballer on the Angels, a lefty Nolan Ryan. We read of his arm troubles, and how he bounced from team to team in search of the knowledge of his craft that could sustain him now that his raw gifts were gone. We've known him in his stages. We've shared his metamorphosis.
We couldn't say that about Rubbert, Allen and Vital, or any of the others in NFL uniforms. We knew nothing of them other than they were driven here in buses with mud-colored windows, and put onto the field in the hope we wouldn't notice anything different. Sunday's NFL was the football we'll get The Day After. Twenty-eight teams without any knowable history, and a commissioner hiding under a desk.
We are prepared to welcome five or six rookies onto a team each new year, to see them blossom into starters, bloom into stars, and ripen into wise old hands. But we're not prepared for 28 expansion teams at once.
This is not the NFL.
You needn't care for it.