When the Cincinnati Bengals played the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday night for the AFC championship and a trip to the Super Bowl — a matchup featuring great young quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes — I was cheering for the Bengals. That’s not just because I’m a southern Ohio native and a Bengals fan, but because I felt an odd tinge of sympathy for the Cincinnati mayor.
Normally, I would have little inclination to side with Mayor Aftab Pureval on anything. As a progressive Democrat, he’s on the opposite side from me on most issues. But when I first saw the dust-up over his flawed attempt to join in the fun of the Bengals’ big game with the Chiefs, I immediately felt bad for him.
There’s a long tradition of mayors making bets with one another over the outcome of sporting events, or even taking good-natured jabs over the merits of their respective cities. Pureval took it a step further, and for a lot of fans — in both Kansas City and Cincinnati — it was too much.
In an official proclamation, Pureval referred to the Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium as “Burrowhead” — a term Bengals safety Mike Hilton had coined to brag about our quarterback’s playoff victory there last year — and made a crack about Kansas City being named after a neighboring state, which the proclamation called “just kind of weird.”
But what sent fans and media over the edge was this line: “Whereas, Joseph Lee Burrow, who’s 3-0 against Mahomes, has been asked by officials to take a paternity test confirming whether or not he’s his father ...”
Memes had already been widely circulating depicting Burrow carrying Mahomes on his shoulders like a father carrying a child, intended to imply that Burrow “owned” Mahomes, because the Bengals were 3-0 against Kansas City in the Burrow-Mahomes era. But the mayor’s remarks were taken more seriously and resulted in fierce backlash — not just from Chiefs fans, but Bengals fans, too. One overwhelming social media sentiment from fans of the orange and black was that if the Bengals lost, we would hold the mayor accountable.
The kerfuffle threatened to overshadow the game itself. Before long, Pureval recognized that his attempt at humor had been a flop of epic proportions.
“Bengals nation, Lol. I hear you,” he tweeted on Friday, two days before the game. “My competitive juices and love for cincy got the best of me. My bad. Staying hungry and humble. See you Sunday. Who Dey baby!”
Part of me wanted to give the mayor a hug. As a columnist who, at my local papers, often ventured into the realm of humor writing, I am well aware how missing the mark by even a little can result in confusion, hurt feelings and anger. Working in politics for several years and often writing speeches for officials, I learned to seek a wide variety of reactions when attempting to include jokes or (hopefully) humorous asides.
“Do you think this is funny?” I would ask co-workers. Even the slightest hesitation before a laugh, or at least a chuckle, led me to delete a joke entirely. I don’t know how much advice the mayor had sought before his proclamation. Chances are, staff members told him it was hilarious, or maybe even came up with the idea in the first place. But feedback from paid employees is not always to be trusted.
Bottom line: Humor can be dangerous in politics. If the Bengals had won, Pureval would have been off the hook. Now, he’ll have to live with the fallout for a while.
Some fans are still blaming Pureval in online comments and memes. It’s the kind of faux pas that can lead a politician to wish that life offered do-overs. As he watched Sunday’s game, Pureval might have been envious of the Chiefs getting to re-play a third down after a clock error. “What about me?” he might have wondered. But real life doesn’t work that way. He will have to smile good-naturedly and even laugh along with everyone else — perhaps for many years to come, at least in Cincinnati.
Somewhere, Mark Mallory might be smiling. Mallory previously held the distinction of “most embarrassing sports moment” by a Cincinnati mayor after throwing the worst first pitch in baseball history back in 2007.
Still, it’s not something that should follow Pureval forever. Those of us who are Bengals fans should agree that the reason we lost on Sunday had nothing to do with the mayor’s proclamation.
We lost because of the only reason we ever lose: bad officiating.