It was the dawn of a new decade and the dawn of a new way of marketing the NFL. As I walked alongside offensive linemen Kevin Gogan and Nate Newton onto the St. Edward's University field for the first day of Cowboys training camp in Austin, I saw their jaws drop ... and their eyes pop.
"It looks like a goddamned carnival out here!'' Gogan said.
"It's like we're at the state fair, or a circus!'' Newton added.
Where traditional NFL training camps barely included hot-and-cold running water, owner Jerry Jones' training camp had sponsors. Advertising banners lined the fences in a way reminiscent of minor-league baseball parks. Standing 15 feet high, there was an inflatable red truck in the corner of the end zone. There were T-shirt booths and cotton-candy vendors and parking spots for pay. There were sky-high rows of bleachers and fancy golf carts for the dignitaries and there was music being played.
Somehow, though, that Cowboys team of the early ‘90's found a way to separate the sport from the show.
This Cowboys team of 2009 did not find its way on Sunday night. And what happened at the new Cowboys Stadium - the combination circus/carnival/strip club - is excusable.
But it should not ... CAN NOT ... happen again.
I have always been on Jerry Jones' side in most arguments. His work ethic and passion and zeal are unmatched. As he approaches his 67th birthday (Oct. 13), he is more capable of plowing through 72 straight hours of "being on'' than anybody I've ever known at any age. (Witness last weekend, when on Friday he partied in Arkansas, on Saturday he partied at Cowboys Stadium with a black-tie gala featuring everyone from Diana Ross to Ross Perot), and on Sunday, when he partied ... right up until the final whistle.)
His efforts - including 20 years of "the carnival'' help the Cowboys brand. Ultimately, you get money from Nike, you buy Deion Sanders. You buy Deion Sanders, you get another shot at a Super Bowl. It's a simple formula, really ...
But only if there is some football equivalent of what ol' X's-and-O's guy Thomas Jefferson termed "the separation of church and state.''
Those Cowboys teams that graduated from St. Edward's University to three Super Bowl titles survived thanks to a separation of circus and football. Salesman Jerry went from town to town as the carnival barker; Dictator Jimmy Johnson made sure the carnival trains ran on time. (That's a Mussolini joke; you can look it up.)
Yes, there was tomfoolery. There was even criminal tomfoolery. But for four years plus, there was generally a barrier that cordoned off the actual football game from whatever went on behind the curtain.
That was not the case at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday. There was no barrier, there was no curtain, there was no separation.
Go to the very top of the stadium and what do you see? Hey, what are those girls doing up on those high-rise platforms, writhing about near centered poles plastered with the beer-sponsor logo? Is that The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders B-Team? Are those go-go dancers? Are they ... Cowboys strippers?
Seriously, I objectify women as much as the next slob (and in fairness, women objectifying men is fine by me, too) ... but when did Cowboys Stadium turn into the Bada Bing?
"I'd like a Miller Lite, a 600-dollar hot dog and a lap dance, please.''
I'm no prude. But this looked like a scene from "It's A Wonderful Life,'' when lovely Bedford Falls morphs into dark Pottersville.
Now go to the bottom of the stadium. It's the end of Dallas' disappointing 33-31 loss. The Cowboys are shuffling off the field ... but they don't go up a traditional "tunnel.'' Instead, they march through another saloon-type area where some of the 105,000 fans in attendance mingle.
At the risk of sounding morbid. ... I have serious concerns that one of these days, after a loss, some throwback-wearing nut who lost his bet will meander into the throng and start Jack Rubying somebody ...
Am I overreacting? Maybe a little. ... though at the postgame press conference, where the media traditionally tosses questions at the game's principals, there were more fans. Mingling through the throng ... and asking questions, apparently including one aimed at coach Wade Phillips regarding whether this loss could be blamed on Jessica Simpson.
No barrier. No curtain. No separation.
How much do the pomp and the circumstance -not to mention the pom-poms and the circus -- influence wins and losses? I do not know. How much is it worth risking if it does influence the outcome of games? I do not know, but I would suggest to Mr. Jones that he do some tweaking, find a balance, and let the regular season be what this year's training camp was: all football - and quite successful.
Until then, I can only say that the vibe I get from Sunday night is alchemy and anarchy and, to paraphrase Kevin Gogan almost 20 years later, it looked like a goddamned carnival out there.