Everybody loves melodrama. The ladies love the soaps and the supermarket novels, with Fabio-looking guys ripping a damsel's bodice on the cover.
Guys love sports. Some of us might not admit it, but we consume them and understand them exactly the same way women consume their melodramas. We value the last minute rescues, and the players who can snatch their bound up teams off the railroad tracks before the opposition steamrolls them.
I had an e-mail exchange with a Sporting News writer years ago, on the occasion of John Elway's retirement. He put a poll the SN's web site asking fans to rate the best Elway comeback. He had Denver's Super Bowl win over Green Bay on the list. I pointed out that Denver tied the game 7-7 on their first drive, took the lead on their second drive and never trailed again.
"Yes," he wrote me in response, "but didn't that game feel like one feel like one of his great comebacks?" Why was the 1958 Championship Game, the "greatest game ever played" get its rating? Part of that is the last-minute game-tying, John Unitas-led drive, which fits the melodramatic mode fans love. Who's the best Cowboys' QB, Staubach or Aikman? I'd vote for Aikman, the FrankenTroy who automatically cut up opponents from the opening gun, but I'd best most fans vote for Captain Comeback. We love the drama.
While we break down the Xs and Os, and argue play calling and player substitutions, we love what media scholars call the extra-textual aspects of the game, the off-field pleasure the game provides. We love the stars and the star systems. We love the the People-magazine-like profiles, the Tony and Jessica dish. You don't you say? Okay, maybe not you, but somebody is reading CNNSI's "Extra Mustard" column. Somebody is snatching up ESPN the Magazine, which is People for sports fans.
And there's nothing wrong with that. Sports are popular because they give us many types of pleasure. The melodrama off the field can be every bit as intoxicating as the action on it. The texts that unfold every Sunday are appreciated differently, depending on whether you've got a bet at stake, a fantasy team in the mix, or are simply "rooting for the shirt" as Jerry Seinfeld says.
Look at the comment stats on this site from this past week. The "love triange" stories, as the NFL Network guys call them, received many, many more comments than the game analysis pieces. Pathos, envy, betrayal and unrequited love all outranked blocking schemes, matchups and game plans. People ranted and raved that they hate this stuff, but how many people could look away? Could not get sucked, as Bill Parcells says, by the stories of discord and deceit?
People need to remember that ESPN stands for "Entertainment and Sports Programming Network" and the full slate of their stories this week dealt with the E in that acronym, not the S. The Ed Werders and John Claytons are simply living up to their employer's name when they dish out seamy, inside stories. The reporters themselves serve a purpose in our football melodrama. They're the cape-wearing, waxed-mustachioed villains. They're the guys we love to hate, and they do these jobs superbly.
The problem this past week is that far too many fans became convinced that the extracurricular stories affected the game stories. That Jason Witten, Terrell Owens and Tony Romo, three of the hardest workers on the team, would somehow ignore this week's game preparation to play their Heathers-like games. And when people make this faulty causal connection, they sour the pleasure one can get from both forms of football entertainment.
I don't recommend that.
The Cowboys proved last night that practice = performance. Every member of the organization, from Jerry to Tony, claimed, with apparent honesty, that the team had a great week of preparation. And fast-living sports icons from Babe Ruth to Joe Namath to Wilt Chamberlain to Reggie Jackson to Michael Irvin to Deion Sanders have proven this over and over again.
My Favorite Media Moment of the Day
I'm listening to the radio broadcast of the Steelers/Ravens game and hear this: "Ben Roethlisberger bought time and San Antonio Holmes made a clutch catch in the end zone."
San Antonio Holmes?
I think I like it.