Most Sundays at noon you are likely to find me in the most unlikely of places… parked in front of the television watching Fox, a network I generally hate, loathe and despise.
Except when it comes to Howie, Terry, Michael and Jimmy. Three former professional football players – some of the toughest in the business – and one former coach, they are the heart of the broadcast before Sunday afternoon NFL football. It’s one of two sports programs I watch. Not that I am remotely interested in football. Nor do I understand half of what they’re talking about.
They yak about stats and players and who’s likely to win and who’s in the dog house. They’re macho and occasionally sexist, although they’re generally quick to call each other on it. So why do I bother? They laugh. All the time. And they make me laugh. They have as much fun insulting each other as they do making fun of themselves.
There’s Howie of the square jaw and flat top haircut. Terry, the man of many marriages. They reference their lives outside of work and delight in teasing each other: Howie for his disastrous foray into movies (he was truly dreadful), Terry for his frequent displays of thick-headedness, Michael for his gap-toothed smile, and Jimmy for his heavily-lacquered hairdo that looks as if it could withstand a tornado. They do silly bits where they take turns looking ridiculous. They interview players in ways that go beyond the usual “hundred and ten percent!” answers. When they’re done an hour later and the football begins, I get on with my day. And when they return the next week, so do I.
I have a similar feeling about a hockey program on HBO. “24/7” focusses on a couple of hockey teams throughout the season leading up to the annual Winter Classic, a game played the way hockey was played when Sweetie and I were kids – outdoors. This season the teams were the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers. We follow them behind the scenes, in practice and on the road, playing pranks on each other in hotels and trash talking on the ice. They’re like overgrown puppies. We meet their parents, their spouses, their kids. We see them at home. We get to know them as human beings.
I have my favourites. There’s Ilya Bryzgalov, the Flyers’ goalie who’s benched before the Winter Classic because he’s been letting in too many goals. He tells reporters he has good news and better news. The good news is, he won’t be playing. The better news is, someone else is. I find myself feeling sorry for him. He’s a bit of a flake, but according to Sweetie, all goalies are flakes. And he’s likeable. Then there are the rookies, the boys whose mothers still come to every game and can’t look when they take a hard hit into the boards. I wonder what the mothers are feeling. Do they feel as sad as I do when one of these youngsters has a bad game or lets in a crucial goal? I wonder what Ilya’s mother thinks.
We also meet the coaches. There’s a lot of yelling and four-letter words, berating when the boys are playing poorly, making sure to praise at least one guy who beams at the pat on the head. At the end of the program, there’s a voice-over that describes the coaches as extraordinary leaders with an impressive variety of motivational techniques. The program loses me there but it’s over by then so I suppose it doesn’t matter.
The style of leadership – and I’d argue this is true for all professional sports – is thoroughly autocratic, pitched within a single octave, of limited range and depth. It’s a style in direct opposition to what I believe good leadership to be. And yet it seems to work. Fans keep showing up, young men keep aspiring to play in the big leagues, and owners and players keep raking in the money. Why? Darned if I know. I recently read an article that suggested professional sports is the closest most men will come to war, either as a player or a fan. And since they’re all warriors at heart, this gets it out of their system. I thought it was hogwash. But I don’t have a better answer.
Maybe if I keep watching Howie and the boys, or Ilya and company, it will come to me. And if doesn’t, that’s okay. I still laugh, spend some time with Sweetie on a Sunday afternoon and am beginning to develop some appreciation and understanding of men who, if I thought about them at all, I simply dismissed.
Oh. Did I say I watch only two sports programs? I have a confession to make. I’ve begun to watch golf. A story for another day.
- HBO 24/7 Flyers-Rangers, Episode 4 Recap: It’s Not ‘Just A Game,’ After All (sbnation.com)
- NHL Winter Classic 2012: Flyers Goaltending Controversy Brews Day Before Classic (bleacherreport.com)