‘Tis The Season: To Be Increasingly Irked

I am, I’ll acknowledge, a rabid football fan.

Especially college, most notably alma maters Penn State and South Florida, as well as regional favorites Florida State and Florida. I like marching bands, pep rallies, famous fight songs, “Knute Rockne, All American,” “Rudy,” Hail Mary touchdowns and homecomings.

I was lucky enough to see Freddie Solomon play for the University of Tampa. I want Joe Paterno to go out a winner — not a whiner. I like it that Army and Navy still recruit solid student-athletes who aren’t prepping for the pros. They have linemen who don’t belong in stockyards — or on Sumo mats. I just wish they’d win some games.

Saturday rituals include all the scoreboard shows; Sundays kick off with sports pages chronicling games I’ve already seen or saw the highlights of. I’ve got strong opinions on the Heisman Trophy (Penn State’s Larry Johnson) and the BCS (Iowa getting hosed.)

A couple of years ago, I flew out to Northwest Missouri to watch my nephew play in a Division II national semi-final for Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Loved the color, enthusiasm and hospitality, if not the weather and outcome.

I cared that Chamberlain nearly won a state championship last year. Hassan Jones of Clearwater High (and then FSU and the Minnesota Vikings) remains the most dominant high school player I’ve seen. I fondly remember those few years Plant High did a fun, funky-white-boy imitation of FAMU’s renowned marching band.

I also root for the Bucs, as only someone with first-hand recollection of the franchise’s infamous 0-26 beginning can. From Johnny Carson monologue staple to serious Super Bowl contender. Who would have thought? Especially when the franchise was in a race with Cleveland to relocate to Baltimore.

But each season, I’ll also concede, I’m a little less rabid, a little more irked.

I can’t pinpoint it precisely, but it was some time between the awesomely talented, yet refreshingly unassuming Gayle Sayers of Kansas and the awesomely talented, yet annoyingly arrogant Dion Sanders of Florida State. In the pros, that would be about when Billy “White Shoes” Johnson did his first celebration dance for the Houston Oilers — and not nearly enough fans found fault with it.

After that, as the cameras zoomed in for the juvenile gyrations and home fans seemingly reveled in the antics, there was no bottling the genie of look-at-me, boorish behavior. In fact, the NFL would eventually market these sorry excuses for “showmanship,” “exuberance” and “personality.” And the aptly named “trash talking,” mind you, wasn’t just an extension of a hip-hop culture. It was, according to the usual apologists and hucksters, pure psychological gamesmanship. Just another gambit among “warriors,” those Pattons in pads. And, of course, all the jock jabberwocky is worth mike-ing for one of those interminable NFL promotional sideshows. Argot ergo sum .

As we’ve all too frequently seen, players now strut and preen as frequently as they run, block and tackle. Great plays, good plays, average plays and accidental plays all can warrant Second Coming rejoicing and gesturing — as well as an immediate trophy. Players just run off the field — after pounding their chest and pointing toward the heavens — without giving the football back. And what happens when they get to the bench? Cameras are in their faces to induce more mugging. Thanks for sharing.

It said it all when erstwhile no-nonsense, task-master Dick Vermeil overlooked bush- league behavior with his Super Bowl champion Rams three years ago. And remember how the Bucs’ Tony Dungy, a paragon’s paragon of discipline, used to tolerate the bump-and-grind antics that would accompany Reidel Anthony’s annual catch? You knew the ghost of Vince Lombardi wasn’t just buried. It had been exhumed for desecration.

But it’s not just the NFL. Would that it were. The league is merely the catalyst. Thanks to the NFL, the ranks of colleges and high schools have been infested for years. The challenge now is to limit the choreography in Pop Warner Leagues and hope to discourage the next Terrell Owens.

There are, of course, rules prohibiting “taunting” and “excessive celebration,” but that’s just appeasement. Within the context of a mainstream, Eminemed culture, you can only crack down so much.

Some things just can’t be mandated. Class is one. Sayers had it; Sanders didn’t. The latter, alas, is much more the norm now — under the euphemistic cover of being “entertainers.” Wasn’t the XFL enough?

But there is something we can do. Let’s, at least, not be enablers.

If you exultantly high-five somebody while Warren Sapp is waddling around flapping everything that will flap, you are part of the problem. And you know you didn’t like it one bit when the Philadelphia Eagles’ Duce Staley crawled around on all fours simulating a dog in search of a fire hydrant against the Bucs last month. If nothing else, let’s at least not condone such “exuberant” demonstrations in our own. We should at least be able to control that.

But I doubt it.

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