How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Lockout

It is day one hundred and something day of the NFL lockout and I find myself sitting in a hotel room in Hobbs, New Mexico, a hot, dusty, city just over the border from Texas.  As far as I am concerned it might as well be another planet.  Yesterday I sat on a beach staring out across the Atlantic Ocean watching fishing boats drift across the horizon, and today there is no water to be seen for hundreds of miles if you don’t count lawn sprinklers and the occasional semi-moist drainage ditch.  In fact, it hasn’t rained here since October, 2010.  It is 2 AM eastern standard time and it has been a long day of travel, and yet I find myself awake, mind wandering.  Was it the coffee I put down at 11:30pm, en route from the Midland-Odessa International airport? It could be.  Chances are it has more to do with the strange surroundings. The roads here are interminably straight, like runways extending on and on into the future.  You wonder if you will get anywhere, even at 80 mph, and it keeps your mind working.  This is a foreign world to me: blinking lights sit atop radio towers and the eerie orange glow of fires burning on pump towers break the horizon.  The air smells like oil, and it is 85 degrees out in the dead of night.  If I know anything right now it’s that I will surely be sweating through my boxer briefs tomorrow.

As strange as this landscape is for a lifelong New Englander, it has me thinking.  It is now the heart of the summer in America.  The fourth of July has come and gone, and the days are now proceeding faster and faster towards autumn.  Football fans have been keeping a steady vigil for news of the lockout’s demise.  As a whole we are anxious, impatient, perhaps even distressed.  We are all of these things, and yet, even among the doubt and unknown I feel a creeping calm come over me; an assurance that things will return to their natural order again.  That just as the seasons will inevitably give way to one another so too will it be with football.  And perhaps this is the just the thinking of a man overtired and out of place?  At this time of night, it is hard to be sure of anything.  If my high school baseball coach was right (and he probably was), nothing good happens after midnight.  And yet, here I am, testing the waters of the witching hour with a wandering mind.

Part of what makes being a fan of professional sports so rewarding, at least for me, is the license it gives to suspend rational thought.  Even the word “fan”, an offshoot of “fanatic”, holds implications of a suspended reality.  Fanaticism is dangerous when applied to almost any activity, idea or system of belief.  But it suits sports well, and for the most part it is merely a harmless means to a mostly pleasurable vicarious escape.  I sometimes wonder what it says about me that I can be brought to the greatest extent of euphoria when I see Vince Wilfork swallow up an opposing quarterback on a crucial third down, or when I’m brought to the point of nausea- real physical sickness- upon watching the Patriots blow a 4th quarter lead to lose a Superbowl. What kind of person does this make me?  A fan?  An asshole?  I’m not completely sure.

So you would think that the doldrums in which we find ourselves as football fans in the summer of 2011 might be maddening to the point of utter exasperation.  But, for me, that just isn’t the case, not now anyway.  I know that professional football will return, and I will love it no less when it does.  Even if that time doesn’t come this year, I am not going anywhere.  Overall, the sense that I get from other fans, anecdotally at least, is that they won’t be abandoning the sport anytime soon.  I tend to believe that this is the common sentiment of NFL fans around the country and around the world.  It means too much to us, for whatever reason.

People with far greater connections to the parties involved than I might ever hope to have seem to be cautiously optimistic that the lockout could be drawing to a close in the next few weeks.  This makes me feel better.  Also, the closer we get to the start of training camp and the preseason should increase the pressure on both the owners and the NFLPA alike to strike a deal and get things rolling for 2011.  I think that this matters too.  I hope it does, but hey, maybe not.  Fans can hope.

Let me get back to being a fan.  Being a fan gives a person a sense of entitlement.  Sometimes, I think it is actually quite reasonable.  For example, if you pay money to go to a game, you deserve to see the athletes compete to the best of their ability.   You deserve effort.  We all do.  But this doesn’t mean that they actually owe you anything.  The same calculus holds true with the owners (the easy villain in the lockout).  Don’t they owe us a good product?  Not really.  Not anymore than your local bakery owes you the best apple pies you’ve ever had.  Maybe the apple pies are just decent, serviceable pies.  If they want to stick to decent apple pies and dry blueberry muffins and they are making enough money to keep the place open for another six months, good for them.  I also want to mention at this time that I think it’s a shame that we talk about sports so often as though we were discussing the objective measurables of a corporation.  Product, Profit, Production.  Responsibility to the shareholders (us, presumably).  Some people might find this sort of stuff insightful, but I don’t really know shit about business or the stock market or corn futures.  I know the New England Patriots struggled defensively on third down last year.  I hope that they can improve there.  I know that much.

I also know what it is like to be a fan of a good team.  I know what it is like to be a fan of a great team and a terrible team.  I have seen all three of these teams win and lose.  Sometimes a team is all three at once.  This is frustrating, as a fan.  Is it healthy to demand perfection from people you have never met?  Maybe not, but we do it.  I do it.  I expect that my oil change is done perfectly.  I expect that the delivery guy will bring all of the extra ranch dressing I have ordered.  I expect that my plumber will not only be able to fix the leaky toilet he will be delighted to work for me and charge me less money than he otherwise would for somebody else.  I expect solid third down defense, damn it.

It has been a strange and wonderful ten years to be a Patriots fan.  I was a freshman in college when Adam Vinatieri kicked the game winner against the Rams in 2001.  I was in the height of my post-adolescent glory.  Looking back I hardly recognize the person I was then.  But I know the fan I was like an old friend.  He hasn’t really changed, although he has started to grow ear hair, and it sucks and is kind of gross.  Actually, it is gross.

That 2000-2001 Patriots squad was a good team that played great.  As a fan you get all kinds of teams if you stay invested long enough.  2003 and 2004, those were better teams, maybe even great teams, certainly great more than they were good.  2007 was the greatest team, and yet they hurt me the most as a fan.  Not because they let me down, but because I hurt for them.  Because they lost more in that final minute than I can even imagine.  You’ve got to feel the bad times too if you’re going to do this right.  Sometimes as football fans we are no different than people who really like Sandra Bullock and think Jessie James is a dirtbag; we are hurt and are upset by things that some people just don’t understand.

Fans tend to either forget things too easily or else, not at all.  Until recently I had forgotten that before the 2000-2001 season Drew Bledsoe had just received a big money contract extension from the same New England Patriots that kept him on the bench after a no-name backup led them into the playoffs that same year.  Bledsoe was going to be the highest paid starting quarterback in the league in 2002, and he was, for the Buffalo Bills.  How soon we forget.  A little bit of glory goes a long way.  In the same ten years since that magical 2000-2001 NFL season I have watched Red Sox fans undergo the strange reinvention from grizzled long-suffering die-hards to front-running band wagon riders.  That is of course a gross over generalization.  Every successful sports team has its share of know-nothing, big talking, followers with one foot in the pool of fandom.  Not what any true “fan” would aspire to be.  But none of us are perfect, and no team is immune from this disease.  It comes with the territory.  Better to drink it in and enjoy the ride than to glorify the good old days when the team sucked and the commiseration of a few elevated the fan experience of those dedicated souls to the dismal and romanticized life of some starving artist toiling in obscurity on an as of yet undiscovered master work.  But I was there in 1998 they will say.  Congratulations, so was Chumbawumba.  That’s nothing to be proud of.

Knowing how quickly things can change and how quickly one can forget things which at the present moment seem so important and distressing actually gives me a lot of comfort.  I’m not going to remember these days and weeks and months where we didn’t have football when the dust settles and training camp begins.  There will be a day in the not so far off future where it won’t even occur to me that at one point in time there was the possibility of a lost season- that we, as fans, stared coldly at the worst case scenario and didn’t know what the future would hold. We thought to ourselves, Could it really be? But no, of course it couldn’t.  Call it unbridled optimism, call it crazy, call it fanaticism.  You’d be right.

Maybe you expect the worse.  Maybe you’re up right now, wherever you are, trying to rap your head around picking a college team to follow if things don’t pan out for the NFL.  Maybe you’re trying to imagine all the ways you could spend those unneeded fantasy league dues.  Maybe football feels far away.

Tonight, although I am far from New England the season feels closer than ever, and that feels all right to me.

Back to the New England Patriots Newsfeed