I have spent a good long while finding excuses not to go out to view any spectator sports. Why would I want to go anywhere but my living room? There's a big soft couch across the room from a big TV. I know where the volume control is, and if I want to make my own replays, I can always use the pause button on my digital video recorder. It is a deeply controlled environment. Sitting outside in weather that I cannot control in crowds that I cannot control while watching games that I cannot control has become a less appealing opportunity.
But today was different. A friend of mine came up from Los Angeles for a visit, and he happened to have tickets to see the San Francisco Forty-Niners play the Washington Redskins. Tickets and a parking pass, and he said he would drive. My responsibilities included showing up, and precious little else. I told him that I would be foolish to turn down such an invitation.
As it turned out, I had a grand old time. With little or no interest in the outcome of the game, I was free to take in all the subtleties of the day. The crowd was impressive, perhaps because the weather had cleared and we enjoyed the first sunny day in a week, or perhaps because the Forty-Niners still manage to fill their stadium even for a "meaningless" game based on the legacy they have created over the past thirty-odd years.
That was the thing that stuck with me: Meaningless Game. In professional sports, it is hard for me to imagine just what that means. If nobody showed up for the game, they would still play. The coaches and the equipment managers and the TV crew would all go right on through their motions, but the players? They know that if they don't perform, even in a losing effort, they might not be asked back next season. I suppose the same could be true of a vendor who failed to move as many hot dogs as he might have, but their performance is more a function of the people in the stands, not on the field. The players' physical performance would be the measure of their job.
I wondered if the players thought about those kinds of things as they lined up each down, across from other athletes facing the same potential fate. What role would desperation play in such a contest? Well, as it turns out, maybe quite a lot. After being down by ten points in the second quarter, San Francisco rallied to take the lead, then held Washington came back to tie with one minute left. In front of the home crowd, the Niners rolled down the field and with just three seconds left, kicked the winning field goal to send the crowd happily rolling out into the parking lot, singing the praises of the home team.
That home team still finished the year with a losing record. They showed a lot of grit and determination, but they were never even close to making the playoffs. On a day when so much was decided about which team would play whom and where for chance to make it to the Super Bowl, the Redskins dropped their last game of the year to the Forty-Niners. Everybody still got paid, and for the moment, everyone still has a job. Maybe winning that game even saved a couple jobs. But that's not the nature of professional sports. It is, after all, a business, and winning really is everything. Being entertaining while losing is only good if you happen to be a member of the Washington Generals playing against the Harlem Globetrotters. The NFL doesn't have much patience for such theater.
That's why you can expect that, while twelve teams start to prepare for their run at the Lombardi Trophy, twenty more will be shaking the tree to see who will stick around until next year. I'll be watching that part from the couch, but I'm glad I took the time to go out and see what I've been missing.