If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” — Orson Welles
This Sunday, millions of people will witness exactly the same event. Approximately half will find this event exhilarating and life-affirming. The other half will find this event horribly depressing and unfair, leading many to question their faith in a Creator.
Fortunately, I know that God is a Green Bay fan, and He’s giving them nine points over Chicago.
I’ve long thought it would be interesting to structure a movie in the same way that most of us consume sporting events, where the audience would find the story uplifting or tragic, a thrill or a downer, not because the of the characters’ moral superiority or likeability or funnier way with a phrase, but because of the city in which the characters live. Just as you cheer for your local team, you’d want Victor Laszlo to triumph over Rick Blaine solely because you went to Czechoslovakian Underground Prep. (I did co-write a screenplay about a sibling basketball rivalry in which the audience never learns which side won the climactic game. The fact that the movie remains unmade probably tells me something.)
Having grown up in Wisconsin, the Packers have always been my default football team, and it was easy to remain a remote Packer fan in Los Angeles because the city can’t find a team of its own that will stay put. But my formative years fell between the Bart Starr and Brett Favre eras, which meant that “my” team pretty consistently sucked. It was delightful when Favre arrived, so I could finally root for a team worth rooting for. At his peak, Favre was so absurdly great, so capable of pulling off unlikely plays, that it seemed like he was performing magic. I’d have enjoyed watching his performance on any team, but sports fandom tends not to work that way. Most of us support whoever shows up to play in our local team’s jerseys. As Jerry Seinfeld has observed, we’re basically “rooting for laundry.”
Three seasons ago, when the Packers higher-ups tired of Brett Favre’s waffling ways and launched the reign of Rodgers, opinions were split, but it’s now nearly impossible to find a Favre fan in Wisconsin. The very same person whom Cheeseheads had revered for more than a decade must now be despised. I still believe that, had Favre retired after his single season with the Jets, the Packer faithful would have viewed it as a forgivable aberration — the football equivalent of the entire season of “Dallas” which was revealed to be a dream. But Brett had to go and become a Viking, and the reservoir of goodwill dried up completely. Add in his annual bouts of indecision, as well as the fallout from the one decision he apparently makes easily (“I’m gonna send her a picture of THIS!”), and he has become an enfeebled warrior facing a Tiger-Woodsian tumble from public grace. (As a society, we really need to figure out how to acknowledge the frequency of infidelity without tacitly encouraging it, but that’s an issue for another blog post.)
When LeBron James opted to leave the cold of Cleveland for the Heat of Miami, the Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert famously issued an open letter worthy of a spurned lover, describing James’s move as a “cowardly betrayal”. I would love to hear John Boehner read Gilbert’s entire screed aloud, as I’m sure he’d bring just the right amount of wounded man-tears to the occasion. Gilbert also told the AP that James had previously “gotten a free pass. People have covered up for [LeBron] for way too long.” Yet, is there any doubt that, had James remained in Cleveland, Gilbert would have been effusive in his praise, stamping a multi-year renewal onto that free pass? The difference between “LeBron is great” and “LeBron is Hitler” is the size of a paycheck.
Of course, sports isn’t the only aspect of society where people are carrying signs, mostly saying, “Hurray For Our Side”. Think of any political conversion. When someone switches party allegiance, the folks they’re leaving must paint them as a weak-minded traitor who should never have been trusted in the first place, while the team they’re joining must embrace them for their wisdom in finally seeing the light. Ponder, for example, how dramatically Dennis Miller and Arianna Huffington zoomed past each other on the ideological map.
The instinct for us-vs.-them-ism is so strong that it apparently takes six deaths and a miraculously-survived brain injury to cause a few of us to finally reconsider where our divisiveness has brought us, although I can’t be the only person who has been holding his breath in fear of a Tucson-esque event (or worse) since at least the Democratic convention of ’08. Even if the specifics of the Giffords shooting can’t be neatly attributed to a coherent – or incoherent — political philosophy, that doesn’t mean we can ignore the very real overheated anger which has so permeated our culture. There must be a way to have honest, serious debates without making our worthy opponents into our sworn enemies, but it’s hard in a culture where we’re so eager to find the bad side that careers can be destroyed by a single utterance (Juan Williams, meet Shirley Sherrod) or even a single word (“Macaca”, anyone?).
Then again, if there’s one thing we like even more than tearing people down, it’s giving them second chances. Remember the last rites being given to the Obama White House after last November’s shellacking? Then, during the lame-duck session, Congress decided to do something it hadn’t done in two years: do something. Supposedly impossible tasks, like ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, were suddenly whisked through the process, as if Santa Claus had given our elected officials a free pass to do anything they wanted with no repercussions, as long as they did it before the ball dropped in Times Square. The party has ended and the partisanship has resumed, but those political obituaries for the President now appear to have been greatly exaggerated.
I’m enough of an optimist to hope that even simple gestures such as mixing the seating arrangements for the State of the Union address can remind us, in a small way, to respect the common humanity of our ideological foes.
In the same vein, maybe all those Packers and Bears fans mixed together in the stands at Soldier Field on Sunday can realize that, beneath our green-and-gold or blue-and-orange body paint, we aren’t so different after all. We all love football and beer and hypothermia.
If the team we support wins, that doesn’t prove our moral superiority. If our team loses, it’s not the end of the world. Come February 6, only one team’s fans will think that this football season had a happy ending.
And, surely, we can all agree on at least one thing: