I’m questioning my relationship with football right now.
I’ve been fascinated by it since childhood. Even before I’d ever watched a game, we had glasses from McDonald’s with Seahawks players on them, including current broadcaster Steve Raible and recent running backs coach Sherman Smith. My beloved Seahawks jacket raised some eyebrows when we lived in the Bay Area (49ers territory) during my fifth grade year, but the other kids didn’t really hold it against me. I got to see my first game in person that year, at Candlestick Park, and came to appreciate the 49ers as well. The energy in the stadium was infectious, and if I’d been curious before, that day I was truly hooked.
We moved back home for sixth grade, and back then, no one took Seattle seriously. People couldn’t pronounce the name of the city, much less find it on a map. Many longtime residents have a bit of a chip on their shoulder about that, and the Seahawks were similarly obscure. Our first star player, Steve Largent, was a perfect hero for the city: He was too short, too slow, and not athletic enough for “real” teams to take seriously, but he made his mark with guts, a strong work ethic, and by never giving up. And he lit up the record books, becoming the first receiver to score 100 career touchdowns in the NFL. My favorite Steve Largent moment: flattening Denver Broncos safety Mark Harden, forcing a fumble and recovering the ball, after Harden had knocked him out cold with a cheap shot to the face during their prior meeting.
I got my first taste of how ugly sports fandom can be in college. I was in Colorado, home of the bitter division rival Broncos. John Elway (their quarterback at the time) was famous for fourth-quarter comebacks, and the Seahawks seemed to be his most frequent victims. My fellow students’ taunts got more and more pointed and personal over the course of the season. People I considered friends, who I socialized, ate, and studied with six days a week became antagonistic, if not downright combative, on Sundays. The 49ers’ 55-10 victory over the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV offered some sweet payback, but reveling in it only escalated the tension.
After a few years in Colorado, I moved back to Seattle and discovered live music. The Seahawks were terrible, going 2-14 during the 1992 season. The only bright spot was Cortez Kennedy winning Defensive Player of the Year. Being an avid Seahawks fan during those years was, quite literally, depressing. Each bad loss sapped my energy for a day or two afterward. Rock & roll proved to be a much better home for my passion, and while I did pay attention to football, I didn’t follow it nearly as closely.
Fast-forward to February of 2006, when the Seahawks made their first Super Bowl appearance, against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The national media never took the Hawks seriously going in; their narrative was that Jerome Bettis deserved a Super Bowl ring and might finally get it. They got their wish: the Seahawks lost, 25-10, in a game marred badly by poor officiating. That game remains a very sore spot for many Seahawks fans, and the Steelers, especially quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, are roundly despised in Seattle to this day. Vindication came a few years later when Referee Bill Leavy apologized to the Seahawks, stating that he regretted making mistakes and impacting the game, but there is no changing history. As a fellow official (for roller derby), I feel for him; After failing to keep players safe, our biggest fear is to get calls wrong and affect game outcomes. But as a fan, even nearly 17 years later, I’m still incensed at the horrendous job that his crew did that day.
After 30 years of football futility, Super Bowl XL just felt like another brick in the wall. After the game, I spent the evening at the Tractor, seeing Candye Kane and Ruby Dee & the Snakehandlers, and then the next couple of weeks in a deep funk. Needless to say, I didn’t watch much football for a while, essentially checking out for the rest of Mike Holmgren’s tenure and Jim Mora’s as well. Maybe that makes me a fair-weather fan, but I couldn’t keep spending so much time and energy on something that dragged me down.
When Pete Carroll was hired, I figured we were in for more of the same; I knew very little about him, other than the fact that he’d left USC under a dark cloud. So it took a little while for me to start noticing that not only were the Seahawks playing better, but that I liked and related to the players. Russell Wilson spends every Tuesday at Children’s Hospital, not for PR, but to bring some light and strength to sick kids. I adore Richard Sherman’s story: Not only is he the first kid from his Compton high school to go to Stanford, but he inspired his friends to want to go to college, too. Earl Thomas’s Free Safety Advice is charming. It was impossible not to love Marshawn Lynch, for just unabashedly being himself, like we all wish we could every day. Cliff Avril builds houses in Haiti. Doug Baldwin works with local police in an attempt to reduce racial violence. The list goes on and on, but the gist is that those players care about their community and are putting their money where their mouths are to improve it.
Clearly the Pete Carroll Seahawks were a bit different (individuals, encouraged to be so by their coach), while also still a Seattle sports team (underdogs with a chip on their shoulder). Most of the players had gone undrafted or were picked in the lower rounds. Some were castoffs from other teams looking for a second chance. All of them had something to prove, and somehow Pete Carroll managed to harness that crazy energy and forge all of those misfits into a team that not only won games, but won the hearts of our city.
Going into Super Bowl XVIII, I had my doubts. Seattle’s sports teams have a long history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Denver had it all together that year, and the media all seemed to be on the Payton Manning Denver Broncos hype-train. Things went well from the get-go, but it wasn’t until the third quarter that I started to relax and come to grips with the idea that we might actually win this thing. And of course we did. And the city went crazy. An estimated 800,000 people showed up in 30-degree weather to attend the victory parade. That is more than the entire population of Seattle, all exuberantly getting along, celebrating together.
While the Seahawks were growing up, Seattle was also. I recently saw a post from a Jacksonville Jaguars fan opining that the NFL is biased toward large-market teams. I see evidence of that every day; what struck me was that the writer believes that Seattle is a large market. And he may be right. Not only do we have Microsoft and Boeing, now we have Amazon, Google and Facebook. The local attitude has shifted. We’ve always thought of Seattle as a great city, but now we expect everyone else to know it too. We all got used to having a good football team, and now we expect to win games, rather than appreciating it. When the Hawks don’t play well, the disappointment weighs more; We’re so caught up in the playoff picture that we can’t just enjoy the games.
The Seahawks have been in the news a lot lately, because of that social conscience I mentioned earlier, via the National Anthem controversy. I understand that some people watch football to escape their cares for a few hours, and I definitely get the appeal of getting lost in something for a while. But the majority of our population have had their head in the sand for too long. We have racial and economic injustice in this country. Many of the players have lived with that in ways that I never will. I applaud them for using the most effective platform they have available, and I believe their right to do so trumps fans’ rights to “escape”.
This season has been fairly typical for recent years: the Seahawks haven’t quite been living up to their potential on the field, but I’m proud of the players off of it. And then came last Sunday’s game in Jacksonville. The Jaguars seem to be right about where the Seahawks were 5 years ago: talented, up-and-coming, brash, and hungry to prove themselves. They played a hell of a game and came away with the win. I wonder how it would have gone if we’d had less injuries, or if the officials had called defensive holding at a critical point in the 4th quarter, but I respect the Jags’ effort all the same. And then, in the last minute, with the Jags running out the clock… the fights.
The first kneel-down turned into a scrum. Michael Bennett (our Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee, no less) got flagged for unnecessary roughness, trying either to grab the ball, or to hurt the Jaguars’ center, depending on who you ask. Sheldon Richardson got flagged and ejected for throwing a punch. Another fight ensued on the second kneel-down, and Quinton Jefferson got ejected. On his way off the field, end-zone fans threw drinks at him and he attempted to climb into the stands to have it out with them before being stopped by security and escorted the rest of the way off the field.
I am not proud of how my team’s players acted. But I can’t ignore the fact that these guys play a violent, confrontational game, and are taught to never back down. It is unreasonable to expect them to spend 60 minutes at war and then instantly regain control of their emotions off when the whistle blows. There are credible reports of racial slurs being tossed at Seahawks players all game long, and Tyler Lockett got hit with a bottle. So I must ask: If you’d played your heart out, felt like you’d been shortchanged the by the officials, and had trash and racial epithets thrown at you as you tried to leave the field after getting ejected, would you have held your cool? I’m not sure that’s a reasonable expectation.
A few Jags fans have been apologetic about the mob behavior, and the team was quick to ban four of the instigators from the stadium, but most of what I’ve seen from Jaguar-land has been pretty biased: that the Seahawks are dirty and the Jags played clean; that Michael Bennett and Quinton Jefferson are scum who should be kicked out of the league; that the Hawks have the officials in their pocket; that the Jags fans were justified in pelting Jefferson from the safety of the stands, and that he’s a monster for reacting the way he did.
I’ve seen this before. As I’ve mentioned, I am a referee for another sport, and I know first-hand how much people’s motivations and desires color their perception of reality. Players’ and fans’ account of events are usually different than what referees see, and that even applies to me when I’m watching a game as a fan.
I can’t unconditionally defend those players. They started those fights. I understand their frustrations, but I would hate for their actions to erase the good that they are doing out in the world. That may be a lost cause because we all skew things to make ourselves and “our people” look better, especially in comparison to “the others”. I see this happening not only in sports, but in politics and now seemingly in every other public arena as well.
The only things I am sure of are that no one is pure as snow, and interacting with opposing teams’ fans rarely ends well. I’ve spent my whole life firmly believing that engagement, discussion, and even occasional good-natured ribbing promote understanding and respect, but everyone’s minds already seem to be made up about everything these days. I’ve seen football bring people together, but lately it seems like it’s causing more division than unity. Combine that with the concussions, brain damage and other injuries that so many players suffer, and maybe we’re better off if football fades away. Yet still I find it compelling, and look forward to Sundays surrounded by friends, beer and good food, cheering on my team.
A Football Life: Steve Largent