The Curse Of Obscenity

Yesterday was another frustrating day for Cleveland Browns fans. The Browns went on the road against a very good Kansas City Chiefs team, fought hard to overcome some bad breaks, and mounted a comeback that put them in position to win and make it to the AFC Championship game — but fell just short. Again. The hopes of Browns fans everywhere were raised, only to be dashed. Again.

As the final seconds ticked away, meaning that yet another season has passed without the Browns making it to their elusive first Super Bowl, I felt the frustration well up inside me, and I unleashed a colorful torrent of the crudest imaginable obscenity at the TV set. It was a brutal, uncontrolled, red-faced verbal tirade against the fickle fates and the capricious sports gods that surged out with a vehemence that surprised even me.

I hate it when this happens. It’s embarrassing, and I keep hoping as the decades roll by that I’ve matured to the point where I can rationally accept disappointments that occur in my corner of the sports world without hurling vulgar epithets or screaming like a lunatic, but yesterday shows I’ve still got a lot of work to do in that area. I sometimes wish I never learned about cussing. Knowing obscenities really is a kind of curse.

Temporary Alliances

The world of the sports fan is a world of temporary alliances. It’s like Europe of days gone by, when secret negotiations, confidential ententes, and treaties named after obscure towns could abruptly and unexpectedly tip the balance of power.

For most football fans, on any given game day they will be strongly supporting (1) their favorite team, and (2) whichever random team happens to be playing their favorite team’s hated rival or most challenging future opponent.

Today will provide a good example of this reality. The Cleveland Browns will be taking the field versus the Kansas City Chiefs. I’m guessing that the viewership for the game in Buffalo, New York will be off the charts, with all of the Bills fans rooting hard for the Browns to somehow upset the highly favored Chiefs.

Why? Not because Cleveland and Buffalo are fellow cities on the shores of Lake Erie that once were linked by an eponymously named steamship line, as shown in the picture above. (And the ship that sailed Lake Erie between the two cities was called the SeaandBee. Get it?) No, it’s because the Buffalo Bills throttled the Baltimore Ravens yesterday and will play whichever team wins the Browns-Chiefs tilt. Buffalo fans have got to feel that the Bills have a better chance of beating the Browns than the awesome Chiefs, and if the Browns could prevail over Patrick Mahomes and his offensive fireworks show, the Bills would have a home game against the Browns in Buffalo — with a slot in the Super Bowl at stake.

Put those two considerations together, and you’re not likely to find a more ardent set of fans for the Cleveland Browns in today’s game than the good folks of Buffalo, New York. And if the Browns do somehow find a way to topple the mighty Chiefs, and will be traveling to Buffalo for the AFC championship game next weekend, Bills fans won’t have a second thought about immediately reversing allegiances and hating the Browns with a deadly, all-consuming passion.

Machiavelli would be proud.

The Power Of Positive Thinking (II)

Tonight the Ohio State University Buckeyes play the Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. If you paid attention to the pundits, or the Las Vegas oddsmakers, you would conclude that Ohio State has no realistic chance in this game. In fact, some of the talking heads are saying that Alabama is so unstoppable, so overwhelming, and so unbeatable that the Buckeyes will have to play a perfect game just to avoid getting humiliatingly blown off the field.

Medieval historians might say that the game tonight is as much of an apparent mismatch as the Battle of Agincourt. Fought in 1415, during the 100 Years’ War, the Battle of Agincourt pitted a tiny English army against a much larger host of French knights in a battle fought on the French army’s home turf. If ESPN had existed in those days, the commentators would all have predicted that the Franch would overwhelm the outmanned English. But King Henry V had a weapon on his side: a positive attitude. As Shakespeare envisioned it, rather than despairing in the face of the overwhelming Franch force on the eve of battle, Henry told his gallant group of men that they should feel lucky to be at that spot in that moment. Henry’s stirring speech famously concludes with this passage:

This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and TalbotSalisbury and Gloucester
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Henry was right. Against all odds, the English won a decisive victory at the Battle of Agincourt, using the power of positive thinking — and, not incidentally, a new weapon, the English longbow — to crush the haughty, overconfident French and rout their army.

If the English could do it, so can the Buckeyes. No foe is unbeatable, and no ESPN commentator is infallible.

What do you say, Buckeye Nation? Let’s stay positive and root like crazy for the Men of the Scarlet and Gray to stand toe-to-toe with Alabama and win this game!

The Power Of Positive Thinking

Born A Buckeye

During football season, the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, only a short distance away from Ohio Stadium on the Ohio State University campus, has a tradition of swaddling newborn babies born at the facility in scarlet wraps that cheer on the hometown Buckeyes before big games. This year, in the days since Ohio State topped Clemson to advance to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, the infants have been sporting messages that urge the Buckeyes to beat the Alabama Crimson Tide.

The scarlet swaddling is a good way to make sure that these newest members of Buckeye Nation get off to the right start in their sports fandom and gives their parents a great keepsake — and who can disagree with the message? Go Bucks! Roll the Tide!

The Power Of Positive Thinking

In 1952, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale wrote a book called The Power of Positive Thinking. The book used anecdotes to argue that maintaining a positive, optimistic attitude actually helps people to achieve their goals and feel better about themselves. One of the core messages of the book was that if you are pessimistic about what you can do, you’re heading for defeat before the contest has even started. Critics were dubious of the notion that a simple change in mental attitude could have a big impact on anyone’s life, but the book was a hit and resonated with people who thought there was a lot of common sense in what Dr. Peale was saying. I remember seeing it on Grandma and Grandpa Neal’s bookshelf.

It’s a huge step from believing that your own attitude can affect what happens in your own life to believing that your attitude can influence what other people are doing. Of course, that’s exactly what many committed sports fans do believe — deep down in their hearts, even if they wouldn’t admit it to others. They may not be sitting in the stadium or arena cheering on their team, but they believe that what they wear, what they eat, where they sit, and what they say and do on Game Day can have a crucial, outcome-determinative impact. The Dr. Pepper Fansville commercials definitely nail that aspect of the whole sports fan experience.

Can fans sitting in their living rooms watching on TV affect a game played far away? Can their thoughts and actions create eddies in the prevailing karma that can ripple out to the players and coaches and give them extra energy and mental focus and make a difference in their performance? Given life’s many mysteries, we’ll never know for sure — but we all believe it does, in some mysterious way, so why not be positive about it?t

Today, once again, I’m going to be positive about the prospects for the Cleveland Browns, and I’m hoping to enlist other fans in my positive thinking crusade. The Browns will be going on the road to Pittsburgh to play in their first playoff game in 18 years. They’re lacking a number of their coaches, including their head coach and ultimate play-caller, and some of their best players thanks to the coronavirus. For that same reason, they only got to practice once before their most important game in two decades. These aren’t the things you want to have happen when you’re the underdog in the first place.

Clearly, the odds are powerfully stacked against the outmanned Cleveland squad. They need all the help they can get. Who knows? Positive thinking by the legions of Browns Backers could well tip the balance in some inexplicable yet meaningful way.

Whatever happens tonight, I’m going to stay positive about this team and its chances for an astonishing victory, and concentrate on sending positive, optimistic vibes through the cosmic ether to the Browns’ players and coaches. Will you join me?

Ohio Against The World (II)

And speaking of Ohio Against The World, the Cleveland Browns punched their ticket for the NFL playoffs yesterday. The Browns somehow managed to hold on to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers despite having a slew of their players unavailable due to NFL COVID protocols. Fittingly, the game was finally secured when Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield kept the ball for a single wing scamper and picked up a crucial first down that allowed the Browns to run out the clock.

Next weekend the Browns will participate in the NFL playoffs for the first time since the 2002 NFL season — the only time the Browns made the playoffs since coming back into the League. The Browns lost in heartbreaking fashion in that one playoff appearance, to the Pittsburgh Steelers. This time, 18 years later, they’ll be playing the Steelers again in the first round of the playoffs.

Eighteen years is a very long time, and in 2002 the world was a very different place. No one in 2002 would have forecast that it would take the Browns 18 years to return to the playoffs, but here they are. Will they advance? Given the impact of the coronavirus on the Browns this year, and the number of players who have been disqualified from games, we’ll have to see who even gets to play. But it’s nice to know that the long drought is ended.

Ohio Against The World

I first saw the slogan “Ohio Against The World” at the Sugar Bowl game against Alabama years ago. Ohio State had just made a great play, and the TV broadcast showed this shot of the two guys above, screaming their brains out at the prospect of a colossal Buckeye upset in the making. I was screaming my brains out, too, but nevertheless retained the ability to think rationally to myself: “Wow! That’s a very cool shirt.” I loved the sentiment of the shirt in the context of that particular game, where Ohio State was a huge underdog against a great Crimson Tide team. Of course, Ohio State went on to win that game, and then won the next game, against Oregon in a game I got to watch in person, to take home a national championship.

I wasn’t alone in my reaction to the shirt. The “Ohio Against The World” shirt and slogan, which were the work of a guy from Cincinnati, caught on. The creator aptly described the slogan as a “battle cry for the underdog,” but it goes beyond that. The phrase captures deep-seated beliefs about disrespect, and being dismissed, and not being given a chance, and being the subject of withering criticism when the weaknesses of other teams, and their conferences, seem to get a pass. And, because Ohio is part of “flyover country” and the so-called “rust belt,” the shirt no doubt transcends college football to tap into much deeper wellsprings of feeling on the part of residents of the Buckeye State.

People outside of Ohio and Buckeye Nation believe it’s odd — and, apparently, a bit brittle, and even phony — that one of the most successful college football programs in history believes it has been disrespected. Before the game against Clemson, an ESPN writer wrote about how Ohio State and its fans almost seem to search for “perceived slights” to get amped up for big games. The underlying notion was that other teams wouldn’t really care that the opposing coach ranked them at number 11, or campaigned against including them in the playoffs in the first place. I can attest, however, that the touchiness about disrespect is definitely real and not feigned — and when opposing coaches or commentators hit that nerve, the Ohio State football team and its fans are going to take notice and react.

Did the Clemson coach’s ranking, or the questions raised about the validity of including Ohio State in the playoffs in the first place, actually affect the outcome of the game Friday night? I can’t say for sure — Ohio State simply seemed like the better team that night — but I have to believe it sure didn’t hurt.

I note that Ohio State has been installed as a very significant underdog — I understand the betting line now favors Alabama by 8 points — in the National Championship Game. The storylines are very reminiscent of that last game against Alabama, or the National Championship game against Miami before it. Ohio State is once against the David standing against the seemingly unbeatable, juggernaut Goliath.

I imagine this Ohio State team is very comfortable with the fact that it’s “Ohio Against The World” once more. Members of Buckeye Nation can get their OATW gear here, but don’t be surprised if it isn’t delivered in time for next Monday’s kickoff. I’m guessing the company has seen a lot of orders recently.

Once More Unto The Breach

Yesterday the College Football Playoff Selection Committee announced that Ohio State will be playing Clemson in one of the semifinal games. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The two teams played last year in the semifinals, too, and in the semifinals in 2016 as well.

Those games haven’t ended well for the Buckeyes. In fact, Ohio State has never beaten Clemson, in four tries. And that record includes two immense black eyes for the Men of the Scarlet and Gray: the 1978 meeting that ended with OSU Coach Woody Hayes slugging a Clemson player who made an interception that sealed Clemson’s victory and brought the Ohio State legend’s coaching career to an end, and a 2016 CFB meeting in which the Tigers embarrassed the Buckeyes with a crushing 31-0 win. And last year’s game left the members of Buckeye Nation shaking their heads at what might have been if a few head-scratching officiating calls had gone the other way — a view, incidentally, that Clemson fans say that Clemson coaches will use to give Clemson motivation to win again this year. Some Ohio State fans view the upcoming game with Clemson with trepidation; others (including me) think if you want to be the best you need to beat the best. Clemson is up there with Alabama, and Ohio State needs to knock the Tigers off that perch.

But the fact that Ohio State will be playing Clemson in the playoffs — again — raises a larger issue for the sport of college football. The same teams seem to make it to the playoffs, year after year. This is the fourth time the Buckeyes will be in the playoffs, but they are pikers compared to Clemson and Alabama, which seem to make it pretty much every year. In fact, if Clemson and Alabama both win their semifinal matchups this year, they’ll play each other in the playoffs for the fifth time in the last six seasons — which is why one ESPN writer called the CFP the “Alabama-Clemson Invitational.”

This isn’t good for college football, in my view — and I think that view is shared by a growing number of people. The answer isn’t to arbitrarily exclude teams like Clemson and Alabama, which routinely dominate their conferences and put up impressive records year after year. Their performance shows that they deserve to be in the mix. Instead, the solution is to open up the playoffs to more teams, so that other worthy teams — like Cincinnati and Texas A&M this year — get a chance to play on the big stage and show that they belong.

When it comes to college football, 2020 has demonstrated that the sport can be flexible. The COVID-19 pandemic threw old ways of scheduling and operating out the window, with different conferences starting at different times and playing different numbers of games. Doesn’t that show that the college football powers-that-be could manage things to accommodate a larger eight-team playoff? Maybe a new approach to crowning a national champion could be something good that comes from this strange and star-crossed year.

Vaccine Politics

I was watching TV this week and saw two related stories. One featured a truck delivering the first coronavirus vaccines to Ohio, where a masked Governor DeWine took a look at one box being unloaded, as shown in the photo above. The other was a story saying that the NFL was not going to try to cut in line so that its players and coaches would get the vaccine before others do.

The second story seemed weird to me. I’m sure the NFL thought it was being noble by publicly announcing that it was eschewing any effort to jump the queue for vaccinations. But I had the opposite reaction: why in the world would the NFL even entertain the notion of trying to move up the vaccine priority list? The fact that the NFL apparently considered it, and decided not to try, just shows the risk of political games being played with vaccine distribution and administration.

I suppose this should not be surprising to anyone. The coronavirus has had a devastating effect on our society, our culture, our economy, and individual families who have suffered losses of loved ones. Of course people are going to want to get the vaccine so they can put this whole weird chapter of their lives behind them, and the sooner the better. (Unless, of course, they are anti-vaxxers who aren’t going to get vaccinated at all.) But priorities have to be established so that there’s not a mad scramble for inoculation, and that means there’s a chance that people will try to pull rank, call in favors, apply pressure, and move up the list.

The initial priorities are easy: front-line health care workers and the places where COVID-19 has had the greatest impact — such as nursing homes and long-term care facilities — and that’s how Ohio is going to proceed. But the tougher questions come after those obvious initial candidates are identified. I think there should be some consideration of impact and risk in the distribution decisionmaking. People who work in areas of the economy that have been crushed by shutdown orders, like restaurants and the arts, should have the opportunity to get vaccinated before white-collar workers who have been able to safely continue their jobs from home. And people who have existing health care conditions that increase the impact of the coronavirus should be ahead of healthy people.

I’m happy to wait my turn — hey, if the NFL is doing it, so can I — but I’ll be very interested to see how the vaccine rolls out. I’ll be watching to see when the political types get their shots.

Back To The Spiders

The New York Times and other media outlets are reporting that the Cleveland professional baseball team will be changing its name. After more than 100 years of being known as the Indians — and several years after getting rid of Chief Wahoo on their uniforms — the team will now be changing its nickname.

There’s a pretty heated debate going on already about what the new team name should be. I’ve always thought the “The Tribe” would be a pretty good alternative, since many of us already call the team by that name and “tribe” is defined as “a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.” Those of us who have followed the Cleveland baseball franchise for decades would fall within that broad definition; we’re inextricably linked by years of suffering and frustration.

“The Tribe” doesn’t seem to be getting much traction, however, and many of the potential team names identified in the story linked above are pretty dismal. The one option that seems to be getting a lot of support is to call the team the Spiders. It would mark a complete break from the “Indians” and would also link the team back to the 1890s, when Cleveland had a National League baseball team called the Spiders. According to Wikipedia, the team was called the Spiders because the players who wore the team’s black and gray uniforms had a spidery look. The Spiders were decent for a while, finishing second in the National League several times, and included players like future Hall of Famer Cy Young, but also had a year that featured the worst won-loss record in major league history.

The Spiders seems to be a popular choice, and already people are designing logos and uniform concepts with a spidery look. If it can’t be The Tribe, I’d be fine with the Spiders. With the blog name Webner House, how could we object to supporting a team of arachnids?

The Year Without The Game

With all of the other bad things that have happened during this ill-fated year, I think many of us had a sneaking suspicion that the Ohio State-Michigan football game — known around these parts simply as The Game — would fall victim to the coronavirus, like so many people and traditions and parts of American life have fallen victim before it. Yesterday, that suspicion was confirmed, when a coronavirus outbreak at the University of Michigan caused The Game to be canceled. And so, for the first time in more than 100 years, in 2020 we won’t be able to watch the latest installment of the greatest rivalry in sports.

It’s a tough development to swallow in a year that has brought a lot of hard things to take.

It’s difficult to describe the Ohio State-Michigan game experience if you haven’t lived through it, aren’t invested in it, and haven’t been immersed in it. Let’s just say it’s unique and — during the week of The Game, at least — pretty much all-consuming. Fans of both teams look forward to The Game with a mixture of anticipation and dread — anticipation, because you hope for a victory, and dread, because you hate the very idea that your team might lose to its hated rival. The outcome of The Game pretty much makes or breaks the year. Victory is sweeter than you can imagine, and defeat is like a sucker punch to the gut that leaves that achey feeling at the back of your throat.

This year, as Michigan has struggled and Ohio State is considered to be in the conversation for the College Football Playoffs, some people have suggested that UM used COVID-19 as an excuse to avoid The Game and complicate Ohio State’s potential path to a role in the playoffs. I would never say that. A big part of The Game is the respect that the two schools, and their fans, have for each other. I suspect, instead, that the opposite is true: those inside the Michigan program were looking forward to the Ohio State game as a chance to redeem a disappointing season, which has happened repeatedly in the history of the rivalry. But player safety and public health concerns have to take precedence.

With The Game being cancelled, what other traditions are at risk? Say, how is Santa’s health these days?

Breakdancing Gold

Breakdancing has become an Olympic sport. Yesterday the International Olympic Committee announced that breakdancing — which will be called “breaking” in its Olympic variation — will be one of the sports for the 2024 Olympiad, in Paris. Surfing, sport climbing, and skateboarding will be the other new sports at the Paris games.

The squash crowd isn’t happy about the decision. That sport has been lobbying for years to be added to the Olympic menu and has now been rebuffed — again. The decision to choose “breaking” over squash caused one champion squash player to say that the Olympics has become a “mockery.” I don’t know about the “mockery” stuff, but featuring skateboarding, climbing, and breakdancing will definitely make the Olympics seem a lot more like the “X Games.”

I’m not a traditionalist about what should be an Olympic sport. In its modern incarnation, the Olympics has never been confined to the events the ancient Greeks decided to include way back when. Adding new sports to the roster recognizes that sports is an ever changing area, and there’s no doubt that it requires talent, skill, and some degree of fitness to be a great breakdancer or skateboarder. But it seems like there should be some kind of line between a sport and an activity. And the champion squash player in the story linked above raises another valid point: many of the new Olympic sports won’t have an undisputed victor, like you would have in a marathon, the 100-meter dash, the shot put, or the long jump. Instead, we’ll need judges to tell us which “breaker” got the best score on his/her routine — which just adds subjectivity and possible corruption to the mix. If East Germany still existed, we’d likely be complaining about the East German “breaking” judge’s unfair scoring.

If breakdancing and skateboarding are official Olympic sports now, what’s next? Will videogaming — no doubt to be called “gaming” in its Olympic incarnation — be the next designated Olympic sport to break the squash players’ hearts?

In The Cable TV Tug Of War

This afternoon the Cleveland Browns will play what is easily their most important game in a decade. (That’s not saying much given the Browns’ dismal recent record . . . , but still.) the 8-3 Browns travel to Tennessee to play the 8-3 Titans in a game that features two of the best rushing teams in the NFL and lots of playoff implications.

Alas! We won’t be able to watch the game on our TV, because of some financial tug of war between TEGNA, the owner of the local CBS channel that will broadcast the contest, and AT&T U-verse, our cable provider. If you go to the channel that will broadcast the game, you see the message above that blames TEGNA. And before TEGNA took the channel off our cable, it ran annoying banners on the channel during last week’s Browns game urging viewers to contact AT&T to make sure it does what is necessary to keep the channel on the cable system.

So today we central Ohio Browns fans who are on the AT&T U-verse system are trapped in the middle, peons in this dispute between two corporations that really don’t care about anything but the bottom line. They know people will be upset because they won’t be able to watch this game. Each side wants us viewers to put pressure on the other side to knuckle under, but I’m not going to do that. Other than NFL football games, I don’t watch any CBS programming, so I really don’t give a crap about getting TEGNA’s channel. And I’m sure not going to carry water for a cable TV provider.

And here’s what is really appalling — I have the sneaking suspicion each side might have factored the COVID pandemic into their decision to enter into this corporate game of chicken. In normal times, if this happened you could go to the local sports bar, order a cold one, and watch the game on the direct network satellite feed, but with the pandemic that’s not an option. That means the ability to use an NFL football game as a pressure point in negotiations is increased by orders of magnitude.

So I say, a pox on both their houses. We’ll figure out how to follow the Browns game, somehow. but I won’t forget the ugly willingness of these two companies to ruin the simple pleasure of watching a big game on the TV.